Carolin Wiedemann: Digital Swarming and Affective Infrastructures
Digital Swarming and Affective Infrastructures
(S. 197 – 214)

A New Materialist Approach to 4Chan

Carolin Wiedemann

Digital Swarming and Affective Infrastructures
A New Materialist Approach to 4Chan

PDF, 18 Seiten

In this essay on the notion of the online swarm I suggest that the euphoric appreciation of the democratic potential of the Internet still disregards the complex entanglements of affects and infrastructures within processes of constitution in biopolitical societies of control. In order to approach these entanglements, I investigate the online swarm with a neo-materialist perspective and consider a specific Internet infrastructure, 4chan, the board on which Anonymous first emerged, as an agent within the swarm formation. After discussing the methodological challenges implied by this perspective, I will approach the infrastructural mediators by analyzing their affective dimension. I conclude by posing a question: If we look at the phenomenon from this theoretical perspective, can we then still speak of emancipation and solidarity?


From Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs1 in 2003 to Felix Stalder’s concept of Digital Solidarity2 in 2013, the Internet has inspired and still inspires the dream of new sorts of collectivity, of a potentially free and open space of information and communication that would emancipate and unite the people. These discourses often employ the swarm metaphor, the “ephemeral and apparently ‘grass-roots democratic’ conception of collectivity”3 that suggests emergent cooperation or solidarity and is therefore also used to point to new emancipatory politics.

The notion of a solidary swarm is especially interesting with regard to present forms of governmentality: On the one hand, it stands for subversive moments within societies of control or biopolitical capitalism, as it can point to new forms of sociality that overcome logics of neoliberal competition.4 On the other, inspiring swarm behavior is one way of governing in neoliberal capitalism. As the notion of the online swarm and, more generally, of constituting collectivity on the Internet has these political dimensions, it is worth approaching it again from the neighborhood technologies point of view. This project aims, among other things, to develop a more differentiated and technologically informed notion of neighborhood concepts, including swarm intelligence, a notion that takes into account the role of media technologies. The material turn partly has a similar focus: Against a cultural studies or sociological focus on semantics and meaning and the concomitant disinterest in technology as well as affects, new materialist theories ask for transdisciplinary approaches that consider agency as distributed across all things – human and nonhuman.5 Referring to this perspective, I begin by taking into account the role of affect circulation that constitutes the online swarm. In order to illustrate these constitutive forces, I will focus on one prominent phenomenon, Anonymous. I will outline a special case of swarm behavior, the creation of the LOLcats, and then, still employing a new materialist perspective I will focus on the infrastructure of the site 4chan, where these swarms are still emerging. I do not want to reduce the various (inter-)disciplinary connections and diverse undertakings that are subsumed under the label of the material turn to a set of shared qualities. I will briefly discuss the methodological challenges that they imply and highlight some of the differences in the approaches in order to explain which approach informs my work here. The perspective focusing on the relations of online architectures and their affective potential will then allow to grasp the processes of mediation within which circular reactions create a new collectivity such as the online swarm. In the end I aim to outline to what extent understanding affective infrastructures can help to grasp online swarming in its diverse manifestations and thus might help to distinguish between swarms for example as parts of marketing strategies or swarms that rather work as subversive elements within current forms of capitalism.

1. Utopian Visions and Conscious Swarms

Utopian visions accompanied the development of the Internet from its beginning, especially in the euphorically speculative period of the 1990s, when the Internet only started to become a part of everyday life.6 The ideas of emancipation through new forms of collaboration online were taken up at the beginning of the 21st century, when the Internet was redefined as Web 2.0. In concepts of social media involving participation, grassroots democracy, free access for all, and nonhierarchical communities, an instrumental understanding of the media again either reduces technology to the provision of secondary technical tools or completely dismisses it.7 Isabell Otto and her colleagues assume that in the current media culture the notion of “networking in order to form intelligent collectives or a hierarchy-free ‘power of the many’” within online swarms is still widely accepted.8

The instrumental understanding of media infrastructures on which these approaches often rest is tied to notions of subjectivity and sovereignty that allow for an idea of emancipation in the modernist sense. For example, Felix Stalder describes the “contemporary swarm” as “a coordinated mass of autonomous, self-conscious individuals,” “a self-directed, conscious actor, not a manipulated unconscious one,”9 as opposed to unconscious manipulated crowds. This theoretical opposition expresses a notion of sovereignty and conscience (in the Marxist sense) that is not shared by (post-)structuralist or neo-materialist approaches, some of which employ the swarm metaphor but in a completely different way. Eugene Thacker, for example, in his article on Networks, Swarms, Multitudes, focuses on examples of mutations in the contemporary body politic and develops a notion of the swarm that is part of a concept which exceeds given paradigms of intentional subjects.10 Similarly, Jussi Parikka notes that “insects are the privileged case study” for technologically and politically new ways of organization where the many preexist the one, where animal packs function without heads (without one specific reason or leader); insect swarms thus “suggest logics of life that would seem uncanny if thought from the traditional subject/object point of view”.11 Proceeding from Thacker’s definition of the swarm, affects become a central element, as opposed to the stance of conscious sovereignty in the utopian views of Internet collaboration.

2. Swarms and Circular Affection: LOLcats

Like Stalder, Thacker describes the swarm as decentralized, self-organizing, and spontaneous.12 According to both of them, a swarm is by definition a directional force that is without centralized control but works as a collective because it has a spontaneous purpose. But while for Stalder the central force that creates the swarm comprises individual conscious actors, in Thacker’s view the spontaneous purpose of the swarm cannot be traced to any of the individuated units of the swarm, only to their circular affection.

The concept of affect, derived from Spinoza, does not imply any notion of intention or conscience or the reason and motivations of individual actors; as a prepersonal phenomenon it is opposed to feeling and emotion. I join a great number of affect scholars by moving away from concepts of feeling or emotion in the definition I employ here and instead delineate affect as the “nonlinear complexity out of which the narration of conscious states such as emotion are subtracted, but also …‘a never-to-be-autonomic remainder’”.13 This new materialist approach conceptualizes affect as belonging to the bodily sphere, as a phenomenon involving (human and nonhuman) bodies that can interrupt and irritate discursive patterns but, importantly, is not an asocial phenomenon,14 a point that will be further elaborated. Within this Spinozian perspective, affections between human and nonhuman bodies or materialities emerge and operate beyond human perception.15 Affect, as Eva Horn explains in her reflection on the swarm, points to the fact that a body is touched by another and mobilized, and this mobilization continues en masse.16

Focusing on one example, Anonymous (the example that Stalder also chooses)17, and one specific case, the creation of the LOLcats meme, exemplifies how the concept of affect can help to explain digital swarming. Within the creation of the LOLcats, Anonymous corresponds to the basic definition of swarms (directional force without centralized control, more than the sum of its parts).18 People who were part of these spontaneous, unplanned cat postings, LOLcats, on the online board 4chan explain what happened: they were hanging out on 4chan, had nothing to do, and then somehow got excited by how other users were starting to post cat pictures and still other users were adding sentences to these cat pictures, and without knowing what exactly was going on, they just posted cat pictures as well and started modifying the earlier ones and spontaneously felt part of a community through their common action. More and more users uploaded new cat pictures, and others commented and called these pictures LOLcats. Within a few hours, there were hundreds of LOLcats on 4chan, and these pictures then spread to the whole Internet.

There is already some academic research on LOLcats that qualifies the phenomenon as a meme, even as the most popular Internet meme.19 The common definition of a meme does not include the term swarm, but based on Thacker’s notion of the latter, the swarm can be conceived of as the sort of collective that creates the meme. That is, within the emergence of the meme a swarm is at work, and the output of this swarm or these swarms is the meme; in the case of the LOLcats phenomenon, the meme are the cat pictures superimposed with various statements and slogans that then go viral. They only emerged in the interaction of diverse actors on 4chan who did not know each other or realize what the output would be, who did not even intend to create something. Within the interaction on 4chan the single actors become part of something bigger that they can’t perceive during its development. That is where processes of affection occur. The something bigger is perceivable only after these processes have taken place. The LOLcats became the LOLcats when people started to reflect on what had happened and to speak about the output: they then gave this phenomenon the name LOLcats and later identified it as a meme. It was only in the nonintended, unregulated, and ungoverned interaction of the users based on processes of affection that the swarm (directed force without centralized control, more than the sum of its parts) and then the meme emerged.

In contrast to forms of suggestion and imitation from body to body, as described in crowd and collective-behavior theory,20 in the case of the LOLcats the affective processes do not produce contagious forces but raise the potential of the affected bodies to act and thus are a creative force that has a modifying effect. Furthermore, the affectively inspired interactions have to be situated in relation to a specific online site. Thus in order to understand these processes and to approach the constitution of the digital swarm, the challenge is to understand the specific qualities of the media infrastructure of 4chan, the “meme-factory” as its founder calls it.21 In contrast to 4chan, other social networking sites – the most frequented of which is Facebook – are also used to spread information, pictures, videos or articles, but no such phenomenon as the LOLcats ever developed there. In order to understand the specific quality of 4chan that inspires the emergence of swarms and memes, I want to analyze it with a new materialist approach.

3. New Materialism and Infrastructure
from Theory to Methodology

Within the new theoretical movement that affirms the vibrant dynamics and unique capacities of nonhumans, there are strong differences that are expressed in different labels: new materialism, speculative materialism, object-oriented ontology, and actor-network theory. Nevertheless, the common thread linking these approaches justifies our talk about a turn: All of the theorists behind the material turn or speculative turn “have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique (…) [and] all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humans more generally,” as the introduction to The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism states.22 According to this passage, taking into account the agency of nonhuman beings raises the question of access to reality and thus opens an epistemological discussion – and a methodological question. If this is a turn toward “dynamic human and non-human materialities which acquire shapes, operate and differentiate also beyond human perception and discursive representational systems,”23 then how does one do research from this perspective? How can I approach the infrastructure? Informed by postmodern approaches and theories after the crisis of representation, I would concentrate on the discursive level and deconstruct the representations. But can I also approach the infrastructure more directly? The strands of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology have strongly discussed correlationism, “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”.24 These strands also assume that anti-representationalist and deconstructivist theories retained correlationism, as the latter would imply a real out there that our representations do not meet. In opposition to these postmodern approaches, Meillassoux, one of the most prominent figures associated with speculative realism, tries to find ways to surpass the limits of what we take to be the human standpoint – i.e., finitude – and claims that this takes place through mathematics.25

Even though the aim of neighborhood technologies is – as outlined in the introduction to this book – to create a transdisciplinary discussion between mathematics and media and cultural studies, I will not try to follow Meillasoux’s approach. Neither will I continue to deepen the epistemological discussion on accessing reality. Even these limits align with Meillasoux’s approach, though, for he is not concerned about showing that objects are real; rather, he is interested in accessing the material world we are involved in (and thus tends to reject the label speculative realism in favor of speculative materialism).26

In a similar way, Alex Reid, by referring to Bruno Latour, points out: “Once we do away with the modernist’s real world, the modernist-correlationist concern of not being able to access it doesn’t make much sense.”27 Taking up the viewpoint of Reid and Latour, I do not aim to confront anti-representationalism and new materialism; rather, I want to broaden the poststructuralist background through theories of new materialism that are not in contradiction to anti-representationalism. This includes all of the approaches inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and their precursors. New materialist methodology can thus focus on relations that surround us, that have material effects that can be traced within human perception, that affect the world which one encounters as a researcher, rather than wondering whether it is possible to approach preexisting matter. Nevertheless, the new materialist methodology that I suggest does not intend “to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism” by adding reality to matters of fact, by creating new concepts around the “matters of concern”.28

Latour’s concept of mediators might be conceived of as such an addition: in his theory, “mediators” are all the things that mediate within the socio-technical world, that “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry”.29 Because mediators can be analytically conceived as the “things” or “gatherings”30 (I will come back to this point later) that can transform connectivity into collectivity, they help to approach the role of the infrastructure in the process of swarm constitution and therefore might help us to understand the subject of this article: the online swarm and its products, the memes. Given that the concept of mediators implies the processes of mediation between persons, artifacts, and symbols, it already points to the model of occurent relations within which mediators emerge and work. But much more than Latour, Deleuzian-inspired thinkers such as Massumi stress the concept of relationality.31 And the latter cannot be conceived without a notion of affect. As described above, the concept of affect can be helpful in explaining the formation of a swarm that creates a meme like the LOLcats. While the concept of the mediators seems important to approach the infrastructural elements at work during the creation of an online swarm, complementing this approach with a notion of affect allows to concentrate more on the relations and thus to focus on what happens within the processes of mediation. “Affects operate in the mode of connectivity, they circulate, create dynamics, produce subjectivity and mobility. They operate as – vivid and dynamic – immanent force”.32

Such a focus on the dynamic and constitutive relations between bodies or objects, between diverse materialities as suggested by Massumi, implies to take (physical) bodies into account, both human and nonhuman – not as a priori, as something already given, but as being constituted within these processes of circular affection. This assumes a perpetual actualization of the world that stems from connectivity across human and nonhuman, material, and semiotic elements and their “open series of capacities or potencies”.33 New materialist approaches that stress the constitutive role of circular affection and relation can conceptually and analytically reclaim the fundamental reality-making role of materialities without attributing to them a self-contained identity or ontological primacy that would determine other materialities or bodies.34

In the following, I will therefore try to approach the elements of the Internet infrastructure as potential mediators in the process of constituting collectivity like the online swarm. First, I will briefly describe the interface of 4chan and the options for its use, the frameworks for action within which the “abstractions of algorithmic measures” return to bodies, and then I will try to grasp their “affective dimension”.35 In order to understand the abstractions of 4chan, what it does and how its use is structured, I have visited and also tried to use it regularly since the beginning of 2009.36

4. 4chan and its Framework for Action

Compared to studies on Facebook and other Web 2.0 sites, there are relatively few works that study 4chan.37 That seems surprising, as 4chan attracts around 18 million individual monthly visitors and generates 1 million posts per day;38 it is also the birthplace of most of the popular Internet memes and of Anonymous, the phenomenon that grew from 4chan to a globally active hacktivist collective. But visiting 4chan is disturbing: the content – especially on the /b/ board, the most active section – is often very sexist, racist, and homophobic, and even child pornographical.39 I will not elaborate on these aspects further; rather, I will first concentrate on the framework for action.

The main difference between 4chan and other Web 2.0 sites is that it does not require usernames or passwords, does not archive content or track users. The site and its information architecture is copied from available forum software; it is composed of boards, threads, and posts. Each board is themed (e.g., /v/ is Video Games), and the posts within the boards are classified into threads. Posts starting a thread have to include an image, while images in replies are optional. As there is no registration and no login necessary to start posting, from a technical point of view accessing the site and participating seems as easy as it can be.40 While other Web 2.0 sites pull out all possible information from profile entry fields and postings in order to create data-based representations of the individual users (the individual’s social graph) and of the constant communications (the individual’s timeline, activity stream) in order to understand the relations between users (social graphs), on 4chan users do not leave any of this.41

In 4chan’s communication options this element of anonymity is even taken a step further. Unlike on other sites, where being anonymous usually means not to register under a real name or identity but creating a pseudonym and sometimes also an account with this pseudonym, on 4chan there are no accounts. All information is entered on a per-post basis. Furthermore, creating a nickname does not guarantee individuality, as the same nickname is not blocked for other users. If a user claims a pseudonym, any other user can claim it for herself in any following posting. And if a user, as a consequence, refuses to create a nickname, 4chan automatically gives him or her the name anonymous. As an effect, if all users are represented as anonymous, nobody will know who has been talking. Furthermore, because of the structure and design of the postings, one cannot tell how many users are answering one another in a thread. Instead of user IDs, a unique identifier is attached sequentially to every post on the board, which allows users to reply to a given post and creates a chronology of posts. Thus, as Jana Herwig points out, users respond not to other users but to opinions and imagery.42

However, the users are not just affected by the ideas. The interplay of ideas with and within this kind of infrastructure differs from other Web 2.0 sites not only in allowing anonymity but also in offering ephemerality and a specific sort of contingency. Unlike any other social networking site, 4chan has no memory. All postings that do not generate responses will automatically move down the queue and will eventually be deleted. Therefore, only the posts that gather enough users are repeated and stay on top of the sites that the boards are organized in and thus can attract more and more attention within a few seconds. In the article “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community,” MIT researchers collected data for two weeks, compiling 576,096 posts in 482,559 threads.43 They found that the median thread spends just five seconds on /b/’s first page before being pushed off by newer posts and that the median thread expires completely within five minutes.44

The dynamics on 4chan are further strengthened by the fact that statistically very few users view the same page at the same time, since the site does not update in real time (users must reload to see something new). The combination of these structural elements and 4chan’s ephemerality and anonymity engenders contingency. Knuttila points out that 4chan memes are a “reaction to, and embodiment of, contingency”.45 The same is true for the swarm emerging on 4chan: on the one hand, the swarm exists as a collective within the creation of the meme, thus within the circulation based on circular affection and thus on constant modification. Therefore it stands simultaneously against and for ephemerality, anonymity, and contingency: the emergence of a swarm on 4chan is “neither necessary, nor impossible,” because “the anonymous interface creates infinite possible interactions”.46

5. Affects, Contingency, and Relational Events

Having approached the infrastructure as a framework, I will now try to grasp the affective dimension and thus concentrate on what happens between the frames and the bodies on 4chan – between the things, the emergences, that also partly constitute the frameworks. The emphasis on contingency on 4chan (the notion that swarms could emerge as if they were completely accidental) recalls Massumi’s emphasis on the term relational event. Massumi considers relation the first key term for defining the notion of affect. As for event– as in, “It’s all about event” – it describes the occurrent relation that encompasses affect, and thus in his words the “relational event will play out differently every time. […] The region of occurrent relation is a point of potentiation. It is where things begin anew”.47

This understanding of affect could indicate that the affective processes are completely contingent. But this interpretation would be too simplistic and would not fulfill the concept’s theoretical value. When Massumi introduces “tendency”48 as the second key term for understanding affect, it becomes obvious that this concept is neither asocial nor ahistoric. Applying it means taking into account “presuppositions”49 and considering the tendencies of the bodies activated via the affect. On 4chan as in any other sphere that is created and used/inhabited by social beings, there are presuppositions. The bodies interacting on 4chan have a past; the bodies have tendencies as to what extent they are activated through processes of affection. Herwig, who has also studied the content of the postings on 4chan, has proved that there are specific codes establishing unspoken rules as to which posts attract attention.50 But the concept of affect allows us to consider a precise “activation not only of the body, but of the body’s tendencies”.51 And that is what happens on 4chan: Consistently, memes have emerged that were not predictable in their specific actualization.

Presuppositions are not determining/determinative, and that is exactly because there are affects at work. Applying a concept of affect opens up the perspective on “the world stirring,”52 the continuous processes of subject constitution within a crowded and heterogeneous field of “budding relation”.53 The strong ephemerality and the specific contingency on 4chan are important for understanding the affective dimension of the board, as they affect the dynamics as well as the content of the postings, which again is important for the processes of circular affection. The knowledge that those posts/threads which do not attract attention will disappear so quickly might inspire users to (a) start threads with explosive, irritating posts, or pictures or statements that interrupt the stream, (b) modify their threads if they get deleted too quickly and start experimenting with diverse threads, excited by observing how other users react to them, wondering which one survives more than a few seconds, and (c) start as many threads as possible as quickly as possible in order to increase the chance that one post stays on the site at least a little while. All of these three dynamics facilitate processes of circular affection. Furthermore, the fact that there is no automated update in real time by the site itself means that the user replying to a post within a thread, or typing or uploading a picture, will not yet be able to see whether many other users have already replied to the same post and whether his or her reaction could be outdated. This structural condition also accelerates the interactions and thus the frequency of micro-shocks.

Affections are inspired by micro-shocks, as Massumi, claims – by little interruptions that are in every shift of attention, “for example a change in focus, or a rustle at the periphery of vision that draws the gaze toward it”.54 These shocks can pass unnoticed; they are felt but are not registered consciously. They are registered only in their effects. If 4chan users continuously click the update button and always see new content appearing on the site, there are permanent micro-shocks at work. Their bodies are in motion, scrolling and saving images to their hard drives, intertwining them back into circulation, creating novel symbols and forms.

And within these micro-shocks, within these affective processes, relations between the users develop. According to Massumi subjects emerge within the occurrent relations that are based on reciprocal affects.55 The 4chan user becomes a subject as part of the collective, and the collective itself emerges as a subject, as a swarm – with the meme being another emergent subject in these processes of subject constitution inspired by a board like 4chan. Moreover, this board, which functions as a network as it connects diverse actors, does not have any existence beyond these permanently occurring relations. If there are no users interacting, then there is no network. 4chan as a network only emerges as a system of dynamic relations, in the affective processes.56

The specific anonymity of 4chan lowers the restraints that could control the reactions to these affects. Users are not assumed to represent themselves, as they are on other social media sites, but can interact without being watched. They can experiment without being surveilled.57 The experimental frame is strengthened by the almost inevitable ephemerality of all interactions, of the abundance of existing relations. Herwig regards 4chan as a laboratory “where body-subjects collectively explore meaning,” as a dance that “transgress(es) the borders between mind and matter, media and body, information and perception, which the dominant discourse has so meticulously established”.58

4chan recalls Erin Manning’s and Brian Massumi’s experiments in the Sense Lab in Montreal. The SenseLab is a “laboratory for thought in motion” where “punctual research-creation events supplemented by ongoing, year-round activities“ are organized.59 The Sense Lab creates space for encounters that are not meant to produce sense but are instead playful – encounters of bodies that bump into each other without any meaning.60 On 4chan the movements on the screen are not directly perceivable as gestures by bodies; rather, they are movements of letters, images, text – of instruments that one would actually assign to the sphere of representation. But on a site like 4chan they leave the representational frame – they are not archived, they become ephemeral – and thus text on 4chan becomes movement, meaning becomes fluid, and images evaporate like gestures.

With the Senselab, Massumi and Manning had the ambition to design constraints “that are meant to create specific conditions for creative interaction where something is set to happen, but there is no preconceived notion of exactly what the outcome will be or should be.” There is “no deliverable. All process.”61 Similarly, on 4chan there is no prior agenda as to what should be posted. In addition, such an online board, unlike an urban space, has no borders and no center. Hence, theoretically there is an even higher chance for heterogeneous encounters, as people who do not know each other and neither see nor hear each other can assemble and communicate, and all the communicative acts theoretically can be equally perceived. On this online playground the fluidity of representations and the impossibility of individual accounts facilitate the formation of digital swarms, of swarm creativity.

6. 4chan as Agencement (and There Are Many Questions Left)

A further new materialist investigation of such infrastructures could take up three remaining endeavors. Indeed, all three endeavors would comprise a further mapping of the field in which these infrastructure emerge, but nonetheless, I want to delineate some thoughts on each of these possible aspects of inquiry: First, it should analyze the infrastructure as a gathering, as Bruno Latour suggests,62 which for example means to further investigate how this infrastructure is produced. Understanding 4chan as a gathering involves pointing to additional materialist questions. That means also asking old materialist questions, that is, in the tradition of historical materialism. Even if not following a Marxist notion of conscience, within biopolitical capitalism questions of ownership and exploitation are still relevant. In the entanglement of hard- and software there are various materialities at work, from practices of labor to production chains and onto the chemicals and components that comprise the technology.63 Beyond these broader geopolitical and ecological issues, there are still further materialist questions at hand, for instance if one focuses on 4chan’s software level: The site belongs to 4chan’s founder, Christopher Poole. It is not a non-profit site but is dependent on advertisement. There are moderators who are instructed by Poole, and these moderators can delete content. The infrastructure is static, thus the users cannot modify it. There is no open code. In the face of such facts, further essential questions would include the following: Is there any relation between the advertisement and the memes? Which content gets deleted? And how do you become a moderator?

Secondly, this investigation would have to situate the infrastructures in a broader context, in order to understand their integration in power structures and hegemonic discourses. Given that 4chan – and, likewise, the swarms and memes that emerge on it – would not exist if the board was not used and that this kind of living network is consistently constituted by people posting on it, the broad acceptance and popularity of such a site has also to be contextualized. With which specific social, political, and economic assemblages are both these technologies and techniques of swarming interrelated?

And third, the inquiry would have to figure out how to reconfigure a notion of emancipation or rather subversion within the current situation with regard to the previous analyses. According to Sebastian Vehlken’s account of swarming as a cultural technique, swarms have become relevant as structures of organization and coordination, as effective optimization strategies and zoo-technological solutions for “the governmental constitution of the present itself, in which operationalized and optimized multitudes have emerged from the uncontrollable data drift of dynamic collectives”.64 The logic of contagion, which is linked to the mathematics of epidemics and organization theories, becomes a key tactic in commercial, security, and technological contexts within current forms of capitalism. As Tony Sampson notes, the notion that spontaneous collective moods can be guided toward specific goals seems to be the latent exercising of an affective biopower over an increasingly connected population.65 This governmental constitution, which is exhibited, for example, in viral marketing, tries to capitalize on affectability, or the users’ capacity to affect (and to be affected). An infrastructure like 4chan which creates a dynamic informational space “suitable for the spread of contagion and transversal propagation of movement (from computer viruses to ideas and affects),”66 can serve biopolitical and capitalist vectors, but – as I have tried to show – also opens up a space for encounters that are neither completely controllable and nor exploitable.

If current forms of biopolitical capitalism govern via computed evaluation and prediction in order to capitalize each aspect of life, then unpredictable and non-exploitable emergences as well as anonymous cooperation beyond individual pursuits of profit indeed hold a subversive potential. An infrastructure like 4chan enables practices of sharing or collaboration that surpass any system of recognition – nobody knows who contributed what. Hence, the infrastructure enables spontaneous common creations. Affect circulation and swarm formation on 4chan may neither automatically inspire nor involve the formation of a political agenda with common goals which would indicate “a culture of digital solidarity,”67 but such an infrastructure offers the potential for experimentation and experiences of creative interaction, for becoming collective in new ways.

7. Emerging Neighborhoods

The swarms that emerge on 4chan can be identified as techno-social groupings and thus as neighborhoods. But in contrast to classical concepts of neighborhoods in the case of Anonymous, anonymity and spontaneity are constitutive for the swarms. These neighborhoods do not exist beyond the processes of circular affection through the anonymous postings and their specific dynamics. Instead they only emerge as systems of dynamic relations, in the affective processes. They do not share a common background, they are not based on common myths and narratives, they have no past and thus no acquaintance. They do not need any beforehand-shared identity that is based on a common story of a neighborhood in which people live and organize their lives next to each other. Only within the moment of the encounter, of the circular affection the elements are constituted as neighbors.

Nevertheless these new neighborhoods are local: Analyzing occurent relations within and on 4chan does not only point to the fact that people who do not meet physically but are connected via a technical medium can unexpectedly perceive a sort of community. It rather highlights the fact that these emerging neighborhoods include media technical elements which themselves become essential parts of the relational events without previously being attributed such a meaning. People becoming part of the swarm might be dispersal but their neighborhood is localized as it is based on a specific infrastructure. A technologically informed notion of neighborhood concepts takes into account the constitutive role of media technologies – as exemplified in the analyses of 4chan from a new materialist perspective. Such a notion further inspires a theoretical discussion of the relationality of the concepts of locality and materiality that situates the technologies as well as their analyses within specific dispositives.

1 Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs. The Next Social Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

2 Felix Stalder, Digital Solidarity (Lüneburg: Post-Media Lab, 2013).

3 Sebastian Vehlken, “Zootechnologies: Swarming as a Cultural Technique,” Theory, Culture & Society 30(6) (2013), p. 110–131, here: p. 112.

4 Carolin Wiedemann, “‘Greetings from the Dark Site of the Internet’ – Anonymous und die Frage nach der Subversion in Zeiten der Informatisierung,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie (forthcoming).

5 In recent years new materialism more and more pushes back the transcendental, humanist and thus dualist traditions that still shaped cultural theory, as Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin write. They euphorically claim that for the first time this approach, the neo-materialist, is ‘getting the attention it needs, freeing itself from the Platonist, Christian, and Modernist rule under which it suffered for so long’. See: Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin: New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), p. 94–95.

6 See, for example, Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community. Homesteading at the Electronic Frontier (Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993) and Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995)

7 Isabell Otto und Samantha Schramm, “Media of Collective Intelligence,” (Research Programme of DFG-Network), (last accessed May 23, 2014).

8 Isabell Otto and Samantha Schramm stress that this is particularly remarkable in view of a culture-historical tradition in which swarms are imagined as diffuse enemies that are uncontrollable or employed by natural sciences to describe societies.

9 Stalder, Digital Solidarity, p. 41.

10 Eugene Thacker, “Networks, Swarms, Multitudes,” Ctheory. May 18, 2004, part one: and part two: (last accessed May 23, 2014).

11 Jussi Parikka, “Politics of Swarms: Translations between Entomology and Biopolitics,” Parallax, 14: 3 (2008), p. 112–124, here: p. 115.

12 Stalder, Digital Solidarity, p. 41; Thacker, Networks, Swarms, Multitudes, part two.

13 Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 30.

14 Marianne Pieper and Carolin Wiedemann, “In the Ruins of Representation. Affekt, Agencement und das Okkurente,” Zeitschrift für Geschlechterforschung und Visuelle Kultur, 55 (2014), p. 66–78.

15 The question then is why use notions such as ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ if one wants to overcome exactly this division.

16 Eva Horn, “Schwärme – Kollektive ohne Zentrum. Einleitung,” ed. Eva Horn and Lucas Marco Gisi, Schwärme – Kollektive ohne Zentrum (Bielefeld: transcript, 2009), p. 7–26, here: p. 17.

17 Stalder, Digital Solidarity, p. 41.

18 Anonymous in general cannot be classified as a swarm; rather, it functions as a “living network,” to use a term first employed by Thacker, see also: Carolin Wiedemann, “Between Swarm, Network and Multitude. Anonymous and the Infrastructures of the Common,” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory (printed version forthcoming), (last accessed May 24, 2014). But in order to illustrate the concept of an online swarm and to concretize the role of circular affection single actions/moments that are attributed to Anonymous are a quite suitable example for the swarm phenomenon – like the LOLcats.

19 The phenomenon of LOLcats and the discussion of memes are interrelated. Most people turn to Lolcats in order to explain internet memes, see: Kate Miltner, “SRSLY Phenomenal. An Investigation into the Appeal of LOLcats,” (last accessed May 24, 2014). Thus memes are defined as digital images, often overlaid with text, animations and sometimes memetic hubs of videos that emerge in a grass-roots manner through networked media and acquire a viral character by spilling over from their ‘birth place’ into diverse online channels and to other forms of media and thus becoming globally popular. A video that goes viral is not automatically a meme as a meme does not emerge unless people contribute by modifying it, responding to it, and enacting it. This definition by Olga Goriunova refers to the self-reflection of meme culture that platforms as Knowyourmeme have developed by conducting crowd-sourced research into memes, see Olga Goriunova, “The force of digital aesthetics: on memes, hacking, and individuation,” English draft which has been translated into German and published in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 8 “Medienästhetik,” 1/2013, draft available online: (last accessed May 24, 2014).

20 For an overview of these theories see: Christian Borch, The Politics of Crowds: An Alternative History of Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

21 Christopher Poole, “Meme Factory,” Paraflows 09: Festival, Digital Art and Cultures, Vienna, Austria (2009); see (last accessed May 24, 2014).

22 Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (Melbourne: Re:Press, 2011), p. 3.

23 Jussi Parikka, “What is New Materialism-Opening Words from the Event,” Blogpost on Machinology. Machines, noise, and some media archeology by Jussi Parikka (2010), (last accessed September 2, 2014).

24 Quentin Meillassoux. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum. 2008), p. 5.

25 See Dolphijn/van der Tuin, New Materialism, p. 177.

26 Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, p. 121.

27 Alex Reid, “Latour and Correlationism,” Blogpost on digital digs. an archeology of the future, (last accessed May 24, 2014).

28 Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam,” Critical Inquiry - Special issue on the Future of Critique, 30.2 (2003), p. 225–248, here: p. 231.

29 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 39.

30 Latour, Reassembling the Social, p. 157.

31 Brian Massumi, “Of Microperception and Micropolitics. An Interview with Brian Massumi,” Inflexions: A Journal for Research-Creation. No. 3. Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics (2009),

32 Marianne Pieper, Vassilis Tsianos, and Brigitta Kuster, “‘Making Connections’. Skizze einer Net(h)nographischen Grenzregimeanalyse,” ed. Theo Röhle and Oliver Leistert, Generation Facebook (Bielefeld: transcript, 2011), p. 221–248, here: p. 230.

33 Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 10.

34 Milla Tianen, “Revisiting the Voice in Media and as Medium: New Materialist Propositions,” Necsus. European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn (2013), (last accessed May 24, 2014).

35 Jussi Parikka, “Across Scales, Contagious Movements,” Blogpost on Machinology. Machines, noise, and some media archeology by Jussi Parikka (2010), (last accessed May 24, 2014).

36 I responded to some posts and participated in the conversations.

37 Some of the research on 4chan concentrates on the topic of anonymity and ephemerality which is possibly facilitating the creation of memes and important references for my analyses., i.e. Lee Knuttila, “User Unknown: 4chan, anonymity and contingency,” firstmonday. Peer-reviewed journal on the internet 16/10 (2011), (last accessed May 24, 2014); Jana Herwig, “The Archive as the Repertoire. Mediated and Embodied Practice on Imageboard,” ed. Günther Friesinger, Johannes Grenzfurthner, and Thomas Ballhausen, Mind and Matter. Comparative Approaches Toward Complexity (Bielefeld: transcript, 2011), p. 39–56; Gabrielle Coleman, “Our Weirdness Is Free,” ed. David Auerbach and Gabrielle Coleman, Here Comes Nobody. Essays on Anonymous, 4chan, and the other Internet Culture, 15 (2012), (last accessed May 24, 2014).

38 Luke Simcoe, “The Internet is Serious Business. 4chans /b/ board and the Lulz as Alternative Political Discourse on the Internet,” (MA Major Research Paper, Ryerson University – York University, 2012), (last accessed May 24, 2014), p. 2.

39 In a sample post from 4chan’s /b/ board that Luke Simcoe cites this is described more precisely: “This isn’t a family-friendly site. You’ll see lots of nigger dicks, girls with electronic gadgets in their asses, who look 13, racism, sexism, retards, faggots, heads split open, dead cats, and TONS of shit you won’t understand … oh and here’s a video of a guy being murdered with a hammer,” see Simcoe, “The Internet is Serious Business,” p. 8.

40 But it is not only the technical codes that could exclude some people but also cultural codes that have been established on 4chan, see Wiedemann, “Greetings from the Dark Side of the Internet”.

41 Herwig, The Archive as the Repertoire, p. 52.

42 Ibid.

43 Michael S. Bernstein et al., “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community,”“, Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, (last accessed May 24, 2014).

44 Bernstein, “4chan and /b/,” p. 56.

45 Knuttila, “User Unknown”.

46 Ibid.

47 Massumi, Of Microperception and Micropolitics, p. 2.

48 Ibid., p. 3.

49 Ibid., p. 3.

50 Herwig, The Archive as the Repertoire, p. 50.

51 Massumi, Of Microperception and Micropolitics, p. 3.

52 Ibid., p. 4.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid., p. 3.

55 Ibid., p. 3.

56 Wiedemann, “Between Swarm, Network and the Multitude”.

57 For an overview of the discussion on the relation of anonymous infrastructures and the notions of accountability and trust, see for example Batya Friedman, and John C. Thomas, “Trust Me, I`m Accountable. Trust and Accountability Online,” Summary of a panel discussion with experts (1999), (last accessed May 24, 2014).

58 Herwig, The Archive as the Repertoire, p. 52.

59 See: (last accessed May 24, 2014).

60 Massumi, From Microperception to Micropolitics, p. 13–15.

61 Ibid., p. 15.

62 Latour, “Why has Critique Run out of Steam,” p. 233.

63 Jussi Parikka: “Dust and Exhaustion. The Labor of Media Materialism,“ Ctheory. October 2, 2013, (last accessed May 23, 2014).

64 Vehlken, “Zootechnologies,” p. 127.

65 Tony Sampson, Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) p. 126.

66 Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture. Politics for the Information Age (London: Pluto Press, 2004), p. 67.

67 Stalder, Digital Solidarity, p. 14.

  • New Materialism
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Carolin Wiedemann

arbeitet als freie Journalistin u.a. für Missy Magazin, Spiegel Online und die FAS und ist Doktorandin am Institut für Soziologie der Universität Hamburg. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind neue Formen von Kollektivität, Subjektivität und Subversion, Theorien digitaler Netzwerke.

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