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Is 4chan Malicious or Misguided? ‘The Antisocial Network’ Sees Both Sides

Netflix via SXSW
Netflix via SXSW

Growing up in the mid-aughts, when posting and/or lurking on internet forums became a veritable hobby, I found that the forums I’d read—often about pop culture, video games, or anime—would parrot a similar line: Everything on the internet originated in their communities. The belief was that even something as niche as a forum about Nintendo Wii games or Cartoon Network could take credit for a widely shared meme, if its community members believed they said it, saw it, or shared it first. It made the internet, so vast and unknowable, feel so much more intimate, small, and private. And at the same time, it felt empowering: We smallest of people, we nerdiest of nerds, could make some impact, even if it was just seeing random people on Facebook share a goofy drawing of a Pokémon that we believed to have made and shared first.

I thought of all this while watching The Antisocial Network, an engrossing documentary that premiered March 10 at SXSW Film Festival. (It will stream on Netflix in April.) Tracking the explosive rise of 4chan, the film spotlights the best-known example of an internet forum bleeding out beyond its own bounds and into real life. And 4chan did much more than generate memes and even a new form of speaking online, both of which it did infinite times: It made a tangible, real-world impact, one that became shockingly political, criminal, and unstoppable.

The Antisocial Network marks the second sociological study of the internet from co-directors Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones, following 2020’s Feels Good Man. Like that film, which followed the bizarre evolution of the Pepe the Frog meme from innocuous comic to alt-right calling card, this doc threads the needle between appealing to those viewers well-versed in all things internet and those who know 4chan best as the birthplace of QAnon. It’s both nostalgic and illuminating to recall the image board’s more humble beginnings in 2003, as a lo-fi image board for anime fans to share fan art and talk about their favorite shows. Journalists and actual power users of the forum tell 4chan’s story from a personal standpoint, waxing nostalgic about how exciting it was to have a place where they could anonymously—a keyword here!—create personas for themselves, ones that were “an inverse of how I was in real life,” as a user who goes by Fuxnet explains.

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Angelini and Jones combine their talking head narration with a swift and at times hilarious barrage of memes, GIFs, and forum posts for further color, bolstered by glitchy animation to convey the highly digital playground where much of the story is staged. But the flashy Dragon Ball Z and Naruto images eventually give way to something darker as the internet begins to bleed into real life. 4chan slowly became a harbinger of collective action, which started off appropriately goofy: In 2006, a group of users swarmed the avatar-based socializing game Habbo Hotel en masse after rumors swirled that the website banned avatars of people of color. Creating Black characters with Afros and wearing suits , they would gather in some of the game’s most frequently visited spots—particularly a pool area—and prevent anyone from playing there. But what was mildly annoying to people online eventually became annoying to people offline, as the group decided to replicate their efforts to actual pools. This on- and offline meme-turned-“raid” became known as “Pool’s Closed,” and The Antisocial Network cites it as the beginning of Anonymous.

Anonymous has become a well-known vigilante group to a large swath of non-4chan users for its large-scale actions, many of which involved targeting large corporations and places of power. But, as The Antisocial Network reminds us, it was born from a place of trolling. Fuxnet and other power-users at the time, like the pink-haired Kirtaner, Gregg Housh, and Jeremy Hammond, who was later sentenced to 10 years in jail for calling attention to his work hacking power players like Rupert Murdoch during Occupy Wall Street, recount stories of the intoxicating effect of pissing off everyone from white nationalists to major corporations. (Memorably, they often wore V for Vendetta-style Guy Fawkes masks while doing it, to render themselves an unknowable mass.) But this “merry band of chaos-makers,” as Kirtaner called them, eventually collapsed under the fear of what happened to Hammond.

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But that bubble was blown back up sooner than later, and in much more malicious ways. Rumormongers eventually turned their (perhaps ill-considered) social justice campaigns into harassment efforts, as the film emphasizes. Yes, 4chan did some funny things like getting Oprah to read “over 9,000 penises” on television and sending a Nazi radio host to jail, as well as helping galvanize the 99-percenters. But it also instigated Gamergate and, later, the ridiculous amount of misinformation that arguably helped Donald Trump walk away with a victory in 2016. It also helped inspire more fringe and dangerous knockoffs that encouraged and validated people like Dylann Roof. The amount of archival footage, combined with the impressively involved collection of talking heads—the film also features interviews with Fredrick Brennan, founder of the even more toxic 4chan-spinoff 8chan, and former YouTube QAnon truther Isaac H.P., who range from seemingly unbothered to apologetic about their participation in objectively terrible online social movements—renders The Antisocial Network a gripping watch.

The film does eventually tread what feels like overly familiar, if necessary, territory in its last stretch. Perhaps this is recency bias, but it feels like there is little more to add to the discussion of the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots in 2024 that hasn’t already been probed by countless other docs. Here, however, the strong connective tissue helps make that part of the story feel relevant, if not particularly exciting. And talking to someone like Kappy, who was integral to QAnon’s rise, makes for a more interesting watch than just hearing from those who joined in on the conspiracy later on.

Even if the political discussion feels more repetitive than additive, however, The Antisocial Network ultimately feels like a vital watch. For over 20 years, 4chan has undoubtedly been one of the most important places on the internet. For its own users to help tell the story of its rise and dramatic descent feels right, necessary, and instructive. We may never be able to stop something as strong as Anonymous from cultivating a hotbed of hate and mission of misinformation—but this film also serves as a reminder that perhaps its power can be harnessed for better, if not outright “good.” It’s easy to be nihilistic about the internet, and the film often veers into that territory; even its creator, known as Moot, had to abandon the site due to its toxicity and encourage users to “touch grass.” But it importantly reminds us that the internet is hardly small or private—so let this to be a cautionary tale in the face of a better future.

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