When Betabeat first met Cole Stryker on the roof of the Barbarian Group this summer, the very tall, very blond young man was recounting the story of how he and ex-Valleywager Nick Douglas used to try to out-gross each other with images from 4chan’s /b/ board. But it wasn’t just for the lulz, Mr. Stryker’s fixation with 4chan and Anonymous also carried into the workplace, where he amassed a collection of posts on the community’s mayhem and malwebolence for Urlesque.
The publishing world took note and next week, the 27-year-old Mr. Stryker will release his first book: Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web. Naturally Betabeat wanted to know more. But before we could ask him a question, Mr. Stryker had something to report …
“They found out where I live. He tweeted me my apartment number!”
Are you serious?
I’m like freeeeeeeaking out. [laughs]
It was just some random guy. What happened was he initially tweeted, ‘What makes you a 4chan expert?’ My publicist insisted on positioning me as a 4chan expert on the Amazon page, even though I knew it would invite ridicule. I tweeted back jokingly, ‘Oh 4chan and I ordered Chinese and watched Chocolat on the couch last night.’ And he responded, “Oh at [apartment number redacted] or over at their place?” I was just like what the fuuuuuuuuck.
He knew your building number and your apartment number?
Not, the building number. Just the apartment number. I don’t know if he doesn’t know it or if it does know it and wants to drag it out and mess with me a little bit longer before he divulges.
Is this the first response that Anonymous or 4chan has had to the book?
No, I posted about it while I was writing it. I would start like a thread and say, ‘Hey, I’m working on this book, what do you think about that?’ People were generally like, ‘Well, we’re gonna find out where you live.’ I knew there was a little bit of danger in that. I did not know they’d be able to find my information before the book came out. [Ed. note: Shortly after Betabeat got off the phone with Mr. Strkyer, who was headed to the Tumblr office to talk about his book, he emailed us, “My sis just im'd me...she keeps getting fb invites from anons. They're trying to dox me!”]
Are you freaked out?
A little bit. I feel like Anonymous right now is so politically-motivated in a way that it wasn’t even a year ago. They’re going after huge corporations and governments rather than individuals the way that they used to before. But they do occasionally go after people. I’m sure you heard about the Parry Aftab thing. She’s a cyberbullying expert that’s often sought out for shows like Good Morning America to talk about how kids shouldn’t be on the internet because it’s too dangerous. They sent a SWAT team to her home. They used a phone re-routing software, I think, to make it look like a man was calling from inside her house and saying, ‘Hey I’ve killed four people and I’m holding two others hostage.’ That’s the kind of stuff that worries me because someone could get killed in a prank like that.
Do you feel like that’s at odds with the more contingent who redefined themselves as “hacktivists”?
Oh for sure. Anonymous is such a big group and it’s hard to pin down what they’re up to at any given moment. I think that the lion’s share of their activities have been more hacktivist oriented rather than just trying to make someone’s life miserable.
Do you think it’s a different group of people who are resorting to the pranks?
Yeah, I do. I don’t think the kind of people who go after an 11-year-old girl like Jessi Slaughter are the same people who are rising to the defense of Julian Assange on Twitter and preparing to go after Mastercard.
So how did you get started with the book?
I was writing a series of posts about the Jessi Slaughter scenario last summer and those posts got the attention of a literary agent who wanted to do a book on cyber-bullying. While I would have done that book, I was much more interested in the community of 4chan where a lot of that stuff comes from. What motivates someone to try to destroy someone else’s life online? Why is it this place where everyone’s anonymous?
Didn’t you say you and Nick would try to outgross each other?
We went to college together and we kept in touch mainly because we both had jobs that allowed us to be on gChat all day. Whereas four, five years ago we would have been sending each other Rotten.com links, 4chan is a clearinghouse for bizarre, shocking content you can’t find anywhere else.” [Ed Note: We asked Mr. Stryker to give some examples of what they sent, but it turned out to not be appropriate for mixed company.] It was fascinating to me. Why are people that are out there sharing this stuff? Are there that many sickos in the world? Or is it just people like me who are doing it because they think it’s funny?
Tell me about the research process.
I spent May and June basically locked in my room on 4chan, interviewing people who are responsible for the internet community that paved the way for something like 4chan to come around. I interviewed people who were responsible for The WELL, which was an internet community before Usenet, and I interviewed a guy who was a famous troll on Usenet.
Back then trolling meant something very different than what it does today. Trolling back then was inoculating new users to the mores of an online community in a funny way. They would trick people by giving them false information that everyone was part of the community would know. The newbies would feel stupid and then subsequently try to conform more to the manners and mores. It wasn’t this malicious thing it is now where you’re basically trying to cause someone else pain for your own enjoyment.
You mentioned that you weren’t able to get access to Moot for the book?
It was discouraging, but at the same time I don’t think that Christopher Poole is really what’s interesting about the 4chan story. In the same way that I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is particularly interesting in terms of the way Facebook changed how people communicate. They’re both basically people who jacked the source code from another project. All Christopher Poole did was take the code from a couple different Japanese forums and put English on top of it and then keep the community going for the next eight years. There really wasn’t a lot of innovation happening.
I give him a lot of credit for not selling 4chan out because I’m sure there were a lot of times he could have made some decent money by trying to monetize it. But on the other hand, the second you start trying to make a dime off 4chan is the second that it stops being the special thing it is. That’s why people move onto the next community.
What can readers expect from your book? Are you revealing something about 4chan we don’t already know?
I spend about half the book talking about memes and how memes work on 4chan. I talk about the history of the word meme and how it came from Richard Dawkins 1976 book The Selfish Gene and how that terminology has been co-opted over the past decade. And I talk about all the communities online that paved the way for 4chan, like Rotten.com, Something Awful, Stile Project, You’re the Man Now Dog! I talk about this infrastructure that’s appeared over the last decade that I call the ‘memesphere.’ Reddit, Buzzfeed, Cheezburger Network are all a part of this system tracking viral content on the web. It’s this new form of participatory pop culture.
Did you get any sense of age or gender for a 4chan user?
It’s overwhelmingly male, for sure. There’s no data to back that up, but speaking as someone who spent countless hours on the site, it’s just not a place where any female would really want to hang out.
I don’t know about that.
Well there are women there, but 4chan is so antagonistic to females, I’d be surprised if 10 percent of the users at any given moment are female.
How do you expect them to respond to the book?
Well there are these ‘Rules of the Internet’ that 4chan has come up with and the first two are copied directly from Fight Club. ‘The first rule of /b/ is don’t talk about /b/. The second rule of /b/ is don’t talk about /b/.’ So even though I feel I’m very sympathetic to the 4chan community and try to give them a fair shake, just the fact that I’m talking about them and revealing their secrets is probably gonna make them angry. It’s kind of like when your favorite band goes to a major record label. And suddenly everyone is aware and everyone pretends to be a huge fan and everyone knows all their lyrics. You don’t feel so special anymore. I kind of feel like that’s what 4chan has experienced over the last six months or so. They’re on the front page of newspaper every few days.
Do you think they’ll try to pull something at your book release party next week?
It’s possible I know there’s enough people who hang out on 4chan in New York City to cause trouble because Moot held a meetup at Barcade in Brooklyn once and a lot of people showed up.
Are you scared to go back to your apartment?
Not yet. [laughs] I’m not the kind of person who is going to underestimate these people’s ability to ruin your life, I’ve seen them do it to other people. But it’s difficult to predict whether 4chan will turn you into a villain or a hero. Boxxy, when she first started out, everyone was like, ‘We hate this girl, let’s kill her, she’s so annoying, we’ve got to destroy her.’ And now she’s ‘The Queen of /b/.’
She was a 14-year-old girl who uploaded a video where she spastically talked about nothing for five minutes. It was a tween girl being totally obnoxious. 4chan was like, ‘Oh we gotta ruin this girl.’ And they did to the point where she left the internet for a couple of years. She’s only recently surfaced and now that she’s back, everyone loves her, she’s a mascot. They send her money to her PayPal account. So it’s difficult to know if they’re going to love you or hate you, but I don’t have high hopes for my personal standing in the community.