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12 Jan 2015 12:16

How imageboard culture shaped Gamergate

That tell-tale wedding of relentless hostility and ethical affectation is a peculiar youth subculture spilling out into the open web. Get ready for more of it.

By A Man in Black

Image: Yotsuba&! Vol 7, by Kiyohiko Azuma

 

Anonymous image boards are a continuous froth of simultaneously earnest and ironic hostility. What the anonymous denizens of these boards consider polite discourse is indistinguishable from open attack. This works in their own subculture, but when exported elsewhere, their hostility and antipathy for personal identity creates problems. This clash of anonymous imageboard culture with the parts of social media where people live and work created the divide underlying GamerGate, making it difficult for outsiders to understand.

The flagship English-language anonymous imageboard is 4chan, founded by Christopher “moot” Poole in 2003. Most of the imitator or successor boards have names that play on 4chan’s name, like 420chan or infinitechan (also known as 8chan); such forums, collectively, are often called “chan” boards. On these boards, all or nearly all posters simply post as “Anonymous”, and the oldest posts are deleted as quickly as new posts are made. On most boards, posters can append a name to their posts, with or without a unique hash identifier known as a tripcode, but most posters don’t. (Posters who do are affectionately/derisively known as “tripfriends”, or more often a homophobic slur in place of “-friend.”) This stands in stark contrast with most internet forums, where posters are expected to stick to permanent pseudonyms, giving them an identity, history, and reputation.

These anonymous imageboards have their own idiosyncratic culture, despite the lack of permanent identity. Posters call themselves anons, or occasionally channers. While anonymity is a core part of this identity, merely being anonymous does not make you an anon. Rather, it’s about identifying as a larger whole. Capital-A Anonymous, such as the Project Chanology protestors and the hacking/activist groups like @youranonnews, are anons, but most anons don’t think of themselves as part of Anonymous.

Without identity, every anon is whoever they want to be at the moment. It’s freeing! Anons exalt these imageboards as the only place people can truly be themselves, without being burdened by their identity or consequences. This includes genuinely awful or hateful opinions. Anons have a broad, often absolutist view of free speech, sometimes extending that so far as to include threats of violence or extreme pornography. Anons are extremely protective of their culture and this very broad view of free speech, because of both great faith in their ability to self-police argument and an unconscious, internal reliance on irony.

The atmosphere is that of a paradoxically jovial angry mob. Almost everyone sees their own point of view as the consensus, assuming that most people most people agree with them. Any possibly contentious statement is presumed to be ironic, told as a joke or to rile up people who disagree. Since everyone assumes that anyone who disagrees is arguing in bad faith and doesn’t mean what they’re saying, anyone who disagrees is a fair target for apparently hateful mockery. This basic assumption of bad faith applies even when arguments are long-lasting and well-known: for example, the console war arguments in /v/, 4chan’s video games sub-board. However, this mockery is defanged by anonymity and irony.

Everyone’s anonymous, so a poster can just join the winning side of an argument, cheerfully mocking their own older posts. One poster can even play both sides from the start. Every anon can choose whatever opinion they want to have on a post-by-post basis, so everything flows smoothly even as people hatefully attack each other for having the wrong opinion. Anons believe in this free marketplace of ideas: good ones survive the firestorm, while bad ones burn to ash as everyone dogpiles on mocking them.

Anon culture is a decentralized echo chamber, but one that can produce interesting things through the work of many hands. Anons hold that whatever consensus emerges is the right one as an article of faith, even if that consensus becomes more and more toxic over time. One example of how hate can concentrate is 4chan’s /pol/ sub-board. Ostensibly for discussing politics and current events, it is now dominated by white supremacists. This toxicity isn’t necessarily contained to one board: usually-ironic, sometimes-not homophobia, racism, and antisemitism are common to almost all anonymous imageboards.

One toxic belief common to many anon imageboards is a love/hate relationship with so-called tripfriends. Anons love anyone who identifiably supports the consensus; similarly, GamerGate’s supporters pile adulation on the “e-celeb” thought leaders of GamerGate. However, anons hate people who identifiably disagree with them, because they can’t presume those people’s opinions are ironic trolling. Those people are fair game to be shut up by any means necessary, because that’s how the game is played.

In particular, being identifiable is counter to the anon creed. “Doxxing”, or releasing personal information about someone in a defamatory or intimidating way, is one of the worst things you can do to an anon, because it pierces their anonymity. However, it is an acceptable method of punishment for someone who attempts to aggrandize themselves: they brought this on themselves for not being anonymous. Encyclopedia Dramatica, a wiki devoted to archiving anon culture, is one of the main hosts for “dropping doxx” on people to shut them up or embarrass them.

GamerGate inherited these tenets of anon culture. It began on anonymous imageboards — 4chan at first, and later 8chan after moot effectively banned it from his board — and spilled into the rest of the internet, places where people live and work under their own names. Outside of the anonymous imageboards, people weren’t prepared for anons’ animosity, personal attacks, and essential assumption of bad faith. The open hostility and silencing behavior of anon culture immediately turned septic, when it was turned on people who don’t have the shield of anonymity to protect them.

GamerGaters insist that they have no leaders, and resist any attempt from inside or out to impose structure. Unsuccessful attempts have been made: MMORPG game developers Damion Schubert and Raph Koster proposed that GamerGate back a formal advocacy group called GAMR, and anti-feminist YouTube video blogger MundaneMatt and others proposed an informal “council” of GamerGate core personalities. All of these efforts were rejected, in part because they relied on elevating individuals above the whole.


It isn’t clear why Vivian is so joyless about games, or why she’s never wearing any shoes.

Image by anonymous 4chan /v/ user.

Vivian James, the GamerGate mascot created for a game development contest, is the perfect exemplar of these attitudes. In GamerGate’s many propaganda images and infographics, she completely submits to the gamer identity. In one often-shared image, she demands that everyone similarly submit, yelling at GamerGate’s opponents to “Get off your high horse!” She isn’t interested in anything but playing games and you shutting up so she can play them. In one image, she shows what GamerGate values: not just playing games, but uncritically submitting to gamer culture as it currently exists.

One example of how the anon underpinnings of GamerGate can turn toxic is from early in GamerGate’s life. GamerGate discussion was banned from many sites because GamerGaters were spreading personal information, nude photos, and defamatory accusations against game developer Zoe Quinn. In anon thinking, banning them for this was a betrayal. “Why can’t we talk about Zoe Quinn’s supposed misdeeds and let our own consensus emerge naturally?” The damage being done to her reputation and the threats being enabled by spreading this information were all moot; what matters is the unfettered emergence of consensus. Moderation is an unnatural intervention.

This hostility to moderation reaches all the way down to the personal level, particularly on Twitter. Stating a contentious opinion on an anonymous imageboard is an invitation to argue. GamerGaters challenge people they don’t know to arguments, and feel snubbed when they’re blocked or told to get lost. To their minds, why would you post in the #gamergate hashtag on Twitter if you didn’t want to defend your arguments — and yourself — from attack? GamerGaters who intrude into conversations to argue are offended to be mocked as “sea lions”, after a Wondermark comic.

This tension in anon culture, that every single person is empowered by the whole of the group and thus merits treatment as a peer, turns these individual hostile challenges into a storm of entitled demands for attention. Anons see themselves as peers to everyone, empowered by the support of the group, and thus entitled to participate in any conversation they aren’t forcibly prevented from entering. Even if, for example, cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian didn’t have to deal with harassers and bad faith people, she couldn’t possibly argue with every comer over every point of disagreement. However, not doing so is seen as a sign of the weakness of her arguments, in anon thinking.

This makes anons perfect cover for harassers. Not being willing to accept bad faith arguments on their own terms and debate them as if they merited a response is seen as proof of the weakness of your arguments. Therefore, it’s very easy for actual bad-faith arguers to barrage people with nonsense and demand to waste the time of people they want to harass, using the potential ire of a swarm of anons as leverage. This has long been one of the main tactics of the anon harassers targeting Anita Sarkeesian. She invited argument then didn’t defend her position! It must be worthless.

This thinking also makes anons very susceptible to the “professional victim” narrative popular among anti-feminist and misogynist writers. The “Literally Who” women targeted by GamerGate, Quinn, Sarkeesian, game developer Brianna Wu, and software developer Randi Harper, are smeared by saying they want to aggrandize themselves somehow. Why else would they protest against the various abuses they’ve endured? If hostility is a natural consequence of having contentious opinions, then the only reason anyone would protest any hostility is to somehow garner undeserved sympathy. That hostility is just part of the internet, in anon thinking.

Anonymous imageboards breed continuously frothing angry mobs with their hostility turned ever inward. This hostility is defanged by irony and anonymity, so it can sustain itself without doing lasting harm to the participants as long as it remains within its own bubble. However, because this culture evolved in that bubble and relies on silencing tactics to police itself, it does not blend well with the rest of the internet.

Title image: Yotsuba&! Vol 7, by Kiyohiko Azuma

Further reading

Published 8:00 am Wed, Dec 31, 2014

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  1. FoolishOwl

    That's idiotic. It's completely impossible to create a narrative that doesn't have an implicit political narrative. And I couldn't begin to count the number of games that have explicit political narratives.

    Vivian, unlike most gamers, is a cartoon.

  2. larryfeltonj

    The gamergaters (and probably channers as well) bristle when you describe what they are involved in as a right wing movement. But they've adopted the language of the fringe right (SJWs and "Cultural Marxism", extreme racist and homophobic terminology), and most of the supporters who use their open identities are on the right (Milo Yiannopoulos, Adam Baldwin, Christina Hoff Sommers, Nick Flor).

    It reminds me of what Hunter Thompson wrote, in the 1960s, about nazi symbolism among outlaw bikers. If they weren't right wingers, and were using the symbols for shock value alone, why not choose hammers and sickles instead of swastikas, since that would be much more shocking to America of that time?

    The chan boards, and gamergate, seem to be hotbeds of fringe right culture.

  3. Humbabella

    I guess I can't be surprised that there is a porn parody of Sarkeesian, since there is a porn parody of everything.

    But wow is this thing contemptible. First, making a porn parody of a person who is probably still getting real threats from misogynists is at best poor taste. Second, this is pretty deeply pathetic on the part of the gamergaters who hate Sarkeesian but get off on a sexualized portrayal of her - there isn't much that confirms misogyny like wanting to have sex with a woman because you hate them.

    What I find interesting about it, though, is how deeply credulous gamergaters are. It's one thing that doesn't really fit with the given description of chan culture and how it shaped gamergate. At the same time as gaters criticize people for being "taken in" by Sarkeesian's "feminist outrage for money" act, they basically fall head of heels for anyone who supports them, no matter how suspicious. Milo Yiannopoulos openly called gamers pathetic losers, but as soon as he said Sarkeesian was full of it he was a gamergate hero. Others speak openly about profiteering off of gaters and still manage to profiteer. I've got nothing against sex work, but you shouldn't consider a sex worker a hero of your movement because they are selling you what you want to buy - selling people what they want to buy is what business does.

    So there is another side of the coin opposite the bad faith arguing and complete mistrust, and it's readiness to completely trust even when ordinary people with normally functioning smell tests wouldn't. There a sort of desperateness to the wanting to hear agreement.

    Also, that #SexPositiveAnita tag is stomach-turning. I've never seen anything in Sarkessian's videos to suggest she isn't Sex Positive (well, except maybe the "prostituted women" thing). I like the term "Sex Positive" and "Sex Positive" is a phrase that I would rather misogynists don't co-opt. There is nothing sex-positive about wanting to rape a woman you hate.

  4. Mindysan33

    And now there is an interview with Princess Kora... Her beef with Sarkeesian essentially comes down to the fact that she dislikes that Sarkeesian points out that how some sex workers are portrayed in some games means that Sarkeesian thinks that all sex workers are victims, which I'm not sure that Sarkeesian has ever said... She quotes Gloria Steinem to prove her point that all feminist think that all sex workers are victims. So, basically, let's forget that the 3rd/4th wave ever happened, and of course gloss over the fact that yes, some sex workers are sometimes coerced....

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