Hacking the Attention Economy

In 2014, a crop of nude celebrity photos began circulating online, as if from nowhere. In reality, the pictures came from hacked iCloud accounts and they were shared avidly by subcultural trolls. As is often the case when such forces are at work, journalists struggled greatly to explain basic concepts about internet culture and security to their audiences.

Listening to their naive verbiage, I started humming a lyric by Ani Difranco: “A poetic specter so far gone / that every jackass newscaster was struck dumb and stumbling / over ‘oh my god’ and ‘this is unbelievable’ and on and on” (Self-Evident).  Digital troublemakers make memes of the most ludicrous journalistic refrains, emphasizing the foolishness through repetition. “Who is this 4chan?” “Just a system administrator.” “You absolutely absolutely absolutely have to have good passwords.”

Outside the worlds of digital mischief, 4chan is an enigma. And it became even more so after a CNN news report cast it as a person (“who is this 4chan?”) or  (“the hacker known as 4chan”), instead of the anonymous image board it really is. Many of its denizens love being seen as the underbelly of the internet. But 4chan’s potency stems from the delight and horror that sits side-by-side in forums whose topics range from fashion to Pokémon to aggressively politically incorrect conversations. 4chan is the genesis of meme culture, in no small part because images, which appeared in ephemeral posts, had to be reposted constantly on the boards for them to stick around. Perhaps what makes 4chan especially notable is how many of its participants relish the opportunity to hack the attention economy.

Many in the mainstream media-making business act as if they have the divine right to curate what will be amplified. Not everyone agrees they should. As if to prove this point, in the late aughts 4chan media makers began to strategically devise ways to trick major media outlets into publishing content that was of their own making. They toyed with journalists, gamed algorithmic media systems, and treated newscasters as marionettes. And when they exposed news business naiveté, they reveled in the spectacle. A few years later, their playful mischief would take a darker turn as their practices were adopted by those invested in far-right politics and amplifying white nationalism.

Hacking the attention economy to shift the narrative can be more exhilarating than simply speaking truth to power. After all, the trickster’s power comes from undermining powerful people and institutions. Those who control, curate, and coordinate the message have power in this networked society. By altering what information flows and how, the cracks in the system are rendered visible, enabling those with nefarious goals to jump in and amp up disinformation. The table turns. And herein lies the fundamental tension at the heart of media manipulation. While the status quo of media control is certainly unacceptable, is the anarchic desire to tear down systems rather than build them back up any better?

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