The ‘Rules of the Internet’ Reflect an Online Wild West That’s Fading Away
"If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions."
An attempt to enforce "rules of the internet" would almost inevitably be doomed to failure.
Fitting, then, that very few of the rules of the internet make sense.
Originally circulating on Internet Relay Chat, an early draft of a list titled "Rules of the Internet" was posted in 2006 to Encyclopedia Dramatica (a consistently offensive, though dazzlingly thorough archive of online life). However it was not until February 15, 2007, ten years ago, that the rules surfaced on 4chan, where they were overhauled and rewritten, and archived as the list we know today.
"The rules" are not really rules, but a series of in-jokes and allusions, along with the (rare) piece of useful advice. Together they comprise a slipshod Magna Carta, authored by no one, self-contradicting, snarky and sincere, encompassing everything and nothing in online life.
Here 4chan—or at least, 4chan back in 2007—wears its influences on its grubby sleeve: there are references to South Park, the Habbo Hotel raids (a 2006 incident where /b/ users blockaded the game en masse), Fight Club (Rules 1 and 2: "Do not talk about /b/") and the cake from Portal, which you probably know by now not to trust. The list would also spawn a further meme, the infamous Rule 34 (" If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.").
Ten years on, how should we regard the rules of the internet? Are they still useful? Were they ever useful?
As a constitution, the rules were always doomed to failure (Rule 15: " The harder you try the harder you will fail"). But they remain important as a document of online culture, created by 4chan's anonymous founding fathers.
Note the use of "fathers", here—in the Rules women are quite literally erased, not only from 4chan but the internet entirely. Perhaps the most glaring dated item on the list, Rule 30, " There are no girls on the internet," can be read two different ways—the first being that there are literally no girls on the internet, only men pretending to be girls, so if someone indicates an interest in you, the (presumably male, heterosexual) internet user, you have every reason to be suspicious.
The second interpretation—that the internet is no place for girls, that it's too mean and obscene and dangerous—demonstrates a misogyny too ludicrous and childish to even be threatening (to this author at least). But it raises questions: was there ever a time when there were assumed to be no girls on the internet? Was the line meant as a joke, or as a product of the delusion that the internet was–is–a boy's club? And if so, when issued with demands for "tits or GTFO" (Rule 31) to prove herself, what woman would be crazy enough to post topless photos? (Also—I've always wondered—could you post pictures of someone else instead?) Joke or not, to this day 4chan is regarded by many as a misogynistic place, its overlap with movements including Gamergate and more recently the Alt-Right doing little to dispel the impression.
The Rules date from a time when mainstream culture was still handling the internet with tweezers.
Still, a lot can change in ten years. A decade ago, 4chan was still creeping into the public consciousness with acts of wrath and scrappy decency. Nearing the end of its "Halcyon Days," the site had yet to birth the "Internet Hate Machine" and its tulpa, Donald Trump.
The Rules date from a time when mainstream culture was still handling the internet with tweezers, a time when we needed cringey guides to "netiquette" to shepherd us through online life. That "rules of the internet" would come into existence, however insincere, is telling: even 4chan's users were dazzled by this world and its feral possibilities. The rules betray a sense of novelty and elation–—that there could be porn of anything was kind of mind-blowing.
Christopher Poole, who founded 4chan (later selling it to Hiroyuki Niskimura in 2015) mentions the Rules in his TED talk, observing how users ignored the official 4chan guidelines in favour of the list. Today there are multiple versions of the Rules—some are longer, numbering 100 or even 1,000 (a site, rulesoftheinternet.com, was created back in 2007 to collect new rules via public submission, though it is only the first 47 which are regarded as canon).
Over the years they've been rewritten and reworked, evolving and devolving like Chinese whispers (Rule 43: " The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it"). Some rules remain current, others feature references so dated even otaku might have difficulty remembering them ('Needs more cowbell', anyone? Or what about 2007's botched campaign to 'Bring Back Snacks'?)
Few if any the rules were successfully enforced, begging the question, did they count for anything in the first place?
To which the answer is… kind of?
Today the Rules are a stale meme compendium, a time capsule of jokes which fell into the hands of marketers and normies. We don't make Chuck Norris jokes anymore, we try not to question people's genders, and we don't often mention cats (it's all about the doggos now).
But we do talk about /b/, more and more in mainstream culture. And those Chuck Palahniuk references never went away—they evolved into "the Red Pill", the dubious online "men's rights" movement, and their talk of "special snowflakes" who are too easily offended by harmless free speech. Parts of the list have proven oddly prophetic, not least Rule 19: " The more you hate it, the stronger it gets", on which public figures have built careers in trolling.
Is it time for new rules? I would argue not. Even within the last ten years, social media has been sanitized. Real names are used, as are real identities, and language and content are monitored and censored. This has its advantages—there are more girls on the internet now, and potentially fewer creeps (" a cat is fine too ….").
But it also means, more and more, that the rules of the internet are written for us. They're contained in terms and conditions, iron-clad, created to defend corporations rather than users. Rule 235, "PROFIT!", seems truer than ever today, but the profit is not for us. The internet is tamer now. It is also, quite likely, more boring.
On a site without an archive, the Rules of the Internet have—partly—endured. Yes they're hideously out of date, but they're worth archiving and remembering.
There are lessons we can still take from the rules of the internet. Lurk moar, ignore the trolls, and remember that nothing is to be taken seriously.