The Wheel of 4Chan

Online community gets spin from Fox to Anonymous

For some, like Fox News, the online community known as “4chan” is a terrorist training camp. For others, including a growing cadre of Sonoma County teens?particularly those who are male, live with their parents and are practiced in navigating the backwaters of the web?4chan is a graffiti-tagged playground where the proverbial soapboxes of free speech are stacked like an endless game of Jenga.

“It depends on where you go,” said an 18-year-old Sonoma man, who, like the de facto identity setting when one logs on to, prefers to remain anonymous. “Some places are the armpit of the internet; other places are a great place to share information, photos and generally waste time.”

In its current iteration, the board offers little more in the way of user interface than the assiduously utilitarian Craigslist. Though 4chan may look like a reliquary for ancient HTML code, it functions as the primordial soup from which many of the internet’s memes erupt virally into public consciousness, from Rick-rolling (punking people with cloaked links to a certain Rick Astley video) to “LOL cats,” photos of kitties captioned with poor grammar (and later the cornerstone of a media empire launched Ben Huh, who was featured here in May).

Like much of the internet’s quirkier mutations, 4chan was birthed in the bedroom of a 15-year-old high school student. It’s putative father, the now 22-year-old Christopher Poole, who uses the online handle “moot,” sought to create an American version of the popular Japanese board, Futaba Channel, which itself was an offshoot of 2channel, another Japanese site thought to be the largest online forum in the world. 4chan offers a bevy of forum topics, from Japanese culture and creative pursuits (origami, art criticism, fashion) to weapons and the paranormal and, predictably, most shades of pornography, animated and otherwise.

As with any community, 4chan has its own culture and protocols with different permutations for each topic forum. It even has an orientation procedure of a sort. According to the Sonoma teen, most people begin their 4chan odyssey in a forum simply called “/B/.”

“If you’re in /B/, you’re probably an immature asshole. Most people who start out in /B/ are about between the ages of 11 and 18, like my age, and it can go higher and lower, but it doesn’t really matter,” the teen explained. “It’s just the way it works?it’s like your growing-up period. It’s that stage of puberty.”

It follows then that one’s online pubescence comes besotted with juvenile humor, especially as regards the use of one’s identity.

“If you put a name in the name field, you’re called ‘name fag,’ which most users don’t mind. They’re usually not douche bags or people who are likely to get flamed,” explained the Sonoman, who made ample apologies for the board’s use of hate language. First timers are advised to “lurk,” online parlance for lingering in a forum and absorbing its ethos before eventually daring to post something. The blowback for not respecting the culture of a board can result in an online tongue-lashing or worse.

Some 4chan participants, under the loose moniker “Anonymous” (what else?), have allegedly organized campaigns of harassment against organizations and individuals that have raised its ire. Last month, the group virtually shut down, swamping the massive aggregate’s servers. Last spring, Brian Mettenbrink of Nebraska was sentenced to a year in federal prison and ordered to pay $20,000 in restitution to the Church of Scientology after being convicted of participating in such cyber-attacks. Other allegations have been lobbed at the group, which isn’t so much an organized body as a highly motivated evolutionary offshoot of crowd-sourcing.

Perhaps someday their collective energies will further coalesce and spring new variations on activism, protest or even candidacy. Until then, as the Sonoman explained, “We’re basically the quintessential geek culture, you know.”

But it’s the geeks who shall inherit the earth.

Your Friendly, Neighborhood Sonoma-Man

Superheroes have long cloaked themselves in the inky vestments of media – what better way for Superman and Spider-Man to moonlight? Their respective gigs as reporter Clark Kent and photographer Peter Parker keep them in the field where they’re available to deter dastardly deeds, vanquish villains and keep the karmic balance of metropoleis the world over. If the super-heroes aren’t keeping media day-jobs, their girlfriends are – Batman could always count on his main squeeze, Vicky Vale, to get the gossip to Gotham. If Superman missed a deadline, Lois Lane always had the straight dope. Superheroes and media are like chocolate and peanut butter – or, as we say in Sonoma – prosciutto and melon.

Given the surfeit of media in our small town, it’s a wonder that Sonoma hasn’t revealed itself to be a haven for superheroes (it’s of note that crime-fighting comic strip heroine-reporter Brenda Starr was hatched by Dale Messick, late of Oakmont). Odds are that one or more of our fine media mavens boasts some order of secret identity and has used it for the common good (though the notion if music columnist James Marshall Berry in tights might technically be an act of evil-doing).

The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a database containing “conflicting images of the journalist in film, television, radio, fiction, commercials, cartoons, comic books, music, art,” currently features 357 references to the query “superhero.” Run by the Norman Lear Center at University of Southern California, Annenberg, the online resource is overseen by scholar Joe Saltzman who recently opined in an interview:

“A reporter is an obvious disguise for a superhero because it puts the superhero right in the thick of the news and gives him or her an opportunity to know what is going on in the city, the country and the world … It is no surprise that the most enduring image of the journalist is the Daily Planet family – Clark Kent (Superman), Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen.”

It’s a gratifying sentiment for sure, which, for me, leads inevitably to the notion of which super-personae my colleagues might portray. With the risk of inadvertently outing one or more of their alter-egos, I won’t task-the-mask with spurious speculation but rather envision what superheroes Sonoma needs to remedy its particular evils.

For example, The Spork, also known as the Culinary Conundrum, might just be the avenging angel of local comestibles. It’s not uncommon that a guileless gastronome must be rescued from the evils of “epidrearia,” when local foodstuffs aren’t up to snuff. Moreover, the Spork must avenge Vinoman, who was offed by the evil Stain, a once mild-mannered wine writer who transforms into a burgundy-hued hellion when he imbibes his secret elixir – cheap wine. Stain is also in the sights of the Prophet of Non, whose beat is Sonoma’s ubiquitous non-profit industry by day and punishing tax improprieties at night (you know who you are!). Of course, “dotting the eyes and crossing the tease” throughout is the Editrix, who would just as soon cut your nut-graph as polish your news-peg.

There’s more, surely, lurking behind a copy-desk, a microphone, a camera lens – all ready to don the cape and take on the machinations of the Historic Sonoma Plasma and other scourges to our fair burg. What’s germane is that these pursuers of truth, justice and the American way, no matter their affiliation, no matter their media, are all superheroes in their own right. They’ve committed their lives to telling the greatest story of all – our story.

Wolfram Alpha vs. Google vs. Your Brain (on drugs)

This is your brain. This is your brain on Wolfram Alpha.

Last month, the big brains of the “computational knowledge” world gathered in central London to explore how “advances in computational technology are unlocking knowledge assets and shaping the future.” The event, dryly named the London Computational Knowledge Summit, was underwritten by Wolfram Alpha, which bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” a tagline so catchy, they trademarked it lest it be stolen.

The brainchild of scientist, inventor, author and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram, the Alpha engine was heralded as a Google-killer upon its debut last year. That was before everyone realized that it was more of a calculator than a search engine. (Those seeking confirmation of this will note the website’s favicon features an equal sign.) A year later, Google is expanding at a rate exceeding that of the universe itself, while Wolfram Alpha remains something of an online curiosity to anyone whose CV includes the phrase “liberal arts.”

Wolfram’s own r?sum?, predictably, reads like that of a boy genius just one romantic spurn away from becoming a supervillain. “Beginning in his teenage years,” an online bio exhorts, “Wolfram made a number of discoveries in physics and cosmology. In the early 1980s, his now-classic work on cellular automata helped launch the field of ‘complexity theory.'”

But wait, there’s more. After Wolfram grew up, he took the 300-year-old notion that laws based on mathematical equations could be used as a means of describing the natural world and turned it into software for modeling everything under the sun, over the sun and even in the sun. The killer app, known as Mathematica, is used for modeling phenomena in fields as diverse as engineering, biotechnology and finance.

So when Wolfram Alpha was launched in the spring of last year, lazy journalists and high school term-paper scribes rejoiced. Finally, the man who gave the world a plug-‘n’-play way to simulate chemical processes or test financial risk models had made a tool for the rest of us! Wolfram Alpha inhaled the web’s collective information into its own massive database and processes answers with an ever-evolving complement of proprietary algorithms borne of Mathematica software. What does this mean? The truth is out there, and now it’s in your iPhone, thanks to the Wolfram Alpha app.

Phrases like “knowledge extraction” might roll off the tongue of a character in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but they’re not part of the general parlance. That’s, in part, what Wolfram seeks to fix, if not in name, then in deed. He’s empowering his engine’s users through “natural language processing” or, specifically, by letting them speak in intuitive human terms rather than some sort of computer-speak.

Remember the dark ages of the web when Boolean searches were all the rage? Such qualifiers aren’t necessary here; however, a fair amount of specificity is, especially when the data entered is partial or idiosyncratic.

While most human brains in the Bay Area “know” that Sonoma, Napa and Marin are counties, Wolfram Alpha only understands them as searchable terms and presents results based on a library of internal algorithms. Upon entering the query “Sonoma, Napa and Marin” for a comparative analysis of the counties, the engine assumed Marin was in Spain. Refining the query by adding “counties in California” yielded a comprehensive breakdown of the counties, and their statistical relationships to one another were presented side-by-side. The amount and range of information is beguiling, in fact overwhelming, which makes the aforementioned “knowledge extraction” a bit of a bear.

After a moment’s reflection on the data set, interesting observations begin to effervesce. There are nearly three times as many deaths in Sonoma County as in Napa County, though the population of Sonoma County is only double that of Napa County. Why? And where’s the data on Marin County? Perhaps we can infer that no one actually dies in Marin County, which accounts for its comparatively high real estate prices.

You see, inasmuch as the engine can slice a near infinite amount of information like a Ginsu blade, it can’t tell you what it means. The ability to infer, to extrapolate and perceive meaningful relationships between the data remains a strictly human occupation?at least for now.

Or, as one might say, you can lead a geek to Wolfram but you can’t make him think.