Wednesday, June 29, 2011
4Chan, the website that spawned Rickrolling, LOLcats, Over 9000! and even Anonymous, has been around for the better part of a decade at this point. It makes you wonder, then, why it's taken so long for a study about the culture of the website and its broader influence on the web. Well wonder no more. Researchers from MIT and the University of Southampton have released a study on the anarchic message board that, according to Slate's Michael Agger, attempts to uncover a method behind the madness:
...there's a Darwinian struggle to make the best wisecrack, to tell the most disgusting story. It's not unlike a high-school cafeteria table. Knowing that all of the threads will disappear creates an incentive to contribute to and improve good threads. The best ones stay current, popular, fit. Michael Bernstein, one of the authors of the paper, explained the ecosystem this way: "Even a single dedicated person can't force a meme to spread on /b/; there's too much content and people will ignore it. The result is that if you want success (replies), you need to produce content that will grab people quickly, and encourage them to respond or remix it."
The lack of archives spurs the uploading of fresh images. It also has the secondary effect of forcing /b/ regulars to save their favorite threads on their own computers. They will often reintroduce memes onto /b/ after a few days or weeks, which generates further variations, remixes, or complete hijackings in a different direction. The need to save stuff also acts as a powerful "selection mechanism" that sees 4chan ephemera get posted in other places, or combined with other memes, like the fake Successories poster.
Personally, I am just a tiny bit ambivalent about having the process of meme selection at 4Chan demystified, but both Agger's article and the study itself make for compelling reading.