For the Lulz

A tweet by Donald Trump featuring an image of himself as Pepe the Frog
A tweet by Donald Trump featuring an image of himself as Pepe the Frog, a symbol used by the far right, October 13, 2015

Sometime in the autumn of 2006, a friend sent me screenshots of a chatroom in Habbo Hotel, a social network for teenagers. Someone had flooded the space with avatars of identical black men with Afros in suits and ties. In one picture, the men were blocking the entrance to a swimming pool, stopping other users from coming in. In another they’d arranged themselves in the shape of a swastika. My friend, an activist, thought this was sinister, particularly since it was happening in a space aimed at young people.

Habbo Hotel looked pretty slick for the Internet of 2006, with public spaces like nightclubs and coffeeshops and private rooms that users could rent and furnish with virtual objects. It was cheerful and brightly colored. But due to a programming glitch, if an avatar blocked a doorway or a corridor, it was impossible for another to get by. Whenever kids asked one of the men what was going on, they were told, “Pool’s closed due to AIDS.”

The “raid” was juvenile and offensive, which was the point. Around that time, there was a fashion for posting “Rules of the Internet,” expanding on the famous (and profound) Rule 34 that states: If it exists, there is porn of it. One widely circulated list had as Rule 42 Nothing is Sacred, and as Rule 43 The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it. The organized invasion of a cheery and wholesome space like Habbo Hotel obeyed these axioms—the humor of the lists was that they were not so much rules to follow as descriptions of norms, observations about Internet culture. The combination of homophobia, Nazi imagery, and what amounted to blackface was impressively unpleasant, given the constraints of a graphical user interface that had to be delivered at the speed of the 2006 Internet—on average about a fifth as fast as it is today. Managing to be offensive at such low resolution, using imagery constructed of simple pixillated blocks, was an achievement of sorts.

I was inclined to take the raid less seriously than my friend. I’d been digging around on the Internet since the early 1990s, and I thought of myself as a grizzled veteran of online culture. Another rule of the Internet was Nothing is to be taken seriously. Still, I decided to see if there was anything organized behind it, any politics beyond teenage trolling.

This was how I started spending time on 4chan, a message board that had played a part in the organization of the raid. 4chan was a site with a barely designed front page and a list of image boards…

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