“What’s unique about [4chan] is that it’s anonymous, and it has no memory.”
“We do not forget.”
For the generation who grew up with the internet, born around 1990, 4chan forms part of adolescence in the 00s, alongside MySpace pages and instant messaging. After the rise of web 2.0’s “real-name culture”, 4chan is an archaic (and anarchic) hold-out of an earlier form of online community, offering a ludic escape from identity as liberation from the intersections of real world power relationships. In a space of completely un(self)censored speech, the only things left unsaid are the unsayable. Freeing users from any repercussions in their social lives, from the policing tactics of stigma or shame, anonymity on 4chan solicits total confession (and absolute obscenity) whilst making its veracity irrelevant. As in confessional poetry, disclosure becomes a dramatic quality, a performed challenge to the limits of fiction; unlike confessional poetry, anonymous disclosure can only be dramatic, and identity can only be an implication of the text.
A series named after the boards on the website, Rachael Allen’s 4chan Poems revisit the tradition of confessional poetry via the model of the internet’s anonymous confessions, its games with subjectivity, power, and truth. The poems, bar one, have been published in magazines and anthologies, but not together. They are mostly reflections on the end of childhood, and the pre-existing frameworks of meaning within and through which children orientate themselves into the adult social world.
The poem ‘Rapidshares /r/’ runs:
Gina G was the pathway to enlightenment and adulthood
another of the pathways was my pink faux-snake-skin halter
neck top that came free with a magazine and I shimmied it
on it was skinny and violently pink like someone
embarrassed, feeling older, I thought thirty, and drinking
too much Sprite when someone shouted from across the
beery carpets that ‘that top looks like something you’d get
free from a magazine’ and for some reason I was insulted
and girls that strutted and gathered like pigeons patter my
back and we puffed out our flat chests for the rest of the
evening skittering on our low heels playing at adulthood
and anger and all around me was ooh aah and de de da da
da and a tacky smell of sweets that could have been lipgloss
or just as easily the encroaching ledge of age.
There are no feelings but in things: the pink top is “like someone/embarrassed,” the heels enable a performance of “anger,” and the final thought is inseparable from sweets or lipgloss. The music of Gina G and the “halter/neck top” are “pathways” to adulthood in that they imply the identity of someone older (“I thought thirty”), as the girls play at adulthood in heels by recognising and performing, however naively, the identities created by these objects within a social system. All the boundaries and potentials of the speaker’s experience reside in the commodities with which she identifies and which identify her. The speaker feels insulted “for some reason” because the “shouted” remark is not so much a personal insult as a challenge to the authenticity of an identity she quotes.
In the 4chan Poems, commodities link into the narratives that form our identities, as self-fashioning appropriates meaning from the mythic landscape of advertising. In ‘Random /b/’, for instance, “teenage summers” smell of “a scented diary from the garden centre or an/Impulse set from Safeways”, like Proust’s Madeleines™. Uniquely meaningful for innumerable people, these objects are also points of connection into a shared narrative, a contiguous horizontal landscape that stretches “all around” us.
‘Cute/Male /cm/’ begins:
When we play The Simpsons game where I find an episode
of The Simpsons that is like real life, I think about the
presence of that squeeze of our shared childhood spent
however many miles apart[…]
The “squeeze” of common experience is the shared experience of cultural items that structure how we understand reality, as suggested by the openness of “our shared childhood,” the “our” reaching beyond the speaker and the addressee. And the nostalgia of these poems is best understood in relation to the recirculation of the commodities of shared narratives through our prosthetic memory: ‘The Simpsons game’ can only be played when episodes can be found on demand, and, as the title of ‘Rapidshares /r/’ suggests, the music of one’s childhood is only a click away. As mass media fractures into the endless, individualised consumption enabled by broadband, drawing from an ever-accumulating, always-on archive of the ghostly, recirculating past, a shared cultural progressive ‘now’ is harder to locate, making categories like retro increasingly meaningless. The internet allows us to plug back into these narratives at will, foreclosing on their ability to progress. The internet is a nostalgia machine.
“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
—Marshall McLuhan, ‘The Medium is the Massage’
‘Sexy Beautiful Women /s/’ starts with an event in the melancholic suburbia Allen also explores in ‘Cute/Male /cm/’, or her poem ‘Sunday’:
When Nicola’s mother remarried that Brutish farmer she
started growing a leafy bedroom drawer of unmarked
VHS’s and on a sun-trapped estate afternoon we sat
transfixed with shop sweets and gluey underarms as circus
lesbians wrapped themselves around snakes and medieval
woman ate raw hides of meat and then later Erica Lopez’s
cam (squirting tease party Erica) accidentally came up and
it was a glittering, stuttering throwback to some damp
afternoons of slow awakening anyway there’s moar if you
want it pages and pages of Erica’s so many Erica’s you may
forget that they’re sort of real somewhere in the world in
In the sixth line, the poem makes a violent temporal leap. With the first two words of “then later Erica Lopez’s/cam […]accidentally came up”, the speaker breaks suddenly from the frame of the “sun-trapped estate afternoon.” The narrative looks back at multiple “afternoons” from an unspecified “later,” as its perspective is fractured. Rather than looking back at the single afternoon that the porn video suddenly evoked, the speaker is aware that “Erica Lopez’s/cam” instead recalls multiple “damp/afternoons”, that its eroticism can only be interpreted by a viewer with reference to the previous experiences that instructed them to view it as such. The porn video in itself contains the past, requires the past for its meaning; it is a “glittering, stuttering throwback.” There are “moar if you/want it[…]so many Erica’s.” The past is continually caught in orbit by the gravity of desire in the present.
Homer: “Fire! What do I do? What do I do? Oh, the song! The song!
When a fire starts to burn,
there’s a lesson you must learn:
something something then you’ll see,
you’ll avoid catastrophe.
—The Simpsons, ‘Homer the Heretic’
4chan’s creator, Christopher Poole, designed it to require minimal server space; there are no user accounts and no archive, and so as new message threads are added by anonymous users, old ones are deleted. In a study in 2010, the median lifetime of a thread on the board /b/ was less than 4 minutes. The median time on the first page was 4 seconds. In the constant flow of text and images, of 400,000 posts a day appearing and disappearing, if you want to see the same thing again you keep posting or you post it again: to remember, 4chan must repeat. Aptly, ‘copypasta’ (or its horror variant ‘creepypasta’), perhaps the only literary genre to emerge from 4chan, takes its name from the technical process of reproduction. It resembles an oral literary culture, as transmission, variation and repetition becomes a communal memory, as membership of and fleeting prestige in the community depends on fluency in the language of these repeated cultural units, passing through innumerable, unknowable authors in countless variants, recirculating in constant struggle against ephemerality. And it is this churn of authorless, communal repetition that has launched a thousand memes (and the activist movement Anonymous) onto an unsuspecting world in the decade since 4chan’s launch.
The curatorial authorship emphasised in post-internet poetry, the devaluation of originality, reflects the experience of an artist in a culture that forgets nothing: the panic attack of influence. (It also reflects the implicit political thesis of neoliberalism in the 21st century: that real progress is over, that systemic change is impossible, that history has ended.) But whilst uncreative writing, thinking within the old structures of copyright, posits that originality is impossible because of too much memory, 4chan declares it irrelevant because of too little. Within the anonymous online cultural structures within which an emerging generation of artists grew up, terms like originality or imitation, terms dependent on print economies, no longer make any sense. But with the corporate structures dependent on real world identities for advertising, with the governmental agencies recording our online activity for real world policing and control, this generation is now reflecting on the meaning of these anonymous communities, and the modes they created, whilst mourning for their loss.
“Imagine the writer as a meme machine, writing works with the intention for them to ripple rapidly across networks only to evaporate just as quickly as they appeared. Imagine a poetry that is vast, instantaneous, horizontal, globally distributed, paper thin, and, ultimately, disposable.”
In ‘Transportation /t/’, the speaker describes learning to drive as part of learning to enter the social system of adulthood:
Mother says ‘Why ask and re-ask questions!’ but I’m so
often unsure of the question asked especially when it’s the
model of cars and you must understand I had lessons for a
very long time and I still don’t know the difference between
one shift and another. Before traffic lights and crowd
control people used to march grinning right in front of the
bonnet — straight into traffic! Like how I once saw so many
translucent frogs being swept downstream glassy-eyed and
knowing towards the open gritted mouth of a drain, their
eyes were so resigned that I even gave some a little push the
driving instructor gave me similar looks of resignation
lorries never seem to big in stasis what was the question?
The speaker is helplessly unable to differentiate between one car or another or one gear change or another, just as early pedestrians are so haplessly unaware of the danger a car represents as to “march grinning[…]straight into traffic!” Allen’s missing punctuation, which elsewhere slows reading down, here accelerates the poem into a breathless panic. There is none of the post-romantic lyric’s epiphany, no insight neatly captured by a speaker unperturbed; the speaker has been unable to move beyond her experience, to order it into her past so as to have the perspective to learn from it. She is caught in its constant presentness.
The poem is dominated by the central image, troubled by the intrusion of the speaker nudging the frogs onwards, like a playwright walking on stage. The simile can’t be interpreted or paraphrased into a single statement, but instead only a multiple partial comparisons. It overfills any of the containers used to interpret it, as the speaker’s helplessness in the driving lesson matches her helplessness in controlling her fictions. Instead, the excess of the brief episode of the frogs sits between all possible readings, suggesting the atmosphere of the whole poem rather than elaborating one of its elements, functioning in the dominant aesthetic mode of post-internet poetry like a nightmare or an advert for a sad product.
“Nostalgia is the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition”
—Susan Stewart, On Longing
The 4chan Poems see the adoption of adult social roles as a form of loss, as the movement towards the “mouth of a drain”, towards the “encroaching ledge” of adult lives in “suburbs where the pink dusk settles like a trapping net”(‘Cute/Male /cm/’). To fashion an adult identity through expressive consumer choices, is also to consent to the system in which that choice is possible: any colour you like as long as you’re buying a car. Consent to a totalising expressive system, one of adult social relations and their attendant drudgeries, leaves a lingering awareness not only of what has been excluded by this choice but of the consequent inability to articulate it. The 4chan Poems’ morbid fascination with “girls who killed other girls in childhood”(‘Random /b/’), with the documentaries about “murderers in general” watched by the speaker’s mother in ‘Social /soc/’, reflects the lingering presence of the other side of this choice, the potential for violence in children who do not successfully adopt adult roles. And this inexpressible, excessive term doesn’t stay in the past, but its resurrection by nostalgia, by looking back to the time before its loss, causes it to recirculate through cultural objects. It hides behind every “squirting tease party Erica.”
“The Internet, of course, was not over. That’s wasn’t the point. Rather, let’s say this: what we mean when we say “Internet” changed and “post Internet” served as shorthand for this change.[…]
On some general level, the rise of social networking and the professionalization of web design reduced the technical nature of network computing, shifting the Internet from a specialized world for nerds and the technologically-minded, to a mainstream world for nerds, the technologically-minded and grandmas and sports fans and business people and painters and everyone else. Here comes everybody.
Furthermore, any hope for the Internet to make things easier, to reduce the anxiety of my existence, was simply over—it failed—and it was just another thing to deal with. What we mean when we say “Internet” became not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape from…sigh…It became the place where business was conducted, and bills were paid. It became the place where people tracked you down.”
—Gene McHugh, Post Internet
As the corporate interests of the internet attempt to remove its trace, to expand its markets seamlessly within our real world relationships, any experience of the internet’s strangeness is increasingly nostalgic. The promise of the internet in the 90s and early 00s, of cyberspace, the final frontier, has been subsumed by the future of the 2010s, where the internet flattens into reality, into the device in our pockets, into our council tax payments and plans for meeting our friends. Post-internet is the awareness of the closed internet/real life binary, and of the return of the ‘internet’ through nostalgia. And nostalgia for the internet, for its lost opportunity of escape, is also longing for the futures that never arrived.
Charles Whalley read English at Trinity College, Oxford, and was published in The Mays. He currently works in academic publishing near Oxford and lives in Reading.
More articles and essays on post-internet poetry can be found at this link.