But as MONTAG's Kathryn Lawrence explains, there is still a thriving weird online world of hidden subcultures that allow anyone to feel united – whilst being utterly private.
It seems like every week a different previously unheard-of subculture is thrust into the spotlight and made spectacle of by internet journalists for the general public.
Whether it’s the furry alt-right, present-day Tamagotchi enthusiasts, or your run-of-the-mill deep web cybercriminal communities, groups that gather on forums to discuss very niche content have become the freaks of the week.
In our current era of constant surveillance and interconnection, where nothing online is truly private, can the internet still be a safe place for odd people to find each other and create fringe communities? Where will we go when the fringe becomes the mainstream, if it hasn’t already?
The internet has always been a place for lonely people with strange interests to find each other.
In the 80s and 90s, home computer users were a fringe group altogether and the small communities that gathered around shared interests like computers and file sharing communicated via bulletin boards hosted on dial-up networks.
In 2005, a thread entitled "i am lonely will anyone speak to me" became the first hit for people who entered “I am lonely” into Google
Then came email-based newsgroups and IRC channels, which allowed for real-time communication, followed by the earliest internet forums. Throughout the 90s and past the Y2K, millions of internet forums have gathered likeminded groups – professional pilots, fan fiction writers, expecting parents, and amateur film critics – every possible category of interest has its own forums.
In 2005, a thread entitled "i am lonely will anyone speak to me" on a forum for questions about digital media encoding, became the first hit for people who entered “I am lonely” into Google due to the webmaster’s SEO skills. Internet psychologist Mark Griffiths was quoted in one article about the bizarre popularity of the forum, *“There are a lot of lonely people out there… but creating a kinship with like-minded people can help. You're all in this virtual space together."*
In today’s internet climate, where having at least one social media profile is practically mandatory to participate in society, some users look for even more anonymity in their online social spaces.
"We are Anonymous, We are legion"
I am not the first to see the ubiquity of social media and the increase in popularity of 4chan as directly related.
On 4chan, all posts are both anonymous and ephemeral. The effect of this anonymity and ephemerality on what the board produces has been studied and correlated with an “online disinhibition effect,” the racist, sexist, homophobic, and other undesirable rhetorical results of which have subjected the users of 4chan’s /b/ and /pol/ messageboards to rigorous public scrutiny.
However, online disinhibition is also what allows a user to type “I am lonely,” into Google, or participate in the discussions of their niche interests that grew internet forums on every topic imaginable.
What we see as a circus or a freak show they call refreshingly honest and, paradoxically, more genuine for its lack of sincerity.
Attempts to decode the belief in meme magic and the cult of Kek that rationalize the behavior of this most extreme online community give us a window not only into a freak show of the week, but also reflect the motivation behind the movement of fringe internet subcultures in general into the mainstream.
It’s the same reason that people are pulled into this subculture: they call what we see as a circus or a freak show refreshingly honest and, paradoxically, more genuine for its lack of sincerity.
This week’s freak show is the next week’s old news, and according to the 1% rule, the number of people who “lurk” invisibly in these spaces is significantly higher than the visible contributors.
The 1% Rule states that, on average, 1% of a group creates content, 10% comments or actively participates, and 90% of the users simply observe and absorb information. This implicates many, many more people in participating in these outsider communities by observing them – almost so many that they are no longer "outside."
The 1% Rule via Virtual Learning Network
Private but public; alone but together
So where does that leave us, if the entire internet is one large interconnected fringe – and every niche interest, even the antisocial communities, become part of the mainstream? Where can we go for our subcultural kicks, if we want to observe, or if we want to participate, for a safe space to express ourselves however we wish?
The dark web, an internet that is accessible only by a special configuration of networks, went mainstream in 2013 when Robert Ulrich, known online as The Dread Pirate Roberts, was apprehended by the FBI and subsequently given a life sentence for creating and maintaining a marketplace known as the Silk Road on the dark web.
Public perception of using encrypted networks is changing, due to the same political and cultural climate that drives the fringe into the mainstream
The publicity around this case formed much of the public’s knowledge about the dark web, that it was a place used only for drug deals, child pornography, arms dealing, and fraud, among other cybercrimes.
Silk Road image via Business Insider: "There's A Secret Internet For Drug Dealers, Assassins, And Pedophiles"
However, public perception of using encrypted networks is changing, due to the same political and cultural climate that spurs the growth of 4chan and drives the fringe into the mainstream.
More internet users are now aware of how much their personal data is being used against them, and seek places where what they do won’t be sold to advertisers, which rules out the most popular social media platforms and search engines, and thanks to a recent bill in the US, even your internet service provider can sell your browsing history.
New users of the dark web are doing so for personal privacy reasons, not piracy reasons. Aren’t you sick of targeted advertising following you everywhere? Do you want to escape your filter bubble of mainstream news outlets and distorted search results?
In the pursuit of community, anonymity, and freedom of expression, expect more internet users to go to the dark side. We’re all in this virtual space together – and no one wants to be the freak of the week.