We've heard a lot of talk lately about the Facebook Revolution and the Twitter Revolution. So much talk, in fact, that without daily updates to the Libyan death roll and aerial photographs of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square, we might be tempted to believe that these protests are happening in 140 character increments.
But even acknowledging the media's tendency to fixate on new tech over old tactics, it's impossible to deny the impact of internet communication on the recent revolts. It's simply easier to organize and contact hundreds or thousands of individuals with social networking websites than it would be through old school means, such as phone banking or email lists. (Did I just call email old school? Wow.) It's also less hierarchical and socially demanding, allowing even casual participants to notify and invite others.
So, there's no doubt that Facebook, Twitter, et. al. would be instrumental to any large scale U. S. protest movement. Indeed, this is happening already, as anyone who has been involved in any of the numerous nationwide protests in solidarity with Wisconsin labor unions can attest.
But one major website has been neglected in all of this coverage: 4chan.
This is a photo from a protest in Wisconsin, courtesy of the 4chan comedy aggregator site Memebase. And there are more:
4chan memes seems like odd source material for protesters, and the home of captioned cats and dubious Japanese erotica seems like a strange place to find political dissent. But before you write these pictures off as simple jokes, there are two things you should keep in mind:
First, 4chan is reshaping our dialogue. If Facebook and Twitter have fundamentally changed how we speak to each other, then 4chan has fundamentally changed what we are saying. Social networking has altered the mediums we used to communicate, but 4chan has changed our language. Internet memes aren't just for irreverent instant messenger conversations anymore, they're part of the way a large portion of our population jokes, socializes and, yes, shares information, so of course they are going to become a part of our political dialogue.
So what does this mean for the prospect of radical American political change?
A few things:
1. Satire. Satire is often the language of political subversion, and 4chan has become the new home of satire. Expect to see politically satirical memes begin to join music, literature, and other old forms of comedic dissent.
2. Insider vs. Outsider. Generally, dissenters use language to distinguish between friend and foe. Skim through protest historical movements, and you'll generally find that this is true. It may seem ridiculous now, but what we see an inane hippie-speak today, had real value among student protesters during the Civil Rights era, making it easier to protect the movements from infiltrators. I imagine if a sizable protest movement arose among contemporary young adults, mimetic conversation would serve this role.
3. The culture of 4chan is already subversive. I'll get into this in more depth in the second part of this article, but for now let's just look at the kind of content that is encoded in many memes. Yes, it's true that some of it is just cute cats. But popular memes also take on religion, politics, and sexuality. Let's not forget Pedobear. Memes have become a way to repackage controversial information as less confrontational winks and nudges.
And we haven't even begun to talk specifically about /b/, 4chan's uncensored, largely unmoderated dark side. And it's within /b/ that you find my second point: Anonymous. But there is enough to say about Anonymous to warrant a fresh blog post. Expect that post, part II of this series, shortly.