The powerhouse of internet virality, 4chan, has achieved notoriety, and in a spectacular way. The release of hundreds of images claiming to show a pantheon of celebrities in various compromising, or at least awkward, positions has brought the many other social media channels alive with the sniff of salacious gossip.
Consequently, as mainstream media must so often do in the era of internet and citizen journalism, the newspapers are buzzing with a mixture of horror at the invasion of privacy and the hint of seeing something far more revealing from a famous person than plunging cleavage.
The complex circumstances that have come together to make this incident combine all the extremes of social media, mainstream reporting, get-rich-quick schemes, gullibility, celebrity obsession and net-trolling. The Mirror asked how 4chan could have obtained the images. The straightforward answer is that 4chan was given the images by a hacker. More uncertain is how the hacker could obtain the images.
As worrying as the scale of this hack may sound, many of the stars involved claimed the images were fake. But to add confusion there are also claims that the PR people for Jennifer Lawrence have acknowledged the images as being of her and Mary Winstead recognised through Twitter that the photos tagged with her name were her own deleted images.
But what can really be believed in all of this turmoil is difficult to determine. With such a media storm being generated there are opportunities for many to benefit. For the hacker there is a chance to sell some of the even more risqué material to media outlets by taking advantage of the pseudo-anonymity of bitcoin exchanges.
For traditional media reporting organisations there is the exciting hint of obtaining an exclusive. In the days of internet gossip for a traditional media to obtain an exclusive is almost equivalent to finding a golden egg. And gaining an exclusive could fall either way for these organisations too: identifying the hacker or how they managed the hack would nearly be as good as obtaining a new image or video.
"Cutting edge" but at what price?
Any regular followers of 4chan will not be surprised by the attention the site is currently receiving. It hosted the inception of ideas including Lolcats, Rickrolling, Rage Comics and the Anonymous hackers group. So many of the ideas that first emerged on 4chan have become part of what we all expect and “do” online. But equally the site has been accused of encouraging online harassment and cyber-bullying.
Being “cutting edge” without being offensive or abusive is a difficult balance. This is particularly acute for 4chan when it is neither a patrolled or commercial space. There are no advertisers to please or risk offending and the site avoids the greater levels of identity-checking that we all have come to expect from using more conventional social media sites.
Unsurprisingly, this means that 4chan is among the first choices for posting the controversial, the new or simply the quirky and ultimately this material could come from anyone. Many other more commercialised social media sites rely on this impetus of creativity, originality and controversy that their own ecosystems cannot provide and do not encourage.
In 2010 TheNextWeb identified the five keys lessons to learn from 4chan: “use original content”, “know your audience”, “acknowledge your source”, “don’t copycat” and “make them laugh”. The headline “Hundreds of unseen nude pictures of celebrities from an anonymous hacker”, works on at least four of these criteria.
The role played by 4chan on social media is important. For many the site will be unknown. For those who seek it out in the wake of this turmoil the experience will feel as if they are stepping back ten years. For the vast majority there is no need to do anything – 4chan will come to them through shared images and links on other more familiar sites.
In its current form, 4chan cannot be easily stopped. The quickest method to stymie this stream of humour, abuse, creativity and bullying would be to buy the site from its creator, Christopher Poole. He declined to sell in 2005 and rumours of a sale to Google in 2012 went nowhere.
If 4chan were to shift away from its current cutting-edge role it is certain that a similar site would rise to fill this niche. Without 4chan the internet would be a much duller place. While it is impossible to condone the “dark” activities generated through 4chan, without even knowing it we will all need 4chan for as long it provides us with the shareable content that allows us to be social online.
Gordon Fletcher previously received funding from InnovateUK.