Macroanonymous Is The New Microfamous
An Interview With The Founder of 4chanA month ago on the eve of ROFLcon, I interviewed the founder of 4chan for a magazine story that never ended up running. He chatted about everything from the techincal complexities of keeping 4chan alive to the anxieties of operating the most controversial site on the internet. By the end of the interview, I was thinking "This kid has seen stuff that would make my eyes burn, but he seems so smart and sweet about it all." (He started the site when he was 15; he just turned 21.) It seemed like insightful stuff that should run somewhere, so here it is....
Like many successful internet phenomena, 4chan is a shockingly simple idea: an online bulletin board where anyone can post pictures.
This simplicity is deceptive.
4chan is actually one of the most robust, complex, annoying, disgusting, illuminating, perverse, fascinating online communities ever created. It is the direct or indirect source for many of the strangest internet memes: RickRolling, LOLcats, Sarah Palin's email hack, Anonymous, Chocolate Rain, and many other minor and major feats of esoterica (i.e., fucked up weird porn). Most of these viral specimens arose from the site's most popular image board, /b/, which can be the source of considerable hand-wringing and fist-clenching for anyone who has dared navigate its murky, anonymous waters.
4chan's founder is a 21-year-old New Yorker named Christopher Poole. Known as "moot" to the site's devotees, Poole is disarmingly well-spoken and pragmatic about what he has created. "It's my belief that the community should dictate its norms, standards, and rules," he says. "I've left /b/ to its own devices, with very little intervention."
Of all the memes spawned from 4chan, is there one you feel most attached to?
At the last ROFLcon [in Cambridge last April], someone asked "Do you like RickRolling?" I said something to the effect of "Screw RickRolling!" Everyone gasped because that was the cool thing at the time.
But now they'd probably agree.
Yeah, once Nancy Pelosi does a RickRolling video with her cat on YouTube, you know it's done.
But then I remembered that my favorite was something called Weegee, and only two people in the crowd were like "Yeah, Weegee!" That's a good sign -- that no one knows what it is.
What is it?
Weegee is just a vectored photo of Luigi from Mario Brothers placed in completely random situations.
Sounds harmless. Does it bother you that most people think of 4chan as only being the most controversial board, /b/?
We have 44 image boards at this point, so in that sense it's a small part of the site. But /b/ accounts for 30 percent of our traffic. That's where the attention is, that's where the headlines are coming from. That's also where a lot of the rowdiness and lawlessness goes on.
What do you think of that lawlessness?
Some of it can be healthy, as long as it remains within certain boundaries.
Like that we don't actually break that law. Because of the lack of rules, 4chan has fostered an environment where there's a lot of creativity and good things coming out of it. But at the same time, when people go out and do crazy things...
Which kinds of things?
The best example is when Jake Brahm was arrested for posting a bomb hoax. [In October 2006, Brahm was arrested for threatening to blow up multiple NFL stadiums. He was sentenced to six months in prison.] And after that we saw a lot of copycat stuff. People were getting arrested for saying they were going to do the same thing. Law enforcement was coming every week and asking for our help.
When you started the site, did you expect any of that?
Absolutely not. Its popularity has been entirely an accident. I was 15 years old and into anime. I threw up one image board, which was the original /b/. At first it was all anime. As people started posting other things, I added more boards and /b/ remained the random board.
4chan has blown up over the past five years. It's gone from 100 people to 4.75 million per month. And /b/ is pushing 100 million pageviews.
What makes it so big?
At the time, it was very unique. Image boards and anonymous BBS had been big in Japan, but not in the West, where we were used to bulletin boards and blogs. When 4chan started, the format was new. And it was unique because of the anonymity aspect.
What was your scariest moment running the site?
Probably the first time I was contacted by law enforcement. At the time I was 16 and I was living with my mother. That was shocking.
Given your user base, are you worried about your own identity theft?
Yeah, I originally hid behind the moniker because I was 15. It was not appropriate to use my real name at the time. My friends didn't know, my parents didn't know, my educators didn't know. Back then, people didn't appreciate the site so much, but now I can point to good things like LOLcats. Back then, they would have just seen porn.
When did your family find out?
Only when those articles came out last year. I kept it a secret from almost all of my friends and family until 2008. It was five full years of living a double life.
Was your mom shocked?
I don't think anyone was put-off. Four years ago, it was just a porn site. It's matured a lot into something a little more presentable. Now I think they can appreciate it as more than that.
One of the most interesting things about 4chan is that nothing gets archived. Threads disappear within an hour. It's a contradiction -- 4chan is known for creating memes, yet it's designed for them to die so quickly.
The lack of retention lends itself to having fresh content. The joke is that 4chan post is a repost of a repost of a repost. There was a guy who was downloading every image from /b/. He calculated that 80 percent of what's posted has been posted before. So it's survival of the fittest. Ideas that are carried over to the next day are worth repeating. The things that are genuinely funny get carried over.
The reason we're seen as a meme generation factory is because of the unique qualities of the image board and the lack of retention. On other bulletin boards, threads are archived indefinitely. All the big threads have been around for months or years. But with 4chan, something has to be really good to keep getting posted.
How involved are you with Anonymous?
I'm not involved at all.
What do you think about it?
I think it's interesting. When Scientology tried to make the Tom Cruise video disappear, there was this instant mobilization of thousands of people who banded together overnight. They had plans to stage a worldwide protest. I thought that was pretty incredible. I was fascinated by it.
Are there situations where they go too far?
I would say so. Submitting bomb threats -- stuff like that is going too far. You need to be smart about it. You can't just throw it all away with threats, you have to be proactive and productive.
Because there's no membership policy, it seems like anything can get attributed to being an act of Anonymous.
Yeah, now it's become more of a buzzword for the media. Now anytime something happens, it gets labeled as "an act of international hate group Anonymous."
That's why I always personally felt that the movement was destined to fail. You've got two types of people: You have the Anonymous members who are genuinely passionate about dismantling Scientology, but then you have the casual hangers-on who are just there to troll. Because you can't filter it and because the membership is open, Anonymous will always be held back by the bottom rung who are pelting Scientology with eggs and bomb threats and these mischievous juvenile acts. They are holding back the people who take it more seriously. For every step forward Anonymous makes, they can go 10 steps back with one negative headline.
You must feel something similar. 4chan has a mixed public image too.
4chan certainly has a stigma.
And Anonymous seemed to emerge out of 4chan.
Yeah, I would say that's definitely the case. Anonymous culture emerged out of image boards. The rules of these communities spawned some of the original thinking behind the group. But once the Scientology protests started, people outside of 4chan joined. At that point it diverged into its own thing.
How much does it cost to run the site?
About $6,000 per month. That's actually not too bad for a site that is all rich media and has 300 million pageviews. I don't have any overhead past that. I don't have any employees. I don't have an office.
Are you making your money back?
Just barely. We're trying to convince advertisers that our community is worth their ad dollars. That's been a really uphill battle because of our content. Advertisers will Google us and see that we're huge, but they'll also see all these threats and hacks. It scares them away. Overcoming that stigma is difficult.
Have you thought about dropping the controversial board?
People have suggested dropping /b/, but that's the life force of the site. I can't do that. It was the first board, and it will be the last board to go.
I imagine you've seen so many strange things doing this site. What's the most demented thing you've seen?
I'd be happy to email you something. [Laughs.] I've seen some horrible shit. I like to think that I've grown as a person, but at the same time I think a little piece of me continues to die every year.
What have you learned from all this?
I'm still trying to figure that out. I need to start thinking about getting a job. I don't have a resume. I've been asking myself, what have I learned about the internet, what have I learned about myself? At this point, I've been unable to articulate that.