The Reading Room

How forums are changing the world

Most people, including myself, feel quite confident with the internet. Most of us can use all of the search functions on Google, access multiple email accounts from multiple devices, post photos to Facebook, constantly tweet smalls bits of our lives and engage in cheeky Ebay bidding wars.

But there are hidden parts of the internet that you probably haven’t stumbled across yet and when you do it is like discovering a secret mini universe. Reddit, 4Chan and Something Awful are all online forum boards. The forums and threads posted vary but the intensity is constant. Hundreds of thousands of people across the world are posting, responding and growing. Reddit claims to be the ‘The Internet’s Front Page’ and 4Chan is the world’s largest English imageboard. All of these boards are buzzing with excitement, stupidity and millions of thoughts.

For most people, I wouldn’t recommend logging on. A quick tour of online forums consists of Japanese anime, occasional porn and a lot of photos of cute puppies. There are also a lot of stupid comments, repetition and a lot of trolling. Trolling has received negative press coverage for the apparent bullying of harmless individuals to the point of death. Most trolling on online forums is simple remarks back on someone else’s post that probably criticizes in such a way as ‘You’re stupid’. These forums are no doubt read by a lot of people who have nothing better to do than sit on their couches and constantly watch as other people read their response to a photo of a cute cat.

However, these forums do have a lot of power if harnessed in such a fashion. The recent defeat of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills in the US Congress has been attributed to the response from the online community. Although Wikipedia may have darkened for a day, the forums had been busy at work. Reddit also went completely black in protest and directly encouraged its users to sign the petition against the bills. Given the sheer capacity of these forums, their power is immense. 4Chan currently has 81,277 users and 865,817,583 posts. The amount of people who viewed the threat ‘Internet Censorship is back, bigger than ever. ‘Your internet is in danger’ on SomethingAwful was 435,676. The non-profit organization Fight for the Future, that organised the online petition sent to Congress, used these forums amongst other internet outlets and managed to gain over 13 million signatures, an unprecedented feat that squashed all opposition.

The real strength of these sites is that they can’t be taken over and sold to advertising. Although some ads do exist, the users maintain the ethics of the site. There are strict rules to adhere to in posting. Self-regulation and trolling keep the sites dedicated to their purpose of posting information and not selling out. The defeat of SOPA and PIPA was allowed because the internet world united to save their internet world. Any other cause would not have gained solidarity or attention.

Although Facebook has changed the way we interact with people as nearly everyone has a profile, the interaction is limited to your 300 friends, which generally includes drunken photos of the weekend. Occasionally a friend might post a thought provoking article but the moments are rare. I think these forums should be respected in their difference. The front page of Reddit or SomethingAwful is not aesthetically pleasing nor user friendly, but this isn’t the point. It is there to just facilitate conversation. While this conversation does tend to be useless the majority of the time, there are still some interesting conversations going on across the world. Reddit routinely has posts regarding physics and chemistry and recently debating Ayn Rand’s opinion toward Native Americans. News is published from across the world to avoid censorship and regulation and broaden knowledge.

Despite the anonymity, there is a sense of community as hundreds of thousands of people comment, post or reblog your idea, thought or photo. The whole process broadens and deepens the internet. These forums believe that it doesn’t matter what you share, you just have to share.

Jordan Junge is studying for a Masters in Human Rights at LSE. She is one of 12 regional winners of the British Council’s International student of the year 2010.

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