How are public figures transformed/memefied?

Christopher Haworth, Robert Landwirth, Mylène Ly, Matteo Banal, Emilie K. Sunde.

1. Introduction

If we take /ourguy/ as a genre of subcultural communication then we can say it involves a prompt posted by an original user (usually ’is X our guy?’), an image representing ‘ourguy’. The intention is to ignite a collective process of deliberation, wherein the participants debate whether the suggested person is, in fact, ‘our guy’. For this project we focused on the images. Using image sorting software we sought to gain an insight into the subcultures that use 4chan/pol by analysing which figures recurred over time, and whether there were any identifiable image practices (modification, remixing, citation) that could be discerned.

2. Initial Data Sets

We collected yearly 4chan/pol/ posts 2016 to 2019 using 4CAT (Peeters and Hagen 2018), with the following query in OP subjects: "/ourguy/" | ourguy | "our guy" | "/our guy/"

3. Research Questions

A working comparison for us was memes. Using 4cat and imagej, we were interested in discovering whether the image practices associated with /ourguy/ would be similar to memes, or whether they would be different. We were also interested in understanding why the figures that recur over time do so. Could these be understood in relation to political events, which might reconfigure associations and allow a particular figure to persist? Do they reflect the implicit politics of /pol, which can be outlined as far-right, libertarian, social conservative, and/or ethno-national? Finally, how can we understand this recurrence in relation to 4-chan as a socio-technical environment, where the transience of the medium means conversations need to be continually re-initiated in order to maintain some subcultural continuity and identity?

4. Methodology

Step 1: Creating Image maps and identifying people

  • Search for posts for each year 2013 to 2019 on 4CAT

  • Using the following search terms:

    • "/ourguy/" | ourguy | "our guy" | "/our guy/"

  • Create an Image map by similarity image sorter

  • Look at the image sorter image of each year subsequently

    • For each year:

      • identify people that appear in clusters [add 1/15: or that we find interesting / just expect to have relevancy over multiple years]

      • Write down their names

Step 2: Selecting interesting people and map them to a timeline:

  • Select people that appear repeatedly across years

  • Curate images of these people across years

  • Map them on a timeline

Step 3: Select a subset of people on the timeline and analyze signifying practices:

  • Find /ourguy/ threads about them

  • Analyze.

Additional research queries:

  • We looked at 4plebs, search term “ourguy” (without parentheses)

    • Searched for post title

First hits we found were from 2016 (133 datapoints)

5. Findings

People we found in clusters:

After we had downloaded all the images for each year we imported them into ImageSorter and looked at the clusters collectively using ‘distant’ and ‘close’ reading. We found that certain characters repeated over the years, as indicated below:

2016 2017 2018 2019
  • Kanye

  • Trump

  • Malik Obama Tweet (supported donald trump)

  • Steve Bannon

  • Stalin

  • Soros

  • Bernie

  • PewDiePie

  • Glenn Mueller

  • Hitler

  • Pewdiepie

  • Paul Nehlen

  • Malik Obama

  • Netanyahu

  • Joe Rogan

  • Glenn Geenwald

  • Soros

  • Trump

  • Alex Jones

  • Steven Colbert

  • Hitler

  • Kim Jong Un

  • Trump

  • PewDiePie

  • Kanye

  • Corbyn

  • Elon Musk

  • Mel Gibson

  • Tucker Calrton

  • Glenn Muller

  • Soros

  • Bernie

  • Bill Murray

  • Trump

  • Andrew Yang

  • Glenn Greenwald

  • Soros

  • PewDiePie

  • Kanye

  • (Joe Rogan)

  • Glenn Mueller

  • Hitler

  • Carlton Tucker (Fox News)

  • Bernie

We were interested in wider interpretations related to 4chan as a social and technical environment and created categories that would allow us to identify comparative themes. The first category was ‘consensus’, which essentially meant figures that corresponded unambiguously with the implicit politics of the platform. The second ‘contested’, which included public figures who were not obvious representations of ourguy. Finally we also included a list of historical figures who recurred over the years, either alone of superimposed on other ourguy characters.

Contested: Bernie, Soros, Andrew Yang,

Obvious: Trump, PewDiePie, Kanye,

Historical characters: Hitler, Stalin, Marx.

From this we were left with two main considerations. We set out to find images of ‘ourguy’ in order to analyse the transformation/evolution of the image as a meme, however, we began to consider after initial findings that we might show the lack of transformation/evolution of the image of ourguy instead.

Example of thread studied:

He’s a MAGA (Make America Great Again ?) man.

/ourguy/ is white (or at least half-white)

Example of threats summarised:


* our guy:

- Israel doesn't like him / wants to cut funding to israel

- pro (white) working class

- (free healthcare, education)

- against the 1% / billionaires

* not our guy:

- he’s jewish

- he’s pro gender equality / non binary sexuality

* logic:

- triggers a conversation on appropriate policies and political means to achieve a benefit to the white working class (liberalism, communism, protectionism asf.)


* our guy:

- supposedly served in the SS and said this time was "the best time in his life"

- is against israel / got denounced by israel

- claims he was a nazi collaborator / "sold out the Jews"

* not our guy:

- he's jewish

- is a "traitor to his own people"

- just money / power hungry

* logic:

- 2017 a lot of the Soros discussion happens in long threads. These threads continuously trigger the creation of 'conspiracy theories' such as "i looked at these 3 pieces of information and concluded that Soros is the one sponsoring the Antifa".

On the structure and function of the /ourguy/ form

Communication in the /ourguy/ form is started by creating an original post containing a picture, a tweet or another representation of a person and offering a sort of 'opening statement' of why this person should be considered as 'our guy'. The arguments in the opening statement often include a link to a youtube video or a news article and thus are in some form related to current media events. The following discussion is handled mainly in yes or no statements as a vote of confidence (with harsh language) but different types of discussions can ensue. As discussed, in the Bernie threads there was a lot of discussion on the question if his policies and political stances actually benefit the "white working class" -- if open borders or protectionism is preferable and so on. In threads on Soros a lot of people offered conspiracy theories trying to figure out what his "master plan" is and where to put him in a net of fictionalized power relations.

In general, during these discussions it is assumed that there are a set of ideological alt-right ends that are shared by participants during the discussion (not explicitly stated). The arguments offered by OP and other information that might be inferred or brought into discussion is read against these merits.

Next to statements that just react in a harsh form of agreement or disagreement, many aspects that could be brought up in a discussion are left out: (1) discussion is mainly related to the information brought up by OP. There is no attempt to paint a 'full' picture of how a person has to be perceived. It is rather assumed that an idea of the person under discussion is shared by all participants. (2) as stated, the specific values a candidate is read against are also assumed to be shared between participants not spelled out.Both of these 'selective blind spots' keep the complexity of the discussion low, in the sense that they circumvent in depth discussion of character judgements and attribution,which diverse and dispersed group of communicators would probably not agree on fully. Measures like these might be necessary for a form like /ourguy/ to work.

On thread dynamics and further research

Hypothesis: The rise and fall of the popularity of /ourguy/ threads seems to be connected to the popularity of a person (in this communicative circle) and the propagation of media events that can suitably be discussed in the forms that /ourguy/ threads produce. As such you can see strong discussion on Soros, when there was suitable information being propagated in 2017 but it tapers off 2018 and the last thread in 2019, where someone asks if Soros is our guy only has one reply that "Soros is evil". Other characters with a strong media appearance through the years, like Trump, Kanye or PewDiePie stay in the discussion.

Besides trying to complete the picture by offering a more complete qualitative description of the inner workings of the /ourguy/ form further research should verify the hypothesis proposed above by (a) looking specifically at how /ourguy/ threads of a specific person start and end (b) if there are any requisites outside these threads that are relevant for them to start appearing and (c) how threads relate to specific media events.

On the use of conspiracy theories

The /ourguy/ threads are full of conspiracy theories. Knowledge seems malleable and the creation of suitable conspiracy theories have currency. Varied conspiracy theories are constantly produced and also commented by other users. This practice is enabled by a couple aspects of the alt-right ideology and discursive situation:

  • a) As a public figure, you can't openly state that you are a nazi -- that is why it is reasonable to speculate if a person like Soros is 'in truth' a nazi.
  • b) General Media discourse is bluepilled. Actually redpilled information is acquired from alternate channels and often an subserive reading on general media narratives.
  • c) Being redpilled means subscribing to a set of core truths that are never explicitly stated but are tacitly assumed to be shared.
  • d) Ourguy threads are also judged on concordance with these 'core truths' and reasonings are read against them.
  • e) the ideology is very individualistic and you should come to truths "thinking for yourself" because general information outlets and the public is brain washed
  • e) Apart from subscribing to redpilled truths (i) you have to hide your true intentions and (ii) you should uncover the hidden truth by personal reflection

As such the conspiration theory is a medium that can afford the constantly reproducing communication while also affording alt right ideology.

6. Discussion

We did a close reading of two 'ourguys' commonly proposed on 4chan/pol: Bernie Sanders and George Soros; enriched by non-systematically looking at some other examples. The method can be best described as an ethnographic reading of practice that, while it exhausted all cases of the two 'ourguys' mentioned, couldn't be carried out systematically or in-depth because of time restraints. Interpretation focused on understanding the general practice of proposing and 'voting' for an 'ourguy' and typical forms of communication that go with it. Through this research we could come to a number of insights regarding creating an ourguy-thread and possibilities for further inquiry.

  1. Proposing an ourguy post and the way people react to these original posts has a specific structure. A thread is started by creating an original post containing a picture, a tweet or another representation of a person, as well as offering a sort of 'opening statement' of why this person should be considered as 'our guy'. The arguments provided in the opening statement often include a link to a youtube video or a news article and thus the selection of ourguys is also linked to their prevalence in mainstream media. The ensuing discussion is handled mainly in "yes" or "no" statements, as a vote of confidence (oftentimes in employ of harsh language).
  2. Proposing different 'ourguys' might lead to different forms of auxiliary discussion. As such it was (tentatively) observed that in the threads on Bernie Sanders there was a lot of discussion on his policies and political stances and if they would actually benefit the white working class; if open borders or protectionism would be preferable and so on. In threads on Soros a lot of people offered conspiracy theories trying to figure out what his "master plan" is and where to put him in a net of fictionalized power relations.
  3. A lot of the values commentators used when judging actors and arguments remained unexplicated. While this is in itself is not remarkable, as colloquial communication generally requires a majority of its value judgements to remain tacit (Luhmann), the self-assurance with which (a) actors judged and (b) actors presumed judgements are shared are nonetheless remarkable. Not explicating value judgements leads to a reduction of complexity in communication that must be necessary, when a group of disparate strangers try to agree on something.
  4. The character of the 'ourguys' remained unexplicated in a similar vein. Non-explication seems to be a necessary aspect of agreeing on the internet. When looking on how symbolism works in group formation (Collins) or even on the level of organizational action (Brunsson), this might come expected to many readers. But even though 'fuzziness' in symbolism is a requirement to collect disparate points of views, the veracity of the judgements coupled with the, at least to our eye, aggressive disregard to the blind spots (von Foerster) created in the process, warrant a further inquiry into the specificity of this affordance.
  5. On the surface, it seems that the ourguy form is employed to create a form of symbolized, shared identity. As a form, it is constantly reproduced (though it had its heyday 2017 and is since then in decline). One might argue that, since it is a form of identity creation that has no lasting effects, it is imperative that it has to be constantly reproduced.
  6. Sociologically, another (pertinent) venue of questioning could be drawn from points one and two to five: If the ourguy form is a practice that is supposed to be read as some form of identity formation, what is the group whose identity is shaped by it? While it seems plausible that only a group of actors with shared values would be interested in reproducing this type of interaction ritual, it actually might be fed by replies of actors holding completely different types of values and engaging in it, to realize a diverse set of motives. Thus asking the question: "Can a group be presupposed?" (or: "What type of group can be presupposed?"), when analysing ourguy threads as communicative practice, should lead to interesting and important results.

We think that the above collected observations, offer ways to build upon our foray into ourguy threads on 4chan in a productive and informed manner.

7. Conclusion

Discuss and interpret the implications of your findings and make recommendations for future research and application, be it societal, academic or technical (or some combination).

We initially expected to see practices of image transformation as one would see with memes. Instead the majority of images we have observed are unmodified images. While there were variations to the images, it could be that their relevance was predominantly because of the medium specificity - 4chan is an imageboard making the image a prerequisite to start a new threat.

Instead of an image transformation there appears to be a contextual transformation. E.g. Marx becomes a better icon of American citizenship than Reagan becomes of two out of context comments about gun ownership. An interesting point of research could be the relationship could be to follow up on this indication.

/pol/ is an subculture which is supported and maintained through anonymous participation. The practice of /ourguy/ appears to be a way to discuss what constitutes the group mentality. Without visible identity, each time a new thread is begun on the topic the conversation seemingly starts anew. A practice like /ourguy/ serves the purpose of allowing to demonstrate a form of group identity by constantly renegotiating the values of the group through posing a vote of confidence through the representation of a public figure. Future research could investigate how this practice allows for culture to accumulate without being fixed to identities. What is the incentive for the user to start the conversation when the person cannot gain cultural capital? Research could attempt to understand how subcultural communities sustain without standard capital accumulation. How does subcapital accumulate in anonymous communities? What is ‘gained’ if with every post you start from zero?

8. References

Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Brunsson, Nils. The organization of hypocrisy: Talk, decisions and actions in organizations. John Wiley & Sons, 1989.

Collins, Randall. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Luhmann, Niklas. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995.

Nissenbaum, Asaf, and Limor Shifman. ‘Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital: The Case of 4chan’s /b/ Board’. New Media & Society 19, no. 4 (April 2017): 483–501.

Shifman, Limor. ‘Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker’. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 18, no. 3 (April 2013): 362–77.

Tuters, Marc, and Sal Hagen. ‘(((They))) Rule: Memetic Antagonism and Nebulous Othering on 4chan’. New Media & Society, 27 November 2019, 146144481988874.

Von Foerster, Heinz. "Cybernetics of cybernetics." Understanding Understanding. Springer, New York, NY, 2003. 283-286.

Wiggins, Bradley E, and G Bret Bowers. ‘Memes as Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape’. New Media & Society 17, no. 11 (December 2015): 1886–1906.

-- SalHagen - 03 Feb 2020
Topic revision: r1 - 03 Feb 2020, SalHagen
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