Research by Daniel Bach, M Ryan Tsapatsaris, Mischa Szpirt & Lea Custodis
This blog post looks at the practice of “general threads” on 4chan, and how this relatively little-known practice is used as a means to continue conversation on this otherwise highly ephemeral imageboard. In specific we will discuss how it is that general threads with a recurring opening post often appear to be produced by an “elite” group of 4chan users who are referred to as “bakers”. This practice of general threads is prevalent on 4chan’s /pol/ — ‘Politically Incorrect’ board, with general threads on Trump being particularly prominent. By investigating this phenomenon, this post shows how 4chan, long-considered contingent and chaotic, can also be understood as the site of novel forms of coordinated collective action.
Since the moment that he first announced his candidacy for the US presidential office, 4chan/pol/ has appeared to be obsessed with Donald J. Trump. On closer inspection, however, this apparent obsession has been organized in and managed by an ongoing series of posts known as the “Trump General” (and later “President Trump General”), see figure 1. These Trump generals are particularly successful examples of a common posting practice on the site, known as the “general thread”, which allows for the maintenance of a continual conversation over time. This practice is necessary because of 4chan’s unique design. Since transience is built into the website’s functioning, as we have detailed elsewhere, posts on 4chan can be conceived of as fighting against the site’s ephemerality. Technically, the site’s design is quite simple: most 4chan boards consist of 10 pages, each containing 20 threads for a total of 200 active threads at all times. When someone replies to a thread, it is ‘bumped’, meaning it becomes the top post on the board — but only until another post is bumped afterwards. If it reaches 300 comments, a thread can no longer be bumped. If this happens, or when a thread stops garnering any reactions, it starts to slowly descend towards the bottom of the board. If a thread falls outside the 200 active threads, it is deleted or locked so no one can comment anymore. In this sense a 4chan board can be conceptualized as functioning like a river constantly washing posts away, essentially creating a space uniquely characterized by the ephemerality of its subject matter.
Countering ephemerality with generals
In light of this ephemerality, 4chan’s users, or “anons”, use memes as recognizable beacons of meaning, functioning, as Gabriella Coleman has described, as a “locus of memory” working against the quickly moving “volume of posts and responses”. Similarly, general threads are also anon-created measures against 4chan’s ephemerality. These are recurring threads, often with a repeated subject title or a copy-pasted opening post (OP), the latter which often link back to their previous iterations. In this regard, general threads can be understood as creating the possibility for a continual conversation to occur over time; a feature which is largely taken for granted on most social media platforms and other web forums. On 4chan, the phenomenon became so popular that it even forked into whole new boards (notably, /v/ “Video Games” begat /vg/ or “Video Game Generals”).
While we had previously observed how anons used general threads to get around 4chan/pol/’s ephemerality affordance, we had not studied the specific mechanism behinds general threads. Some of our previous research had also imagined general threads to be relatively “bottom-up” phenomenon, in which users organized “organically”, as it were, in order to keep threads alive, which were in threat of disappearing due to the site’s inbuilt “purging” mechanism. In line with the “contingent 4chan hypothesis”, we had thus previously imagined the general thread process to have occurred relatively chaotically at the whim of a random group of users interested in contributing to a given conversation.
What our current analysis has however revealed is that general threads are in fact far from random. As can be seen in figure 2, the occurrence of new /ptg/ “President Trump General” threads exhibits a fairly constant ‘rhythm’ over the course of time — with new posts made at either roughly 30 minutes intervals or when a specific number of comments has been reached (in this case usually 350-400). The “lifespans” of each of these individual instances of a general thread can be seen to overlap, that is, a new one is created while the discussion is still ongoing under the previous general thread. Apparently, this coordinated rhythm is maintained so well that, when zooming out, it becomes clear that /ptg/ “President Trump General” and its precursor, /tg/ “Trump General” have maintained a steady rate of around 1.000 threads each month since January 2016 (see figure 3). As such if we simply take the frequency of general threads as a measure, then, in contrast, the contingent 4chan hypothesis, certain conversations on /pol/ do indeed appear rather ordered. Furthermore, what the rhythm of /ptg/ also reveals is that conversations are also not necessarily “bottom-up”, in that, as we will go on to discuss, they appear centrally orchestrated by an elite who seem to dictate how the conversation is framed.
Figure 3: The frequencies of “Trump genreal” and “President Trump General” threads on 4chan/pol/
Attaining such a long-lasting rhythm on a website built to disrupt information organization requires a level of coordination and commitment many general threads on /pol/ rarely display (perhaps with the exception of /sg/ “Syria General” threads). However, asking how this organization is attained is complicated due to the other key affordance of 4chan: anonymity. All users are anonymous, although they are given an identifying ‘tripcode’ if the same user posts within one thread. While this blog post is in no sense concerned with deanonymizing anon’s offline identities, nevertheless anonymity presents problems for researchers. Working with 4chan, anonymity works as a hindrance for wanting to understand 4chan in a more nuanced way as opposed to as merely a faceless (or masked, as it were) mass. As we will explore below, one way to do so may be by focussing on general threads as representing distinct subsets of the larger 4chan conversation. To that end, the challenge then is to determine how it is that these threads are organized, when those users guiding this organization, are, appears like everyone else on the site, simply anonymous.
Organizing a general thread
While clear identities cannot be discerned, posts in /ptg/ signify there is a core group of users who volunteer to ensure the efficient functioning and posting of threads. These users are known as “the bakers” because they “bake” the “bread” – a pun on how the word “thread” sounds like the word “bread”. As will be discussed below, bakers adhere to specific standards about posting times and use a template for /ptg/ OPs that, as with generals in general, slowly changes over time to reflect current events, amongst other information. For instance, the /ptg/ OPs provide a list of Trump’s daily activities.
The orchestration of /ptg/ threads occurs as follows. A user who has volunteered for a “baking shift” creates a general thread with the content from a specific Pastebin text document (see figure 4). In the case of /ptg/, a new thread is meant to be posted when the post count hits 300 on a current thread, or 350-400 during highly active periods (i.e. during a Trump rally). To ensure that a new general thread is posted at the right comment count, each baking shift has a “backup baker”. In the early days of /tg/ “Trump general”, however, the coordination required less structure — there were few regular users and some shifts lasted for the better part of a day, or even longer.
While anonymous to the outsider, the /ptg/ bakers can sometimes identify each other through a number of signifiers and post clues, like the flag a specific user is known to use, specific discursive posting styles, and what images are associated with each baker (for an example, see figure 6). Thus, apart from fighting ephemerality, these bakers also effectively counter 4chan’s anonymity.
The Awoominati Mythos
The baker-collectives discussed above are part of a larger genre of vernacular mythology around the organisation of the /ptg/ threads. This mythology is known by the vernacular term “animelore”, referring to anime-inspired world-building. Such narrative play, mimicking anime series, is common to 4chan since it was originally (and to a lesser extent still is) a forum to discuss anime. As part of this, the pseudonymity of the bakers is a facet of a larger narrative concerned with what is known as the “Awoominati” — a fictional entity comprising a number of made-up hierarchical “guilds” or “orders” of bakers (see figure 7).
The expression “awoo” comes from the mascot of /ptg/, the character Momiji from the Project Touhou video game series. Regular /ptg/ users and bakers will often adorn an image of her with a MAGA hat. The Momiji character is a “wolfgirl” — a half wolf, half girl hybrid — and as any good wolf, she cries an “awooooooo” when she is excited. This howl is what has lent its name to much of the /ptg/ “animelore”.
While the “guild of bakers” does allude to a somewhat structured organisation of anons, much of the accompanying animelore is purely fictional. This practice of imaginative play is part of a larger cultural practice on 4chan known as online “larping” — an acronym for Live Action Role Playing. However, while engaging in fictional play, the actions within these larps are not ‘fake’ or without effect; the communal play can even lead to strengthened in-group formation.
Exemplary of this is one instance of a conspiracy turning real. /ptg/ bakers has previously communicated off-site, notably on the chat server Discord. At one point, an Internet user from “lefty/pol/”, a left-wing counterpart to /pol/ on 8chan (an even more extreme imageboard), found a way to the /ptg/ Discord chat. This lefty/pol/ user was convinced that the /ptg/ organisation was a cabal of hundreds of users who were all part of a secret society waging war on lefty/pol/ and non-/pol/ boards on 4chan. Instead of denying these charges, /ptg/ frequenters were more than happy to oblige the lefty/pol/ user by creating a range of memes to support the conspiracy.
A group “larp” began where users would pepper their posts with clues about two groups supposedly vying for power within /ptg/, the “Baker’s Guild” and the “Guild of Bakers” (see figure 10).
Other users, who may or may not have been in on the joke, declared themselves independent bakers. The larp became so concrete that users even concocted “rules for impeaching a baker” (see figure 11) to troll the lefty/pol/ user.
Interestingly, the communal work for engaging in this “larp” seems to have strengthened the in-group coherence in /ptg/, increasing the number of potential bakers and instituting another level of in-group knowledge. As one user commented on the whole affair:
Discerning the Trees for the Forest
The animelore mythology and the steady organization of the /ptg/ threads are interesting in several respects. First and foremost, they demonstrate that, in spite of 4chan’s chaotic reputation, there are practices in place for structuring posts as well as who posts what. To the best of our knowledge, this structuring practice has never been studied on 4chan before. General posts may offer a means to understand how different groups might be differentiated from the indistinguishable mass, discerning the trees from the forest as it were. Indeed, general posts might characterize different publics within /pol/ and can be used to map the changing ratios of publics in the compositions of the board over time. (As the available archive of /pol/ dates back to 2013, prior to the rise of the alt-right, for example, this approach might provide empirical evidence with regards to the claims that have identified the board with the rise of this movement.) Secondly, the mythology surrounding /ptg/ shows the infamous vernacular of /pol/ being used in the service of something that appears quite a bit less sinister than the often-observed instances of alt-right extreme speech. Instead, what we have seen here is the story of an essentially playful /pol/ larp, which seems to serve the social function of increasing the in-group status of the pseudonymous protagonists of this story. However, while playful in this instance, these same general thread practices are arguably crucial in organizing collective action more generally on /pol/, whether that be ironic, sincere or — as generally seems to be the case — simply beyond belief.