4Chan, the influential and controversial internet subculture that spawned Anonymous, Rickrolling and Rage Guy, is “misunderstood” as “the dark heart of the internet,” its founder Christopher Poole said.
Outlining his case for online anonymity – complete with a dig at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – 24-year-old Poole argued that 4Chan’s chaotic messageboard is a fertile breeding ground for creativity. “It’s riffing on a massive scale,” Poole told a packed audience in the Austin Convention Centre at SXSW. “4Chan is misunderstood – people like to think that /b/ [4Chan's infamously random subforum] is the dark heart of the internet. It isn’t just that.
“People want to think everyone on 4Chan is a young rambunctious male. That’s not accurate – it’s a wide range of people using it. One of the things that 4Chan does that’s really special is the way people come together to collaborate en masse. It’s the process at which you arrive at the product that is fascinating.”
Poole, better known by his online alias Moot, has long been a leading advocate of anonymity. It was one of the founding principles of 4Chan, a site that he created at age 15 and that has since grown into one of the largest forums on the web. The site’s members have sparked new ideas and topics of conversation that have subsequently spread around the internet, but there is a darker side as well, as some 4chan members have also consciously initiated bogus rumors and hacker attacks on web sites they didn’t like. It is Poole’s belief in anonymity that puts him in stark contrast to Zuckerberg, two years his elder, who described anonymous internet posting as showing “a lack of integrity.”
“Zuckerberg’s totally wrong on anonymity being total cowardice. Anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, raw way,” Poole said, adding that the internet allows people to “reinvent themselves” as if they were moving home or starting a new job. “The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself,” he said.
Around one in four of 4Chan’s 25 million monthly users are active contributors to the forum, according to Poole.
What would Poole do if he started 4Chan today? Well, it would look a lot like his weeks-old image manipulation and sharing project, Canvas. Still in closed beta, Poole says flinging open the doors to thousands of users would “dilute the culture” that already exists there – a stark contrast to 4Chan’s early days (although Poole was just 15 at the time.)
“One of the mistakes I’ve made is believing in an invisible guiding hand as far as moderation goes … that if you give the community the right structure they could police themselves,” he admits. “I’ve underestimated the value of having a real staff presence, and encouraging them to police the boards behind the scenes. When it’s not clear that we’re leading things it’s like we’re not there and that we don’t care – it’s extremely detrimental to community.
“At one point, we let it go [to the extent that] we were so far behind the scenes that when we came back it was met with a mixed reaction [from 4Chan users].”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.