Social Media Sociology
After spending a great deal of time on fringe sites and within conspiracy communities, it is interesting to note the differences and similarities between the demographics of small forums with specialized interests and huge notorious social media powerhouses such as Tumblr, 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook.
First off, you have what the 4chan community would call the most “normie” of the bunch – Facebook. Facebook is a community that is primarily comprised of people that you know in real life. There are exceptions to this, of course, but most people with Facebook accounts accept friend requests from only people they either know in real life or who are acquainted with people they know in real life. The consequence of having a friend community of people who know you in real life is that the internet’s famous effect of anonymity is significantly less powerful. You will be held accountable by real life friends and family for status updates and pictures posted. Compared to other forms of social media, you are more likely to prune your self image to keep in line to the mask you wear in public – you probably know that potential employers, or current employers, could be keeping an eye on what you post (and if you don’t post with this fact in mind, you really ought to).
Twitter is probably the second most prone to normality biases. By its nature, twitter is supposed to be a place where you use your name to impress other people. But unlike Facebook, Twitter is somewhere between a mini-blog and personality press. There is an inherent pressure with Twitter to create a captivating personality and win followers, but there is no inherent pressure that your personality needs to correlate to your public persona – there is nothing that prevents you from establishing an alter ego there. On the other side of the coin, if you have a big name (think those blue “verified” check-marks that establish you are the person you say you are) the things that you say on twitter become important and often become more a matter of public commodity then even Facebook – unlike Facebook, which is self-toted as the “friends and family” social media, Twitter is “the public’s” social media – it’s a place where you sell your face and “tweets” (short, concise thoughts and maybe a picture) on the stock exchange of “likes” and “retweets” for the commodity of social capital (such as followers). While Twitter does not intrinsically tell its users when others “unfollow” them, there are various apps which provide that information, and which any dedicated Twitter user is likely to take advantage of to see who they should, in turn, “unfollow”.
Twitter, among the social media powerhouses, appears to me on hunch the most relatively generalized in terms of political bias, age range, and audience diversity. That being said, it is still a social media “blog” in the age of the internet – I believe that inherently gives it a slight favoritism towards the liberal and younger as opposed to the conservative and older (a noticeable exception to this trend: 4chan – both conservative and younger). Most “big names” and celebrities have an “official” twitter account, and people in our society with a lot of social clout can be most easily distinguished on twitter by referring to the number of followers they have versus the number of people they’ve followed. A celebrity is going to have a ratio of people being followed that is fractional compared to the amount of people following them – even relatively minor celebrities, such as people who reserve clout only within certain tiny ‘scenes’, seem to preserve this trend on a much smaller scale (they have hundreds they are following versus thousands following them, compared to a mainstream celebrity who is following a few hundred thousand versus being followed by many millions). On the other hand, you can tell those who have ‘strong-armed’ a large number of followers by banking on the “reciprocity” rule of sociology; in twitter terms, this translates to: “I follow back”. Having 200,000 followers while following 200,000 does not make a social media mogul – there are plenty of “follow trains” on twitter promising hundreds of followers for those who observe the golden rule of “I follow back”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean anything for them; most of their “followers” have twitter streams populated entirely by advertisements for follow chains, and any whom were un-followed would likely return the favor before the end of the day, perhaps bringing droves of ‘dummy’ accounts with them. The actual purpose here, of sharing words and having them be recognized, liked, and retweeted, does not actually prove functional to users who get followers with this method.
Reddit is probably the first place that I think of when considering the largely male, somewhat anonymous, teen to thirties demographic. First of all, Reddit shares many qualities with general forum communities – you need a username, and anonymous posting isn’t allowed, so on the face you’re forced to establish an identity. However, the community that populates Reddit is generally going to be a group of people you don’t know in real life, and there isn’t a “friending” system which encourages you to group up with others you know in real life. Rather, Reddit is subdivided into boards that are specialized based on interest. There is absolutely a forum of social clout which is introduced here, but it is actually held accountable to a “karma” system of currency in the form of “upvotes” and “downvotes”. Stories shared have karma scores, and so do individual comments within the stories (what you may call a thread). Things that are well-liked, or “upvoted”, are pushed to the top of the page – stuff that is generally disliked or performs neutrally is pushed down – things that are widely disliked may be cornered to the “controversial” tab of the page. Within the individual threads, Reddit’s comment system allows comments to be deleted if they receive enough downvotes indicating unpopularity.
This system of karma encourages users to share their opinions, but in another way it also encourages conformity by introducing a system of punishment for controversial or unpopular thoughts. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, your identity on Reddit is not likely to have real-life consequences known among friends or family, but you are nonetheless posting with a static username that is going to be known among Reddit users of your subboard and affiliated with your previous posts and work. You don’t have total anonymity or a “release” of responsibility for the things you say. You also have a tangible means of judging what is well-received and what isn’t, even if the reasons why seem quite unclear. I believe you are not going to see the “ballsack” of the internet on Reddit, the way you would see it on an anonymous board like 4chan or GLP. People won’t fully remove their masks with a system of karma in place like Reddit’s, which has both upsides and downsides. For one thing, you can avoid the level of blatant cruelty or offensiveness that you see on places where the ability to completely remove yourself from your identity is available. But you also won’t see an entirely unmitigated or honest picture of what people think, because they are afraid of being downvoted or unpopular. You are going to see more conformity. From what I’ve observed, nerdiness is rewarded on Reddit, or breadth of knowledge about the topic of the sub-board.
Now let’s talk about a personal favorite of mine, 4chan. I enjoy 4chan because it’s a little more interesting then some of the others, and has a bit of more unique culture and backstory, in addition to being the origin of some well known groups such as the hacker collective “anonymous” – won’t touch on that here, it’s been done to death by others in books and documentaries and rather well. 4chan is anonymous, unlike many other social media powerhouses, and posting with an identity is actively discouraged unless you have some kind of special clout within the community or have done something that actively deserves recognition or requires it. To give an example, I am a serial browser of 4chan’s pokemon subboard, /vp/. A user with the “trip” lurantis (the name of a new pokemon) recently leaked the new pokemon game, Pokemon Moon, ten days before its release. His tripcode was revered – for obvious reasons. He’d done something very significant for the board as a whole.
While posting on 4chan, you have a couple of options – you can put a name in the name field, but obviously that alone does not identify you, as others could easily imitate you by using the same name. To “log in” (of sorts) what you need to do is put a name in the name field followed by either one or two hashtags (##) and a password. That password will generate a unique string of numbers followed by either one or two exclamation points – one for one hashtag and two for two hashtags. The number of hashtags to use determines how strong the encryption generated on the password is. The system thus described is known as a “tripcode”, and people who post with trips without having a reason to are called “tripfags”.
Understanding the way that anonymity separates 4chan from other places online is important, because I believe that anonymity differentiates the 4chan culture substantially from sites like Reddit (the “upvote”/”downvote” system of reddit voting would be despised by a place like 4chan, who is loudly offensive and proud of their vocal honesty). 4chan despises ‘leddit‘ , but they despise tumblr even more, mostly because of tumblr’s propensity to back social justice warriors. Places like Twitter are general enough in diversity of opinion and breadth that they don’t receive much flacc from 4chan either way (and are quoted, sometimes unironically).
Despite being anonymous, there is still a strong pressure to conform. Users who post with a tripcode inappropriately or display invalid appreciations for inside jokes (like memes) are called out as “newfags” (which nobody there wants to be called). Truthfully, if you admit to being a part of 4chan for any less long then since the formation of the place, you are probably liable to be called a newfag by somebody. Being called out is part of the process of how users on 4chan learn the culture and expectations of the imageboard – what to say and what is liable to get you trolled and laughed at by the multitudes of anonymous hoard. Desire to be on the inside of the inside joke is a strong conformity factor on 4chan, sometimes leading to literally identical but disparate responses by users within threads – the “hivemind” effect.
I’m not a longtime 4chan browser – I’m what you’d call a “newfag”. It would be far outside my expertise to explain all the nuances of 4chan culture, which is necessarily involved and exclusive. I will say that, from what I’ve noticed, 4chan largely perceives itself as being male 18+ (if you say you are female, you will be memed and asked for boobs). It is more of a Nazi about underage posters then most other places online – underage is a “callout” insult used for stupid responses (“underage detected”) and if you actually have the audacity to confess to being under the age of 18 and browsing there, you will likely be reported to a moderator. It seems odd that a board of pirates and self-described tech savvies (or as they’ve coined the conjugation of – ‘autist’ – for autistic one) would be so eager to punish people for browsing outside the site’s intended age scope, but 4chan has a sort of a self-delight in its ‘badness’ and they are eager to exclude. Like Reddit, 4chan perceives itself as mostly male and 18-30ish, but in reality (and also like Reddit) it is probably both male and female and 14-40ish.
4chan creates a lot of content, including memes and images, and is responsible for a lot of internet culture, and also the idea of ‘memetics’ – they noticed that there is an Egyptian God in the pantheon named ‘kek’ – a god responsible for overseeing darkness – and as ‘Kek’ happens to be a meme way for saying ‘lol’ in 4chan terms, they (note – Ironically) worship ‘Kek’ (whom, as I mentioned in my Trump Article, they see as [note – ironically] responsible for the victory of their chosen overlord). The political board of 4chan (probably more diverse in terms of age and demographic then the other boards) – aptly named ‘politically incorrect’ – is noticeably conservative in ideology and despises “Social Justice Warriorism” – feminism, race tolerance, and rights of any kind – but nothing that they despise more then “muh [insert]-sensitivity”. Privately, I suspect many of them are more tolerant then they let on, and probably more prone to visiting Reddit and Tumblr then they’d care to admit, but you won’t see many “Anons” advertising it on 4chan.
I enjoy 4chan for pure shock value and entertainment value alone, but you are likely to see people let down their masks here. Since threads are temporary, and archived once they either hit a specified response limit or are ignored for long enough, there is sort of a ‘double-anonymity’ effect of amplification in play. Not only are the users themselves anonymous, but the threads they are posting on are (relatively, since they can be found with a google search) transitory. This means you truly see levels of degeneracy you wouldn’t encounter elsewhere. It is unique even from places like Godlikeproductions, which at least has a user and karma system where many are deliberately held accountable for what they say and threads aren’t intrinsically transitory.
There is a lot of outright porn and monsterous sentiment and offensive stuff that is shared. There is some (relatively speculative) evidence that the Oregan school shooter warned 4chan of his plans –
but the reality was probably even worse (see: “How 4chan Trolled Two of Its Friends by Framing Them for the Oregon Mass Shooting “)
That’s 4chan in a nutshell. They are trolls and delighted in that fact. The season 20 arc of South Park which spotlights troll culture is almost decidedly a description of 4chan at large. It is also worth noting that 4chan still has this idea of itself as a minor, fringe entity which is not the case. Millions of visitors and several documentaries later, the true “fringe” of 4chan probably moved off the site many many years ago. But the culture remains, and it is pretty funny.
To wrap this up neatly, while they certainly differ, all internet communities are probably less special then they believe. All of them are subject to psychological and sociological pressures that influence networks and groups in day-to-day life, but due to the unique nature of the internet, these pressures are warped and changed depending on the formation and structure of the community. None are immune from our social nature as human beings, as the internet in its essence is a social and interconnected creation – arguably even a singularity. None are exempt from examination by others – and as time goes on, the internet threatens only to become more interconnected and overgrown – not less.