Lee Knuttila, anonymity, and the “fortuitous encounter”

Knuttila, Lee. “User unknown: 4chan, Anonymity, and Contingency.” First Monday: Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet16.10 (2011). N. pag. Web.

Oh, boy. This one has taken me FOREVER to go through.

On the one hand, I’m completely stoked to have another treatment of anonymity to draw on—the relationships between anonymity, pseudonymity and, well, nymity(?) are really important to studying how people build publics. On BroBible, for instance, the lack of identifiers in most of the comments meant that people were commenting first and foremost as bros—it placed the emphasis on collective identity. 4chan, of course, has come to stand in the minds of many as the apex (or nadir, I suppose) of anonymous community, and careful attention to the construction and implications of this culture is bound to be useful for me.

On the other hand, ontology.

Look, I’m not stupid. But when we start digging deep into theories of being, it can be hard for me to hold onto what was supposed to be doing the being in the first place.


Plus, you know, Nazis.

Let me try to summarize Knuttila’s project here. 4chan, in case anyone doesn’t know, is an anonymous message board that both generates many of the memes and cultural conventions circulating the Internet and serves as the originating point of the online vigilante collective Anonymous. Knuttila examines how the distinctive online experience of 4chan leads to a particular kind of contingent ontological encounter.

The way that community in online culture has generally been understood—particularly in the utopian view—is that by participating in a space for long enough, one establishes a persona/identity, whether it is actually connected to offline persona and identity or not. Through regular participation, certain people can establish more credibility than others, as we saw with Bill in Campbell’s discussion of skinheads. The entire record of a person’s engagements on the site stand as a kind of distributed identity even if there isn’t a profile in the social network sense. Even in a pseudonymous community, Knuttila writes, “there is a level of accountability, traceability, and reputation associated and attributed.”

Not so in anonymous spaces. As many have pointed out, anonymity reduces or completely eliminates personal responsibility or accountability in a given space, often bringing out the worst in people because they face no consequences for their actions. There is no social capital in anonymous spaces like 4chan because without persistent records or identifiers, there is no way of accumulating presence at all. On 4chan, those who do attempt to take on identifiers are ridiculed, sometimes even persecuted by the capricious and tech-savvy residents of the community.

One of the most unusual aspects of 4chan is its ephemerality—there is no archive as such. After a certain time, posts simply disappear. Further, Knuttila notes, responses shuttle through so quickly that the odds of any two people opening a discussion board to see the exact same discussion in front of them are infinitesimal. The fleeting and identity-free nature of 4chan combine to create what Knuttila terms an “encounter with anonymity.”

4chan isn’t a space that happens to have some internal contradictions (anarchy v. organization, cutting-edge v. atavistic, individual v. collective); it’s a space that is defined by those contradictions and instabilities. For Knuttila, central to this is the idea of contingency, defined here in its perhaps purest form as that which is “neither necessary nor impossible.” That is, participation in 4chan is a pure distillation of that which has not yet come to pass, but, at any given moment, could. Knuttila writes that on the site, contingency “simultaneously operates in the content”—appropriated and recontextualized images and texts lacking attribution—“and the mediated mode of being.”

As something becomes known it becomes less contingent—the example that Knuttila gives is that you could run into a stranger in a crowd of strangers, but “after the initial encounter contingency diminishes.” Simply by having seen a concrete face, “the unique expression of the other reveals itself in some sense.” I may be missing the point, but I think that Knuttila is pointing out that between the constant reappropriations of existing texts, the lack of identifiers and in inability to even be sure that one is seeing the same site as someone else, the level of contingency—of possibility, of potentiality—is much higher than almost anywhere else.

The contingency of 4chan generates the “fortuitous encounter” that, what with targeted advertising and the conflation of online and offline selves inherent in social network sites, is increasingly difficult to find. Despite its minimalist and seemingly retrograde architecture, then, 4chan’s interface is actually radical and resistant to many of the political forces shaping the internet as we know it. It creates when Knuttila describes as “a culture of automatic dissent,” in which nothing is sacred and anything can be challenged, scrutinized, or mocked.

In such circumstances, Knuttila says, focusing “not on the person, but the act, becomes one way to articulate the community: not the troll, but the act of trolling; not the joker, but the act of joking.” I suppose that in these circumstance, it is understandable why /b abounds with such frankly shocking and distasteful material—the content isn’t the point; the reaction is. And that reaction is contingent. I think. I think?

Oh, boy.

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