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How 4Chan's Structure Creates a 'Survival of the Fittest' for Memes

High turnover and a battle for attention breeds offensive but viral content.

4Chan is a force to be reckoned with on the internet, responsible for the birth of both Anonymous and the alt-right, countless memes, and the kind of dark humor that transformed a cartoon frog into a right wing icon. But many media representations of the message board have tended towards hyperbole, crediting them with undue influence and far-reaching powers (as researchers Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer and Gabriella Coleman have pointed out.


Recently, more scholars of the digital world begun to conduct more empirical research on 4Chan, and a paper presented at the recent International Conference on the Web and Social Media in Montreal shed light on how some of the peculiarities of user interactions there give rise to the brand of content which makes its way out to the wider web.

In Kek, Cucks, and God Emperor Trump: A Measurement Study of 4chan's Politically Incorrect Forum and Its Effects on the Web, a team of eight researchers from Roma Tre University, University College London, Telefonica Research and Cyprus University of Technology archived 10 weeks of data from /pol/, the "politically incorrect" board in which news and current events are discussed, including over 1 million unique images (since all threads on 4Chan must start with an image post).

Among other things, this allowed the researchers to conduct word frequency analysis on the posts, the results of which show just how common offensive language is (i.e., the word "nigger" appears in just over 2 percent of all posts on the board.) Besides the obvious delight in racism and misogyny, there's a parallel interpretation to 4Chan's abusive tone in which the conventions of extreme discourse and sometimes impenetrable jargon serve to reinforce the boundaries of in-group and out-group in a mostly anonymous environment.

Jeremy Blackburn, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and one of the study's authors, explained that 4Chan's interaction structure (where, unlike more mainstream platforms like Facebook or Reddit, there is no like or upvote system, and the only way to gauge audience reaction is by the number of replies) encourages a constant attempt to galvanize a response by just about any means.


"Because of the way 4Chan works you have to work really hard to get attention, there's no sense that 'oh these are my friends and will retweet my stuff,'" Blackburn told Motherboard in an interview. "So users have grown very adept at capturing your attention for a few seconds, distilling it into a single image, and that's what gets pushed out [beyond the site]."

He also noted that this interaction system, combined with the lack of any archive for threads beyond the short term, is responsible for an extremely high turnover of content—around 50 to 60 percent of all posts never receive a reply and are soon deleted according to the paper's findings—which in turn begets a "survival of the fittest" where only a handful of memes persist. (In fact, as another of Blackburn's co-authors outlined in a blog post, 4Chan users were quick to make memes out of the study itself, as seen below.)

Given the regular exposure to extreme content, Blackburn also said that he regularly checks in with the students working with him on the topic to make sure they're not getting sucked in.

"It's disturbing in a sense but we have to keep in mind the need to step back, to say to ourselves 'this is their content and we shouldn't be influenced by it,'" he explained. "But these guys are very good at recruiting people."