Updated: The anarchic online community known as 4chan isn’t known for doing things that are cute and heart-warming. In fact, the site is mostly known for posting sophomoric humor and graphic sexual imagery, and when the members of its most popular discussion board — known as /b/ — go after someone, it’s typically to subject them to ridicule and/or make them miserable. But not today. Today, someone at 4chan decided that the Internet should get together and wish 90-year-old WWII veteran William J. Lashua a happy birthday, and by lunchtime, his local branch of the American Legion said that they had heard from people as far away as Sweden.
It’s not clear how 4chan originally came across a photo of Mr. Lashua, but a member of the site posted a snapshot (embedded below) of a flyer that was posted on the bulletin board at the local Legion a local store in Mr. Lashua’s hometown of Ashburnham, Mass. The flyer asked for guests to attend the nonagenarian’s birthday on Sept. 4 at the Legion hall. Whether it was the 4chan member’s call to “make this guy the happiest person ever for a day,” or the fact that Mr. Lashua looks a bit like a real-life version of the grumpy old man from Pixar’s popular animated movie “Up,” the post took off.
From 4chan — which has given birth to most of the Internet “memes” that many users are likely familiar with, including LOLcats and the RickRoll — the idea spread to other social networking sites such as Reddit, as well as Tumblr and even Facebook. A recent check showed that the account someone set up for Mr. Lashua’s birthday had 3,956 “likes” and over 500 comments, most of which were wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for his military service. Someone on Reddit noted that in contrast to their usual behavior, 4chan members “were giving him nice phone calls and sending him nice notes” and discouraging those who wanted to do something stupid or mean. “They were all being.. well, shucks… awful nice.”
The bar manager at Mr. Lashua’s local branch of the Legion — a woman named Linda who said she knows the 90-year-old well — told me in a brief phone interview that she’d received almost 100 calls from people as far away as Switzerland, Japan and Sweden, and that she planned to put together a collage of all the places that had sent in birthday wishes. She added that a lot of the people phoning had given her the impression that they thought Mr. Lashua didn’t have many friends or family, and that’s why he was advertising for people to come to his party. “But that’s not true,” the manager said. “He has a big family, and lots of friends. It’s still nice to hear from so many people though.”
In addition to putting together the collage for Mr. Lashua, Linda might want to put together some extra chairs as well — a number of 4chan members, Reddit readers and Facebook fans said that they live near Massachusetts and are planning to make the drive there for the festivities. It remains to be seen what the WWII vet thinks of strangers showing up at his birthday party saying they heard about him on the Internet.
Although 4chan is known for plenty of unpleasant incidents, including the recent case involving a teenager who uploaded her videos to YouTube (s goog) and was targeted by the site, Mr. Lashua’s birthday isn’t the first time the site has engaged in something more positive: 4chan users have been instrumental in tracking down people involved in animal abuse cases, such as the girl who recently threw a puppy into a river and uploaded the video to YouTube. Embedded below is a video presentation that 4chan founder Christopher Poole — known to users as Moot — did at the TED conference about the benefits of anonymity in online communities.
Update: William Lashua’s grandson has posted a response on Reddit to the outpouring of Internet support for his grandfather (the poster’s identity was verified by a staffer with the Reddit site). He said that while he and his family “appreciate the outpouring of love and generosity,” his grandfather has a large family and many friends, and they would all appreciate it if those who don’t know him personally did not attend the party. “By all means, send cards and well wishes,” he added, “but please refrain from sending gifts/strippers/cakes/candies/etc. and instead please make a donation in his name to a local veterans charity.”
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