WTF is 4chan?

TOM CROOKE on one of the strangest things you can find in cyberspace…

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What do the following have in common? Rick Astley. High school shootings. Scientology. Cats. They’re all recurring motifs of 4chan, an anonymous message board described by the Guardian as “lunatic, juvenile, brilliant and alarming”. Started in the basement of 16-year-old Christopher Poole (aka ‘moot’), 4chan is probably the strangest website most of you have never heard of. 

What happens when you give people the opportunity to say absolutely anything they want without censorship or moderation, and in complete anonymity? A quick glance at 4chan's notorious "/b/" message board shows us that you get pictures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, some Pokemon with tits, and porn. Lots of porn. It's easy to dismiss 4chan as a place where "netizens" go to behave like hyperactive pricks, largely because that's exactly what it is. But it's not quite that simple. When given a cause that captures their imagination, 4chan users, or "/b/tards" as they are more commonly known, become a ruthlessly efficient digital army, drawing on their formidable knowledge of information warfare to terrorize their victims.

To help ease you into the world of 4chan, I have picked out two key periods of the site's history that demonstrate the ingenuity and sheer audacity of one of the most bizarre communities on the internet.
4chan vs. The Church of Scientology

Perhaps the best example of 4chan activism can be seen in their campaign against the Church of Scientology. Scientologists often get a hard time from people who claim what they say "makes absolutely no fucking sense" (i.e. anyone who isn't a Scientologist), which is perhaps unfair. After all, it's actually quite an impressive feat to create a belief system so astronomically moronic, and then get people to actually take you seriously. Of course, what is not so impressive is the way in which the Church's members are bullied and cajoled into handing over big wads of cash, and forced to cut all ties with their family and friends.
On 15th January 2008, one 4chan user decided to issue a call to arms to his comrades, in response to the forced removal of a leaked Scientology video from YouTube (this one, in fact). In their rousing post, the user called on the /b/tards to "do something big", and that "it's time to use our resources to do something we believe is right". And lo, "Project Chanology" was born. On 21st January the group posted this video on YouTube, stating their goal to "systematically destroy the Church of Scientology in its present form".  What followed was a campaign of hacking attacks that caused the official Scientology website to crash several times between 18th January and 4th February. The movement continued to grow and soon the campaign spilled over from cyberspace into the real world. During 2008, 8,000 people affiliated to Project Chanology protested outside Scientology buildings in over 100 cities worldwide, bearing placards declaring the church a "dangerous cult". For a community that resides on the very fringes of internet culture, this is pretty impressive stuff.
Perhaps most impressive however, are the actions of 18-year old Matt Connor, a member of Project Chanology. On 8th January 2009 he ran into Scientology offices in New York shirtless, covered in Vaseline, pubic hair and toenail clippings and, according to the New York Daily News, proceeded to "toss a number of books around". Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to 4chan.
4chan and Dusty the cat
Ever heard of lolcats? That was 4chan's idea. 4chan likes cats. A lot. So when in mid-February 2009 a YouTube video was uploaded of a masked teenager physically abusing a domestic cat called Dusty, the 4chan response was brief but eloquent; "Let's find these kids and fucking destroy them". In a matter of hours /b/tards began pulling apart the video's embedded code for clues regarding the masked perpetrator's identity. Users cross-referenced fleeting images of a bedroom seen in the background of the video to pictures found on MySpace and Facebook. Very soon they came up with a name, address and telephone number.
Naturally the boy-named as Kenny Glenn-was reported to the authorities, but not before 4chan had unleashed a deluge of abusive phone calls on the torturer, as well as ordering hundreds of dollars worth of pizzas, bibles and walking sticks to his name. In 4chan there is a special kind of treatment reserved for cat-haters, and Kenny Glenn was subjected to the full force of /b/'s rage. So maybe 4chan does have morals? After all, the community simply could not bear to be witness to such a horrific display of animal abuse. Well, 4chan doesn't really work like that…

 A few months later, another user posted a video of a woman suffering physical abuse at the hands of her partner. 4chan's response? "Not a cat. Don't care."

 So that's 4chan, folks. It’s pretty bizarre, I grant you. There's really no way to describe it in an elegant turn of phrase, so I won't even try. Instead I'll leave you with the words of one /b/tard, urging his fellow users to join the fight against the Church of Scientology:
"We are 4chan, and we are interwebs superheroes. Who if not us will take on this abomanation of faith and capitolism? What would JFK say? He would probably say something like "Hey Maralyn, its not gonna blow itself." But he would probably also want us to do this."  Anonymous, 15th January 2008 If you dare.