Sunday, March 20, 2011

SXSW- Part 2, Anonymity and Creativity

Well, I've been back from Texas since Wednesday night, but some of the stuff at SXSW was just so cool/interesting that I'll probably be posting about it through this week or even beyond.  At the very least, I'd like to discuss the keynote speeches I was lucky enough to catch.

There were so many people at SXSW that I didn't think I'd be able to see the keynotes from the main room where they were actually taking place, especially since the organizers were expecting a large enough audience that they simulcast the speeches to eight or nine other rooms.  Somehow, I managed to get into the main ballroom for the two I really wanted to see-- Christopher Poole and Felicia Day.  Felicia Day is probably the more recognizable name of the two of these, but Chris Poole is equally successful and well-known on the Internet front-- just not by name.  Rather, he's known as "moot", the founder of, which he jokingly refers to as "the dark heart of the Internet" (before arguing against this perception).

If you haven't been on 4chan, don't go while at work or while with people that you don't want accidentally exposed to adult material.  The website itself is a very simple imageboard, where users can post and comment on pictures, but it allows them to be entirely anonymous.  4chan has become the spawning point for a number of Internet subcultures and memes (fads or trends, such as Rickrolling).  It's darker side has been manifested in Internet attacks, such as flooding the bandwidth of the Motion Picture Association of America's website in retaliation for their cyberattacks against The Pirate Bay, crashing the MPAA's website for a short period of time.  The community's members have also used their computer and hacking skills for positive results, such as tracking down a poster who was threatening to blow up his school and passing the information along to the police.  It's actually a pretty fascinating website to look at from a media studies perspective, just because its users are completely anonymous but still manage to exert a heavy influence on popular culture, other areas of the Internet, and people who irritate 4chan users.

I found Moot's talk really interesting, because while he recognized the more negative side of sites like 4chan, he expressed almost infinite faith in the potential of anonymity to be a positive thing.  Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote a book called "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet", where he argues that the difficulty of deleting information from the Internet means that all the mistakes and errors we commit in life will follow us forever.  With a permanent chronicle of our lives stored online, we no longer have the ability to reinvent ourselves by moving to a new place or by meeting new people.  This stifles experimentation and creativity, as our failures, like our mistakes, will also be linked to us permanently.  Moot's argument was that sites like 4chan, which allow users to be completely anonymous, can help make up for this, by giving people places to fail risk-free.  He saw them as places that can help breed creativity by decreasing the repercussions of trying something and having it not work out, as well as by allowing others to take, change and sometimes even improve upon original works.

This perspective actually correlates with some of the points I made in my undergraduate thesis, about balancing the right to free speech with the negative repercussions of anonymity.  Anonymity really does unlink identity and consequences, allowing people to make posts or put forward ideas that they might otherwise have stifled.  This is a positive thing when it means that, as mentioned above, people get multiple chances to try something without being deemed a failure, or when people who are surrounded by others who are unlike or disagree with them can share their viewpoints without being ostracized.  It's a less positive thing when it means that individuals can attack or libel one another with impunity.  Unfortunately, I don't know the best way to balance this, and I'm not sure anyone else does either.  I would, however, agree with moot that 4chan and similarly anonymous sites serve a purpose.

Moot also had a number of other ideas that I really liked, but including them would make this post way too long, so I think I'll save them for Wednesday.  For now, what do you think about 4chan, if you've experienced it in the past?  Is it useful, or just a spot for people to waste time and be offensive?  And how do you think open speech and civility can be balanced online?

(Also, if interested, moot's talk is actually up on YouTube in its entirety.  And the Austin Chronicle did an interesting article on 4chan during SXSW.  My favorite quote from it-- "Anonymity allows identity to exhale". )


  1. Hey, so I'm also writing about anonymity / virtual identity in my thesis at school. I'm focusing on analyzing identity technology as having certain values embedded within them. If you can think of good sources let me know, and...

    Where could I access your paper? I have like 60 sources, but I need more (tooo muchhh) and I'm interested in seeing your works cited. Oh! And I'm Katrina , a student in your game class last year. My email is KML6B


  2. For people unable to attend SXSW, moot also recorded a video at one of the TED conferences: Unfortunately, the "Canvas" stuff isn't covered (from your SXSW - Part 3 post) - I can't wait to see where that goes.