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(Anthony Jenkins)
(Anthony Jenkins)

Andrew Steele

The decaying anonymity of the Internet Add to ...

"We call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. ... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle."

Sigmund Freud was describing the Id in his theory of the Id, Ego and Super-Ego, but he may as well have been talking about the Internet.

The perceived anonymity of the Internet can make the Id run wild.

From the popularity of web pornography to the irresponsible sniping on comment boards, the Internet allows the illusion of a consequence-free interaction and the unleashing of base human instinct. The results are often troubling, sometimes chilling and yet can also provide astonishing creativity, innovation and enterprise.

4Chan is one of the vast clearing houses of the collective Internet Id, where masked people congregate to create in defiance of organization and insulated against moralizing.

The site is the 57th most viewed in the United States. It has 11 million unique visitors a month, similar numbers to the New York Times website, and all those visitors make more than one million posts a day. Topics include everything from Japanese comic books to mathematics to cooking.

4Chan is the anti-Facebook, where anonymity prevents the establishing or maintenance of real world relationships. The most popular board is called Random, and it is a swirling maze of ideas, good and bad. It's basically a glimpse into the subconscious of the 18 to 25 year old men who populate it, and is about as filthy as any frat house.

The result is somewhat like academic freedom run wild. A consequence-free, temporary and anonymous series of discussions unfold in unexpected ways, and with uncomfortable or challenging statements made that are usually base, graphic and grossly inappropriate.

If you have ever been exposed to an Internet meme, it was probably born in 4Chan.

(For those of you reading this because someone printed it off, memes are a type of inside joke that is transmitted through a large group of people. They aren't unique to the Internet. Memes like the " Kilroy was here" graffiti from World War Two took years to work their way through popular culture. But the Internet makes them faster to transmit, alter and place in context.)

Internet memes like " This is Sparta" or " Rickroll" rise from the vast intellectual sludge of 4chan, conquer the Internet in a week, and move on in constantly warping iterations.

It's a dangerous space for viral marketers to attempt to manipulate, although there is evidence that some are trying.

But 4Chan and its ilk aren't just used for telling jokes and selling comics. The anonymity of 4Chan and other Internet boards creates a powerful freedom of speech that some use for good, and a minority for awful purposes.

A group of profane 4Chan users sent death threats to an 11-year-old girl after she posted videos on YouTube containing violent rants.

In 2008, a subgroup of 4Chan users formed "Anonymous," a movement opposed to Scientology utilizing denial of service attacks and masked flash-mobs protests.

4Chan users also unearthed and reported a case of physical brutality and bullying at an American university, beginning an email campaign to get the school's dean to investigate.

The anonymity of the Internet - 4chan and other boards like it in particular - provides opportunities for both terrible mistakes and positive creative actions.

However, it turns out the Internet isn't actually all that anonymous. 4Chan, the poster boy of anarchy on the web, is in fact a regulated place where one's identity can be determined and legal consequences exacted.

According to testimony by founder Christopher Poole in the case of the 4Chan user who hacked Sarah Palin's email account, there are significant opportunities to identify and prosecute users.

For instance, weblogs are maintained and will be provided to government officials following a request by law enforcement. They will show when a particular user made any posts, using their IP address, an identifier assigned for your computer when it logs on to a computer network.

The testimony lays out in detail how 4Chan and law enforcement can easily identify who is saying what on 4Chan by using logs and the IP addresses assigned by Internet service providers.

The anarchy of 4Chan - and the Internet generally - is both terrifying and astonishing. Certainly, the debates on the The Globe and Mail's comment board are legendary, both in their quality and occasional lapse into the personal and inappropriate.

But clearly, the illusion of anonymity is at the heart of that creative anarchy.

As the illusion begins to crumble - as those who use the Internet begin to run up against the reality of prosecution and incarceration for their crimes, or public humiliation for their ill-conceived statements - that anarchy may subside.

The creativity that comes with not caring about the consequences of what you say could end. Perhaps the Wild West Internet will soon begin to look a little more like Canada's Prairie expansion, with the RCMP imposing some civility missing from the American experience.

To finish the Freud analogy, perhaps the Super-Ego will arrive to moderate the wild lusts of the Internet Id.

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