Tom Jennings, 9 December 2008, Converted to html 8 March 2010
(2019 note: umm let's just say things have changed since i wrote this
paper. i still cherish my time there and this paper reflects that past.)
4chan (http://www.4chan.org) is an HTML-based, image oriented bulletin board system located physically in Japan, run by a self-described American ex-patriate named moot. It appears to be the largest English-language image board on the World Wide Web; 195 million posts, 30,000 simultaneous users as of December 2008.
In this paper I will explore the meaning, and construction of 4chan as a happily perverse and erotic place for conversation and images, viewed as a Warner counterpublic(1), constructed and bound by Lawrence Lessig's ideas from CODE v2.0(2).
Based upon the look and functionality of a Japanese site called Futaba Channel, an otaku culture board, 4chan assumes an anonymity-based image-posting model of operation. Wildly different from identity-based Western systems, the *chan's(3) unique structure and user anonymity enables an extremely functional and culturally powerful example of what Lawrence Lessig refers to as cultural "code". It has found or created its own method of regulability counter to current identity-based trends. I will expand upon this view in this paper, and look at some of the sexual imagery and behavior so enabled.
There is a decent background and history of 4chan, beyond the scope of this paper, available on Wikipedia (search term: 4chan). The current URL for this is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4chan
I estimate(4) that the age range of 4chan's users centers on 25 - 30 years old, with very many users in the 40 - 50 range, and probably a large number well under 20. Very young people seem to post more mobile phone personal photos and smaller, and often poorly written texts.
4chan's structure is deceptively simple. The site is organized into "image boards", each devoted to a subject area containing threaded conversations and images, and a few special areas for file downloads and the like. Image boards all have the following characteristic mechanisms enforced by computer code:
Conversations are threaded. A thread is a serial conversation amongst users formulated as a simple linear document. A user adds text and/or images to a thread via posting a reply (entering text or image into a box and clicking SUBMIT). New replies are appended onto the thread sequentially in time. New threads and replies appear immediately.
A board contains many threads strung together. The order of threads (top of page to bottom order) is simple: the most-recently-posted-to thread is 'bumped' to the top of the board. New, and very popular, threads are therefore at the top. Old, meaning not-posted-to threads sink to the bottom. A new reply to an old thread will bump it to the top. Bumping can be a conscious act by users with many side effects, more later on this.
New threads require an image and text. Subsequent posts can contain either text or images, but new threads must begin with both.
Each board is restricted to 11 pages. The 4chan software and/or it's moderators prune oldest replies to threads, and old threads themselves, to keep each board below it's eleven page maximum. The 'page' sub-structure of 4chan is somewhat inscrutable, in that popular threads that appear at the top of the first page, for example, will have older posts on subsequent pages.
Threads have a fixed "reply" limit. A novel feature of 4chan (and at least some of the other *chans) is a fixed reply limit. When the maximum number of replies has been added to a thread, that thread will no longer be bumped, and will fall to the bottom for eventual deletion.
There is no archive. When replies and threads are deleted they are deleted permanently. There is no archive or persistent of any sort. 4chan is therefore an ephemeral conversation, not a traditional Western-type forum.
Images must be unique. A given image can appear only once on a board in a given moment. 4chan apparently also maintains a list of permanently banned images (copyright violations and such). Non-unique and banned images are detected at upload time.
Thread turn-over is rapid. A major effect of this code structure is that popular threads 'turn over' very rapidly. For a popular post there can be dozens or hundreds of replies per minute. Depending on the board, very slow threads may persist for weeks, rapid threads only a day or two.
Flood detection. Though it has relatively little direct effect on conversations, 4chan attempts to detect a 'flood' of posts from a single source (single user). This is clearly an immune or defense mechanism intended to stop server software harm. It has the intentional side effect of pushing legitimate multiple-image uploads to the upload 'boards' (rapidshare, etc) again enhancing the conversational nature of the image boards.
Muting. A user will be muted by the 4chan software (blocked from replying) for a brief period of time (30 seconds to a few minutes) for attempting to post non-unique images, or for being diagnosed as a flood, intentional or otherwise. This seems to be an automatic process, and (I can attest) serves to pace replies to ease server load.
Banishment. Users can be banned for persistent duration, apparently even permanently. Due to universal anonymity the only identification mechanism available is the user's (browser) source internet address.
Some mechanisms within 4chan are not enforced in computer code, but in social code amongst users, and the involvement of moderators.
Peer pressure. Users are very invested in the quality and on-topicness of threads. On many boards there are frequent meta-discussions on what is, should be, or should not be allowed, content-wise within threads. Much of this is quite sophisticated.
Bad posts are reported. Users are actively encouraged to report improper replies or threads; wildly off-topic, bombing runs(5), child porn, and the like. Though moderator power is anonymous and absolute, mutual anonymity minimizes it's worst effects and 'bad' posts disappear very quickly.
Sage. (Pronounced 'sah gay'.) A corruption of a Japanese word meaning below, or bottom, users put the word 'sage' into the email field of a reply in order to append to a thread without bumping, as a courtesy to other thread participants, who want successful threads to remain active. Users sage their posts when they are mere commentary and do not contribute to the thread per se.
The effect of the code mechanisms chosen by 4chan encloses a robust and stable culture of a form and shape not possible in more finely controlled environments, and that code is deceptively simple.
Upon first visit to the main page you are presented with a few texts innocuously describing the site a listing of the boards available, and some statistics and news. Choosing a board is a simple matter of clicking the name.
Boards deemed likely to have explicit sexual content have a popup "I am 18 or over" checkbox as the sole control mechanism. This is another "net95"-like(6) decision, and without any concept of user identity, one of the few mechanisms available. Clearly, in 2008, this is a conscious design decision, and not one of accidental omission.
In his book CODE 2.0, Lessig recounts unpleasant side effects of unlimited anonymity in a Yale Law School class-related USENET newsgroup; a friendly, lively class discussion turns cold when one class member, identity unknown, anonymously posts under the pseudonym IBEX:
Before IBEX appeared, life in the space flourished. At first people were timid, but polite. Brave souls would post an idea or joke, and conversation would continue around the idea or joke for a bit. After a couple of weeks the conversation would become quite intense. Patterns of exchange began. People had questions; others had answers. People stumbled as they spoke, but they were beginning, slowly, to speak. [...] About a month and a half into the course [...] Things hummed in the newsgroup, and people were genuinely surprised about this space.
It was at this point pseudonym IBEX appeared
...he appeared after one of our classes -- appeared, it seemed, just to issue an attack on another member of the class. Not an attack on his ideas, but on him. So vicious and extensive was this attack that when I read it, I didn't know quite how to handle it. [...]
Almost immediately, conversation in the group died. It just stopped. No one said anything, as if everyone was afraid that the monster had entered our space would turn his fury on one of them next.
Lessig goes on to describe the downward spiral that the group conversation took; the initial victims response to IBEX, subsequent worse attacks; rancor, divisiveness, anger and disgust. The person behind the IBEX pseudonym was never identified.
Why would someone "attack" fellow classmates? Why did these textual attacks carry such harm?
Lessig's law class culture was one of sharing, and rigorous, but courteous, discussion of ideas. Individual classmates' behavior in the classroom is constrained by years of filtering and training (family, school, class expectations, law school culture) and enforced by embodied human feedback (embarrassment, joy, anger, enthusiasm). Someone verbally attacking another classmate, within the classroom, outside the bounds of acceptable language and behavior would be identified and dealt with. When Lessig's class imported communication tools (code) from another culture (unix culture), they did so without considering the effects of critical aspects of that code, that of unbridled anonymity.
Lessig's recounting implies that this was one of his students' earliest encounters with network-based cultural communications. Without prior experience upon which to base expectations, they assumed -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that culture in a USENET newsgroup would work as it did in the classroom, where a verbal ad hominem attack would be responded to with familiar social mechanisms. They naively ignored the cultural implications encoded in the tools themselves.
That sort of naivete is common for first encounters with internet sites (and elsewhere, in the material world), and in the decade or so since the above incident various forms of identification and accountability have been written into the rules to, if not necessarily a priori stop obnoxious behavior, at least limit it's propagation.
When telephone answering machines were novel it was often a disquieting experience to hold a one-sided conversation with someone who was not yet, but might later be, there to hear it. To do so comfortably is now second-nature to most modern telephone users, but those who grew up with telephones being answered exclusively by human beings, answering machines required an acculturation period.
But children who grew up with them, who never experienced a world without answering machines, leaving messages for others, to be retrieved in the future, was entirely natural. The adaptation requires a mental formulation of the world which includes some sense of other-space that the answering machine medium occupies.
In a similar manner, the idea of textual (or otherwise) conversations in an electronic medium require the same sort of mental space adaptation as that of the answering machine, involving at least displacement in time and place. But for people who grew up in a world that "always" had the internet, and those who for one reason or another adapted to it readily, electronic communications also changed in kind.
More from Lessig's law class USENET experience:
But it was not just the online class that changed. As we met face to face each week, I felt the atmosphere bend. People felt the creature in the room, though no one could believe he was a student at the Yale Law School. This was their classmate, hiding behind a smile or joke in real space, but vicious in cyberspace.
To have this particular experience implies that the participants believe, or at least operate as if, their experience in cyberspace is identical to or at least congruent with their experience in meat space. The changes to internet sites in the last decade or so to include some sort of 'identity' layer reinforce this assumption. Rather than invite or encourage people to see the world in new and potentially interesting ways, code-based restrictions limit inter-personal interactions to a sort of lowest-common-denominator of bland inoffensiveness (and profitable commerce).
To have this subjective experience also implies that those you will converse with will have compatible culture, values, and language. Face to face, social interaction have potential physical effects; there is also the fact that you glean countless critical details about your discursive partners when physically adjacent, and the process of joining the same physical context informs your every word and act.
The problem lies not with encountering difference or conflict, but in the personal relationship to the space that contains it. To be upset by speech or behavior in a space requires a desire to be in that space; otherwise you would simply leave.
4chan's lack of a user identity concept is not a "throwback" to 1995, it is a fundamentally different instantiation of remote-self that takes fuller advantage of the electronic medium, but demands more sophistication on each users part.
Anonymity on 4chan is more analogous to personal 'identity' at a party or nightclub. Conversation is fluid and often essentially anonymous; names may be exchanged or not. Cliques form and dissolve rapidly. Identity and authentication have no real place here. 4chan extends this of course to full disembodiment, with advantages and disadvantages, both obvious and not so. At a nightclub, identities are often exchanged for connection beyond the current context but party patter itself does not require it.
The first major side effect of anonymity is creation, and implicit handling, of conflict. The most common response to problems such as those that Lessig's classmates experienced is to code sites to require identity and some sort of authentication, with the implication that the ability to punish perpetrators will prevent conflict a priori. And to a certain extent I suppose it does, but it carries well known liabilities of its own.
The most profound effect of 4chan's absolute anonymity is on conflict. The vast majority of 4chan users who persist at it accept (knowingly or otherwise) that personal problems with content will not be resolved. By accepting this profound revelation from the start, the code of 4chan eliminates the need for "traditional" conflict resolution -- by inducing those not able to live in this environment to go elsewhere. This is by no means a sarcastic statement -- it is a required function for the openness that is 4chan.
At root, the issue of identity and control in an internet context goes largely unquestioned, therefore assumptions about self and power relations with other 'selves' are never explored or made explicit. Almost universally, and excepting commerce involving money, assuring identity is a stand in for controlling others behavior, the other being a 'self' not your own.
On more recent, now-traditional sites, this inability to control others behavior is seen as a problem; the identity-centered paradigm fostered on AOL, MSN and the like treat 'self' as if others were different in kind, from which the self needs protecting. Completely disregarding of course the small detail that ones self is someone else's other. On 4chan this self-centered 'social contract' is not broken -- it never existed.
This appears to me (with insufficient skill or knowledge to investigate this more deeply) to be a hybrid of Japanese and American cultural structures, with the Japanese social structure somewhat paradoxically (given the relative homogeneity of Japanese vs. American culture) that provides a structured space for an American amalgam to work, as well as an importation of American openness to more-traditional Japanese structure.
Therefore, rather than a lack of power to restrain offensive or insulting behavior, 4chan enables and empowers marginalized people to communicate without benefit of superior numbers. This does more to encourage the freedom to speak than any protected "free speech zone".
4chan's over-18 checkbox is a nod to legal restrictions worldwide; not being a lawyer I will not comment on it's effectiveness, but clearly there is nothing here to stop anyone of any age from clicking YES. If there are problems with 4chan's structure, legally, likely it will be in this arena. That is not the focus of this paper however.
Though it seems there is nothing to stop any and all threads from rapidly devolving into lowest common denominator chaos and noise, there are a number of code and social mechanisms that prevent this.
In an environment where you can say literally anything, the thrill of posting "FUCK YOU FAGGOT" (randomly or otherwise) apparently wanes. It certainly has little effect, other than the occasional witty response. There is no way to tell, but for users with nothing else to say, the lack of response does not encourage persistence. This lack of encouragement is "below" the level of peer review; insults are so trivially easy that they carry little value and have less power than contributory responses.
The dominant "control" mechanism -- and to even call it control is to import identity/authority/enforcement paradigms in where they do not exist -- is simply your peers. Because identity is reduced to an instantaneous post within some context (discussion thread) the best posts involve wit, insight, humor, brilliant observation, on-topic images, and the like. Note also that these 'good' posts can be supportive/constructive, or critical/destructive; but the value is in the quality of the posting. It is very common to find self-conscious discussions about the value and structure of threads themselves, and open discussion of culture and community building.
There is also a code mechanism, attached to every post and thread, that allows 'reporting' post(s) to the moderators, for either illegality or board-rules violation. It does however strongly imply a commonality of interest between the users and moderators, with the moderators relying on the culture to know when to flag posts. Users clearly demonstrate, in various explicit postings, a desire to ensure 4chan's ongoing usefulness and success (presumably selfishly), that they are consciously part of a (counter) public.
The last major control mechanism on 4chan is the same as internet sites all over the world: moderators. On 4chan moderators are usually silent, as anonymous as users, but with absolute power. Posts or entire threads can be deleted without notice, and users can be muted (access denied for a period of time) or banned entirely (in a limited but effective way).
The absolute power of the moderators is limited in turn by the very anonymity that fosters communication in the first place: there is no way to identify individuals except by their IP (internet protocol) address, eg. that of their computer. Without an identity mechanism, it is impossible to single out individual users, who can (and presumably, occasionally do) simply post from another computer or internet cafe. Further, the code encourages monitoring the huge volume of posts (up to 300,000 per day per board) statistically; presumably, users rise out of statistical noise by some detectable action: flood posting, author of oft-reported posts, or other harmful-to-4chan activity.
4chan is a counterpublic in Warner's sense, and also perfectly illustrates Lessig's ideas on "code" as both human and machine boundaries and container-characteristics of human culture.
4chan embodies the chicken and egg existence of Warner's first "rule" of a definition of a public: the "pervert" culture that populates 4chan had to pre-exist, but did not exist in that current form until they "moved to" 4chan. There is no real way to tell exactly how this came about; but it is clear that the many sub-cultures that populate 4chan did, and still do, exist elsewhere; they were not conjured up by 4chan's creation, but moved into it, invited from the start, by one of their own -- moot (who was a frequent visitor of a predecessor site, Something Awful (http://www.somethingawful.com). Something Awful has a colorful history, and seems to have spawned a lot of internet "memes" (and quasi-legal trouble of the mischievous sort). This is done with a trivial and obvious use of computer code: the mere existence of the website.
With anonymity solidly established as de facto relation, 4chan is a collection of strangers (rule 2); identifying yourself, never mind others, is severely deprecated on 4chan, with derogatory names created specifically for those that cling to a need for online personal identity: namefag for people who insist on real names, and tripfag for those that persist in using pseudonyms within threads. Here, some of the subtleties of code, to encourage some and limit other specific behaviors, as mentioned in the Code Structure section, illuminates Lessig's ideas of code.
Threads in any 4chan board can be extremely personal (relationship threads) or impersonal (soliciting opinions on current events) (rule 3). In fact, a major characteristic of 4chan is deeply personal revelation; but paradoxically, since it is anonymous these revelations can be painfully personal to the posting user, yet utterly without weight to anonymous readers; within this tension amazing insights ("I share the same fear"), and horrifying damage inflicted (jokes about sincere attempts at suicide). These are side-effects of Lessig-style code concepts, possibly incidental in the design, but now a deeply important part of the culture.
4chan has nothing to claim from it's members but attention (Warner's rule 4). With remote internet access and utter anonymity, how could there be anything else? Yet it more than persists; it flourishes.
4chan users are very self-aware of being in a public and converse explicitly about that public, often in sophisticated ways (Warner rule 5). On many (but not all) 4chan boards, most especially the specialized sexual fetish boards, self-reflexive discussion is common.
4chan is acutely aware of it's temporality (rule 6). Warner writes
The more punctual and abbreviated the circulation, and the more discourse indexes the punctuality of its own circulation, the closer a public stands to politics.
Few things online are more temporal than 4chan threads! Because it is such a limiting code-container, conversations must adapt to it. Some threads seem oblivious, and/or ephemeral by nature, and the participants don't really care ("party talk"). Some, such as the /y/ yaoi porn threads, intentionally re-post past images, as a form of intentional memory, and oldfags�(see glossary entry for faggot) repeat old tales (and instructions) for newfags with the explicit knowledge that that is how cultural memes are transmitted.
Warner's rule 7, "a public is poetic world-making", is the very heart of 4chan's existence, for me, and I think for most participants. In 4chan's case the "rule" is literal -- for without the text and image posts, there would be no thing there. Due to the code-limited medium -- terse plain text and simple flat images -- the ability to pull off skillful, actual poesy is the most valued thing in 4chan. Beauty may be relative, in the eye of the beholder, and every other cliche on 4chan, but it, and the sense of community space built there, is the only reason for it's ongoing existence.
4chan is home to many subject boards, but for my purposes here, I will concentrate on only two: Random and Yaoi. Out of the 40 or so boards, 14 of them are marked "Adult 18+" and have the over-18 checkbox mentioned above. The two to be considered are within the Adult 18+ category.
For the rest of this discussion I will use 4chan's own language and syntax. Please refer to the glossary as necessary. 4chan, and the rest of the world, when it refers to 4chan, does so in its local language. The glossary also discusses meanings and intent of words, which on boards like this are a form of "macro", or a larger complex of meaning referred to by a single word.
Brief instructions: Users refer to themselves and others as "anon" or "anonymous". And please look at the glossary entry for "faggot" before viewing 4chan online; on 4chan 'faggot' has a radically reclaimed connotation. To illustrate, gay men need to refer to themselves as "gayfags"!
Note also that the ability to speak freely enables bigots as well as liberation. There is bigotry of all kinds on 4chan and much of it is earnest. Most of it seems sophomoric repetition, or immature attempts to outrage, but there is enough disturbing content to remind one that this is, in fact, the real world.
For all the openness and anything-goes within 4chan, there is subject matter that is almost universally despised. The two major subjects are sexual images involving children ("CP"), and the other known generally as "furry" sex. Prohibitions on children in sexual situations or acts are both cultural (including 4chan) and legal, the latter of which is of immediate practical concern, though I personally get the sense that if legality were not an issue, CP would be marginalized at best.
What constitutes "sex involving children" can be complex (eg. shota) but for the most part anything "realistic" invokes immediate deletion by moderators (and presumably banishment for the posting anon). Threads containing CP receive, generally speaking, three sorts of responses. Cries for more ("MOAR!"), complaints and pleas to stop, and trolls.
The utter and complete ban on furriness is much less scrutable. I have found no definitive explanation for the divisiveness surrounding furries and 4chan and other spaces. One stated reason, that does not completely ring true, is that children flock to what they see as "kids" imagery (people dressed up as fanciful, brightly colored animals) parents find abhorrent (huge furry penises, vaginas, breasts and fucking). I believe it has more to do with issues of authorship and ownership of images within furry communities, coupled to an "allowed" prejudice within 4chan; furries are acceptable social pariahs on 4chan. So much for consistency; and furry fans go elsewhere.
The energetic self-policing of 4chan by anonymous users who would appear to have no real stake in the site makes clear to me that 4chan denizens are conscious of 4chan as a counterpublic; in addition to the clear inside/outside boundary of behavior and language, there is a palpable sense, in the more outre boards, that harm could come from outside power sources.
I will concentrate on the /y/ (yaoi) board, but no mention of 4chan is complete without mentioning /b/.
/b/ is the most popular and best-known board, and in most ways is the heart of 4chan. /b/ has broadest content tolerance; any subject matter can be (and is) posted here. Anons here also refer to themselves as /b/tards. Any attempt to categorize thread topics is doomed, but in my limited experience the following are very popular thread topics:
Easily half of all threads in /b/ involve sexual matters, sometimes silly, usually with photos. It is just as common to have earnestly erotic and sexual discussions. In fact, especially at more or less night (American to Europe time) it would seem that most posters are sitting by themselves, alone, in front of their computer. In polite society, sex is rarely discussed, never exhibited. On 4chan, it is de facto encouraged by circumstance and environment. And clearly from the results, sex, self-image, eroticism, exploration, insecurity, can be found here; all of human sexuality is of major interest including or maybe especially the fringes.
Much of the sexual content is playful, with genuine exchange of ideas and admissions, and genuinely broad and deep discussions of personal sexuality, choices, problems, and pleasures is discussed in a manner I personally have not seen anywhere, in such number or quality. Of course the usual trolling ("YOU'RE A FAGGOT") is mixed in, but has the odd effect of highlighting actual content, and trolling is generally ignored (and certainly has no effect on lively threads).
This thread took place over a 15 - 20 minute period. It was planned and executed as a sexy narrative; a woman giving a man a blowjob is interrupted by another man at the door with a knife; a fight ensues... and the narrative dies out. There is much running commentary mainly by other anons, some of it on-topic, much of it clever, the rest pointless. This is a typical balance.
There is an obvious mastery of the medium and technology. The offhandedness of the images still clearly convey narrative structure, told in stills reminiscent of the cartoon/anime; note the Full Metal Alchemist poster on the wall. They manage to be erotic too, in a fairly ordinary way. The thread just peters off at the end, and was eventually abandoned and deleted. The lack of male nudity, or physical or emotional exposure, and the disproportionate female images are not surprising.
The yaoi board is my personal favorite, and therefore best known to me. Only somewhat impartially, I believe it may also be one of the best demonstration of 4chan's cultural code mechanisms because of the fairly narrow focus of the board and it's relatively small following frequently discuss "meta" aspects of the /y/ board.
Yaoi is a once-Japanese category drawn images of homosexual relationships, originally created by, and for, women. It's audience and authorship has since expanded to include men. Yaoi is therefore de facto gay porn, but drawn, and significantly, the relationships depicted have different assumptions of interpersonal power than typical American porn (drawn or otherwise).
An obvious side effect of the drawn medium is that it can represent bodies and acts impossible to perform "in real life". This ability is central to yaoi's appeal and it's exploitation can be extreme in degree and depiction.
Numerically, most of the image content is from, or related to, dojinshi. Dojinshi is "fan art"; amateur (in the sense of unpaid) works based upon characters from commercial anime and manga, and sometimes western cartoons and other sources. The quality varies, but is usually quite good.
It is in boards structured like /y/ where 4chan's anons flourish. In the real world anons may be male, female, old and young; in /y/ it is nearly impossible to discern anything about anons not intentionally revealed. /y/ is overwhelmingly an image board; textual discussion is strictly related to images. Other commentary is rare, and generally discouraged. The guidelines for posting are deeply subjective, but there is an actual flowchart, now somewhat obsolete, that describes acceptable images. These guidelines are discussed with little rancor.
Inter-anon conversation is generally polite and friendly. Occasionally people reveal bits of themselves, intentionally or otherwise ("I first saw this anime when I was 13") but the sense of community persists (for me, at least) in the bits and pieces of meta-conversation; gentle complaints of seeing the same images over and over (with no archive, long-term memory consists of reposts); occasional reproves to newfags about the proper way to post or start threads.
In some sense I suppose that anything, or nothing, is a typical thread, but this one requesting Deathnote (anime) pics is as good as any (though in fact I chose it because it is short, which generally means of low participation). Deathnote's main character, depicted most often (and in this thread) is black-haired big-eyed Light, a rather gloomy but sexy (gothic) character.
ZaDR is pure dojinshi/slash/fanart, to me more cute and funny than sexy, but a good example of what can be done in the medium.
An uncommon fetish in /y/, this request for diaper yaoi resulted in few images, but some interesting meta-discussion. /d/ is the "Hentai/Alternative" board, sometimes known as /d/eviant; hentai meaning, essentially, "pervert". /d/ is fairly aggressively heteronormative.
This is an in-board argument for the creation of a "/dy/" (hentai yaoi/deviant yaoi) board. It is not clear to me who the audience for the appeal might be, though it is possible that moderators read the boards for content. There appears to be no explicit way to contact moot or discuss the form of 4chan itself.
This thread also casually illustrates some of the more out-there fetishes, such as male impregnation, and has more than the usual amount of discussion.
A thread of bloody, gory images including necrophilia, somewhat based upon Poppy Z. Brite's horror writing. Clearly the drawn medium means anything-goes, including sexualized, screaming boys devoid of limbs, biological reality be damned.
Though utterly devoid of sexual matter, this fairly intelligent thread illustrates the possibilities for discussion. This is from /r9k/, my personal favorite board.
I am not generally a /d/eviant (as populators of /d/ call themselves) as it is too hetero-centric; but it is a great source of out-there sexual images. What follows is an alien/insect/egg-laying/impregnation (of females) thread. It is as representative as anything in /d/. This thread contains images at once repulsive, erotic, and laughable, the intended mix of emotions completely opaque to me.
The explicitness of the impregnation series of images makes clear what the focus is. The women herself is mere container, the emphasis is on the insectile probe and the eggs themselves, every aspect of which is drawn in great detail. Both the eroticised, drawn-out (sic) ejaculation of eggs, and the after effects (no waiting nine months apparently, here) are immensely clear. While the women's face shows great alarm, it's basically one 'look' throughout the series, and she doesn't seem to suffer beyond (!) the obvious entrapment within a hideous insect-like thing.
The images appear to be from a game that may be available on one of the 4chan file boards.
This image is dojinshi of an anime character from Gurren Lagen. An idealized and beautiful bound boy, facing the audience/unseen person, has a large erection and is penetrated by a dildo. Though bound and in a very uke pose, his face is relaxed, sexy and beckoning. He is covered in droplets of cum (or possibly sweat). In real life that particular pose would not be comfortable for long, and infinite beds are hard to find.
This image also embodies two major yaoi components: male characters created from 'female' images, and a idealized youth. In this particular image the hair style is quite feminine; any browse of porn reveals far more female sexual images than male ones; coupled with a largely female artist and consumer base, it should be hardly surprising that male dojinshi characters are created from female base characters. (Dojinshi artists are masters of photoshopping.)
The encoding of power in this image resonates too; a common pose of female porn -- a woman passively ready for a man's pleasurable (insertion) -- with ambivalent gender on both sides of the image (viewer and viewed) the power relationship is much more blurred.
I almost don't know what to say about this image. It contains western and Japanese elements, and while the man is clearly masculine (face, chest, erect penis) his pose is very uke-receptive, with one of the many penis-headed fish penetrating his anus while the rest look on, said penetration possibly the reason for his joyful face.
Close to but distinct from furry are variations on animal/human hybrids. There is a rough consensus on what is "sufficiently human" (and stated as such). Generally secondary characteristics (ears, tails) are acceptable variations/perversions, but human faces, penises (for yaoi), and general body shape and skin are required.
It is likely that this image was also detourned from the female; the thigh socks, big eyes, upraised rump, lack of shoes and thong strongly suggest female; the bottom character likely was male to begin with, based upon the boots and pants, and smaller eyes, but anything is possible. Both penises are of slightly different color than other skin, hinting that they were added on by the subsequent artist.
What discussion of Japanese hentai porn would be complete without tentacles? Tentacle sex seems to be a Japanese specialty, and very popular in all of 4chan's boards. Usually solo-human and many tentacles, the target of the tentacles' pleasure is often portrayed as shocked yet ecstatic; sometimes rape-like or the sort of involuntary "don't! .... stop! ... don't stop!" joke-implied variety. Slimey, alien, faceless, multiple assaults on orfices and human protuberances, tentacles seem to mirror western (at least) fears of sex sticky lubricating fluids and the alienness of genitalia, grossly exaggerated. Human orgasm seems to be the universal goal of the tentacles; some narratives explicitly involve tentacles requiring human orgasmic energy to live.
This is also as typical a thread as any, about one person's request to help in identifying images from his porn collection for taxonomic purposes; but eventually someone questions the appropriateness of a post, and drags out the old /y/ flowchart documenting what constitutes a proper yaoi posting. The flowchart does an excellent job.
Because 4chan does not maintain archives of past posts (no collective community memory), a curious thing results: long-term memory consists of oldfags repeating stories (and images) for newfags. Stories, or images, not repeated are lost. In some ways this is ironic, if somewhat pointless to point out, that this recreates pre-literate societal memories, using tremendous amounts of technology and infrastructure. But it is also a way of filtering knowledge; that which anons deem worthy is actually persistently stored, just not on 4chan. These stored images form the long-term memory of 4chan.
bishi Originally, boys of such beauty that their sexual appeal transcended gender preference; but more generally speaking pretty, "effeminate" often uke boys.
bara Masculine "bearish" males.
bump When a new post is added to a thread, that thread is "bumped" to the top of the list of displayed threads; the net effect is that popular threads float to the top, and unpopular ones sink to the bottom. Anons know this, and will post the single word 'bump' with the intent of 'bumping' as a form of applause; however this eats into a thread's maximum reply count so it can be self-destructive as well.
copypasta Copying a thread subject from one board to another (eg. from /b/ to /r9k/) is considered to be bad form, with the implication that even if a thread was good and worthly, originality is worth more.
CP Anything sexual involving children; child porn.
dojinshi Self-published amateur works of art, based upon existing anime, manga or other artwork, depicting scenes generally not portrayed in the original work, often of a sexual nature. Directly analogous to fan art and slash.
ecchi Adjective: lewd, sexy; noun: fucking.
faggot The use of the word faggot on 4chan is universal, and for all intents and purposes has been "reclaimed" -- in the liberatory sense -- so completely that gay people need to refer to themselves as "gayfag", "queerfag" or other variant. Seriously. Not that there isn't plenty of homophobia, racism and other thing in abundance on 4chan, it's simply that use of the word "faggot", and variants including "fag" are not itself evidence of it.
The perjorative use of "faggot" is related to 'the closet'; since queerness is often invisible until announced (or clearly, immaterially assumed correctly or incorrectly by bigots) being a "faggot" associates with "found out".
In 4chan, anyone with characteristics or interests that may expose them to ridicule, who might be "found out", is a faggot. This has been so extremely generalized that anyone who professes nearly anything at all, is called a (something)fag, where something can be almost literally anything.
Therefore, there are drawfags (the revered mainstay of 4chan); newfags (new 4chan anons/users); oldfags (older people), camerafags, christfags and jewfags, furfags (furries), Welshfag Londonfag Newyorkfag, tripfag, namefag. By the way, those examples all came from the top page of /r9k/ in one moment.
fap Anime/carton onomatopoeic word for male masturbation.
furry Furry fandom consists of anthropomorphic animal images that often manifests in people dressing up in furry costumes for social and sexual reasons and are, for various reasons, the bane of many.
GTFO Get The Fuck Out (anger or irony)
I'll just leave this here Usually accompanies a posted image, and meaning the image meaning is obvious, or ironic.
inb 4 A mechanism intended to head off responses deemed to the author to be obvious. For example, when posting about one's sexual proclivities, you might add "in b4 pervert", as in, "let me get this IN BEFORE anyone says anything: yes I am a pervert please refrain from stating the obvious".
ITT Literally, "In this thread", a lead on to begin a discussion, as in, "ITT we have titties".
loli Drawn representation of a female child in a sexual context, generally forbidden on 4chan.
moar Humorous misspelling of "more" meaning please post more of this.
namefag A worse transgression than tripfag; using your actual name. See tripfag.
OP Literally, Original Poster; a way to refer to the anon who started a given thread.
sage (Pronounced 'sah gay'.) A corruption of a Japanese word meaning below, or bottom, users put the word 'sage' into the email field of a reply in order to append to a thread without bumping, as a courtesy to other thread participants, who want successful threads to remain active. Users sage their posts when they are mere commentary and do not contribute to the thread per se.
sauce Synonym for "source", meaning "source of this file/item".
scanlation Scan/translation, pertaining to digitization of print media and subsequent language translation and posting to the internet.
schlick Anime/carton onomatopoeic word for female masturbation.
seme Largely analogous to the American (western?) concept of sexual "top" or sexually dominant; borrowed from the Japanese, it is more like "pitcher" to the uke "catcher".
shota Drawn representation of a male child in a sexual context, generally forbidden on 4chan.
STFU Shut The Fuck Up, humorous or otherwise.
tl;dnr Literally: too long; did not read. Complaint or ironic self-admission, as 4chan strongly favors brevity.
trap Transexual or transvestite, interchangably (sic).
tripfag An anon who insists on putting an identifying pseudonyms (a tripcode) into a post in order to form an identity or relation between that uses posts, in other words, someone not fully comfortable with anonymity for any reason or someone who misunderstands the culture.
troll Generally speaking, malicious behavior or off-topic posts. Within certain narrow contexts, such as a response to severely troubling content (for example: a photo of a dead, severely mangled human body in a morgue) trolling can also be a complex visceral response to shocking or puzzling subject matter, or a way of indicating that anon is not shocked by anything (but, therefore, acknowledging that there is something to be shocked by). When used in this way, it has the effect of normalizing the post in question, not I don't think with the intent of asserting it's acceptability, but as a way to defuse the power of the image or text.
uke Analogous to American/western concept of the sexual "bottom", a Japanese word more analogous to "catcher" to the seme's "pitcher".
wat Humorous "what?".
wtf What The Fuck.
yaoi Drawn fictional male characters in homosexual relationships.
yuri Drawn fictional female characters in homosexual relationships.
1: "Publics and Counterpublics", Michael Warner (2002)
2: "Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0", Lawrence Lessig (2008)
3: Where the * stands in for various 'chan' identifiers; the original 2channel (allegedly the largest internet forum in the world), and the many variants, 5chan, 6chan, 7chan, gurochan, etc.
4: There are no statistics of any kind available on 4chan's users. I did attempt to estimate age range based upon various cultural utterances of it's members; eg. many refer to 1980's TV anime viewed "in their early teens".
5: The posting of many gibberish/nonense posts with the intent of drowning out legitimate conversation, killing a thread by exceeding the reply count, and other effects.
6: "Net95" is Lessig's term for code-defined site behavior common in 1995; no 'identity layer' or other control mechanisms beyond those provided in the TCP/IP internet protocols.