"Please run a post explaining 4chan, /b/, the Encyclopedia Dramatica, etc.," asks reader Gabe Roth. "I just have no idea what that stuff is about, and it makes me feel old." While Gawker commenters know every obscure web site or at least can fake it, regular readers may want an explanation of some of the Internet's most strangely influential sites, an explanation shorter than Wikipedia's 2200-word article about 4chan. So I'll define Encyclopedia Dramatica, 4chan, /b/, Something Awful, and YTMND.
The Wikipedia of obscure Internet memes, particularly those on the sites that follow. ED is run like Wikipedia, but its style is the opposite; most of its information is biased and opinionated, not to mention racist, homophobic and spiteful, but on the upside its snide attitude makes it spot-on about most Internet memes it covers. However net-savvy you are, ED is edgier, and it will perform 2 girls 1 cup on you to prove it.
An English-language forum based on what is possibly the largest forum in the world, the Japanese 2channel. While 4chan's topic areas cover several aspects of Japanese culture, anime, and plenty of dirty hentai, the only board that matters is /b/.
A subset of 4chan, technically a "random image board," where completely anonymous — no login, no username — people try to shock, entertain, and coax free porn from each other. Encyclopedia Dramatica calls it the asshole of the Internet. It's where LOLcats started as the edgier, funnier Caturdays, in which photos of cats (particularly on Saturday) were posted and captioned with forumspeak, which degenerated into the LOLspeak you now think is so clever.
Customs on /b/ include posts promising photos of personal degradation in return for certain kinds of porn or other helpful information; sarcastically asking for advice on teen romance; sarcastically asking/telling anything; pretending to have insider info or be privy to breaking news; posting image puzzles; and raiding other people's sites. Major media coverage is always full of fear and loathing, and is sometimes hilarious, as in this investigation by the Fox news reporter who played himself on Arrested Development:
/b/ has no rules; pretty much the only thing guaranteed to get a user banned is child porn, and even that gets constantly joked about. Reading /b/ will melt your brain, but sometimes you need that. It's like how I can't start a rough draft without a beer, but the analogy works better with heroin mixed with fiberglass.
A comedy site on the level of Ebaum's World, Fark or College Humor. SA specializes in full-length articles about pop culture and weird web sites. The site is at its best when it mocks bizarre forum writers, such as this string of weird posts from Dogster, where users often post in character as their dogs.
It started with this web page, a sound bite looped over an image and some floating text: "You're the man now dog!" YTMND creator Max made it after seeing Finding Forrester and pinpointing the "you're the man" line as the moment Sean Connery lost his dignity. He then made a site for other such mini-pages, which have evolved into mini-movies. The site, like any decent forum, developed a rich set of in-jokes, especially because interaction relies on creating a little mesh of several concepts. Popular in-jokes include Star Trek's Captain Picard (personal favorite: "The line must be drawn here!"), a joke about Mike Tyson's Punch-Out and the phrase "Nigga stole my bike," and a song called "Bake a Pretty Cake" from a kids' show called "Lazytown." The Lazytown character Stephanie (pictured) has inspired deep research on YTMND into ages of consent around the world. Stephanie and other fads are constantly recontextualized and mashed up with each other; for example, "Bake a Pretty Cake" works well when played over a flaming body fleeing a burning building with the words "She didn't do the cooking by the book." It's like mashups only with less of the creeping feeling that you're just listening to two crap dance songs at once. Actually, it's exactly like that.
YTMND culture is much less abusive than 4chan but less accessible than Something Awful; it's another of the early churners of fads that haven't yet popularized on Fark, Digg, and Boing Boing.
Moral: You're not old, Gabe, you just have more comprehensible sites to read.
And barely any of "the kids" are reading the sites above; most of them are glittering out their MySpaces. Right, I think that covers the most important fad factories that most people haven't heard of. If you need more sites explained so you don't have to actually visit them, or if you really want an exploration of MySpace glitter culture and a definition of "Thanks for the add," e-mail me at nick at toomuchnick dot com.