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moot points about free speech

-We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog to bring you these thoughts-

EDIT: This post is not going to make any sense to my older audience, at least not at first. Rest assured, I do get to a larger point about free speech later on.

I consider myself to be a pretty savvy internet user. I know where to find movies and TV shows streaming within hours of their airing, which is a huge benefit considering the free streaming sites in the US that are legal do not work outside the states (I would be using Hulu ALL THE TIME if this was the case). I am pretty familiar with internet memes, and know how to spot a RickRoll. I have a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, a blog, and am a regular presence on a message board and several other blogs. The double rainbow meme was already annoying me before it broke on the internet at large.

It sort of goes without saying - I know my way around.

It also goes without saying though that there are also several areas of the internet I know nothing of, and it's of one of these that I would like to spew some thoughts today.

I'm almost frightened to mention it, because the first two rules of this certain imageboard (a board created for posting jpegs and gifs) are, in classic Fight Club style, "Do not talk about /b/." and "You do NOT talk about /b/."

But today, I am going to talk about it. "/b/" (pronounced "bee") is the well known section of a certain notorious website known as 4chan. 4chan was developed in 2003 by a 15 year old kid, as an English copy of a Japanese web format. There's a whole lot more background than that, but for the sake of discussion, I'm going to skip to the important points.

The important things to know about 4chan is that it 1. Has 700,000 posts a day, and 2. Is almost completely anonymous. It's anonymity is part of the massive draw - you can say virtually anything, with almost no repercussions (though I must say there have been cases where someone threatening to blow up an airport or something as a joke was caught and prosecuted by the FBI, so there are some limits). /b/ is by far the more popular section of the site - it is the "random" board and the one where pretty much anything goes.

"Anything goes," in the internet age, translates to virulent racism, lots and lots of porn, and lots and lots of gore. "moot," the now 22 year old who founded the site, refers to this corner of the internet as "unbridled free speech," a last bastion of sorts in an era where everyone knows everything about everyone else. In the safety of 4chan's anonymity, you can spew angry thoughts about your coworkers or boss, rant about the gay/black/latino/pick your poison groups at your school, and, yes, caption cat pictures.

(Yes, that's right, 4chan invented the LOLcat).

Here's the problem, if you haven't spotted it already: the issue with completely "unbridled free speech" is that it only functions positively when it happens among mature adults who realize that what they say has consequences. The anonymity and lack of policing on /b/, combined with a massive amount of teenagers who lie about their age to get around the board's supposed 18+ restriction results, often, in actions being taken too far, in harassing people and shutting down whole websites. Part of the reason I was afraid to post my thoughts about /b/ was the idea of a 4chan member picking up on it and running with it.

When we encourage free speech and anonymity at the same time, we get this weird, non-real world vortex where what you say has no consequence, and you can spew whatever. Most of the time that's pretty harmless, and I'd be willing to bet most people on /b/ are pretty normal people with a weird sense of humor. But, anonymity and an overly emphasized concern for my "free speech" is what results in riots, is what results in hate speech and hate crimes, is something that is a dangerous combination.

Free speech only really works if you understand what it means to say something and have it mean something. The anonymity and lack of consequences on 4chan also is a double edged sword: while it has led to some awesome expression and some pretty damn hilarious stuff, it also means that what you say never means anything real. When it comes down to it, you're an anonymous person in his mom's basement trolling an 11 year old girl. Those who hide behind the veil of both free speech and anonymity are cowards unable to face the consequences for their actions.

Is that really what we want to use free speech for?

Blog inspired by this:

-back to your regularly scheduled blog now-


  1. Utterly wrong, although well meant. The moment it's impossible to post anonymously, it's impossible to guarantee free speech.

    The price we pay is that human debris like the people who post on 4chan get to post. Life's not fair. The moment 4chan has to use a trackable ID to post is the moment when it's no longer safe to dissent. You trust Bush or Obama's people not to start taking notes if some whistleblower starts making waves? Not me. Once the power is there, and anonymous posting is illegal, then it will eventually be used for reasons you don't agree with.

    And I'm anonymous because my employer might not be too happy with some of the things I say.

  2. Anonymity does occasionally have it's place, but it's stupid to assume that things that one says have no consequences. Being unable to attribute things that are said to the sources that they come from seems, to me, to divorce them from meaning.

    I'm thinking about it this way: I'm a literature person. Part of the way of divining meaning from a text is looking at who wrote it. Knowing Lewis' journey as a atheist/Christian opens up meaning behind what he meant in Narnia. Knowing that JKRowling worked for Amnesty Int'l in her 20s, and is a strong supporter of the Labour party in Britain gives the books a new interesting meaning (one which I explored in my MA thesis).

    Anonymity between people in a discussion only goes so far because you can't otherwise understand where a person is coming from. Sure, whistle blowers, etc, do need anonymous protection, but that's not remotely what happens at 4chan. They aren't uncovering and revealing government conspiracies to Woodward and Bernstein like Deep Throat. They're having discussions on an internet message board, and anonymity prevents the discussion from going very far because no one can know where the other is coming from.

    For example, you: I have no clue who you are, so I don't know how to address you - whether or not you are a person I have never met, or a frequent reader of the blog. I don't know how much you may know about me - whether or not you know I am a person living in Japan after recently acquiring a Master's in English or not. I don't know if you know that I am a Christian, and a rather liberal one at that. Because you know nothing of my history, having a discussion directly with you is made very hard because I don't know what sort of things you identify with, and what sort of things to say to make you see my side.

    See how anonymity tends to stunt the real discussions we want to have?

    (Speaking of which, if you're comfortable, you don't have to post who you are, but feel free to email me:

  3. I think people can discuss things just fine without knowing each others' background. This is not literature, and the points about free speech stand or fall on their own. It might be interesting to know my background, but knowing that might also predispose you to deciding you know "why she said X" and therefore not really thinking about X. The important point to me is why removing anonymity can do harm, not being analyzed for the reasons I personally think it's important.

    On to the point:
    Anonymity allows non-pc, non-approved messages to get out without fear of reprisal or harassment. And it is often abused.
    But just because some people are abusing a right is no reason to remove it from the rest of us. The KKK get to march despite their despicable views, and some of us see this as a fair price to pay for the right to assemble...and yes, they get to wear their coward-hoods.

    I agree that 4chan is awful, but how do you shut them down or remove anonymity from them without also doing the same for everyone else? We do not all live in countries where the police will protect us from reprisals. Seems increasingly like very few of us do! So what happens to whistleblowers? Human rights activists?

    Should people have to register for an anonymous account or sign up as an official whistleblower? Can you believe for a moment that their information would not be mined by people with money and influence? In the last presidential campaign, a private figure who made a comment that became famous had his driver's license records and state and local tax records revealed despite their private nature.

    And I have to ask this: why should 4chan's anonymity be removed (as a means of "neutering" its worst aspects) just because we don't like it? We don't have to go there, we don't have to troll through the filth. The idea that it must be eradicated just because it's repulsive and we don't like it is dangerous...anything that someone doesn't like is then a target.

  4. I think you are misinterpreting my larger point, and not reading what I'm actually saying.

    Anonymity should be protected in many situations - whistleblowers, etc. But rampant, unbridled free speech only functions on a positive level when it is employed by mature adults with the ability to think through their actions to full consequence, and thus be willing to take responsibility for them. What moot created with 4chan was not a means to create discussion of serious subjects wherein just words could be considered, but a means in which people could say anything they wanted without consequence or ever having to own up to the real meaning of what they say.

    When we have that, it stunts any possible real discussion that we can have on basically any issue. And I would argue that the points about free speech do not stand or fall on their own, and knowing the background behind the person speaking extends far beyond just "literature."

    Example: A teacher friend of mine was very fond of taking a particular persuasive section of Mein Kampf, remove author and detail, and hand it to her freshmen to read. More often than not, the freshmen would agree with what Hitler had to say, because it, on its own, was very persuasive. But, divorced from context, it came to mean something entirely different than his original intent.

    Divorced from context and author, we end up with massive amounts of interpretation (like what happened here - I don't believe I ever once advocated the shutting down of 4chan entirely...I was merely using it as an example to point out the larger point that "free speech" and anonymity don't mix too well because free speech requires a basic understanding of what it means to speak).

    Basically, anonymity has its place. In a discussion about the larger ideas and what shapes our world, it is important not only for ourselves to be aware of what has shaped us, but for those we are discussing with to know how we came to the conclusions we did. Lack of anonymity can actually *add* persuasiveness to an issue.


The owner of this blog tolerates no form of hate speech, including racial slurs, citing stereotypes as fact, or anything else deemed intolerant or hateful by the blog author. While you may have a right to say it, it does nothing to advance productive discussion, and therefore any comment containing such speech will be deleted accordingly.