It seems like just yesterday that teenaged 4chan founder Christopher “Moot” Poole was single-handedly operating the site from his parent’s house, running out of money for hosting fees on the one hand, while trying to avoid awkward questions from the FBI. Now the site is 10 years old — almost a lifetime in internet years — but apart from that little has changed: Poole still mostly runs it himself, and he still believes there is value in having a place where people can post things anonymously, even if those things are sometimes horrible.
In a great feature piece on 4chan and Poole at The Daily Dot, writer Fernando Alfonso III talks about how Poole, now 25 years old, became the flag-bearer for that often criticized principle of anonymity, and for what some have called the “raunchy underbelly of the internet.” One thing the piece reinforces is how unrelentingly normal — if a tad nerdy — Poole seems, for someone who is seen by some as a flag-bearer for all that is evil (Wired has a good piece as well).
Huge traffic, but no attempts to monetize
The only thing that seems even slightly abnormal about Poole is that he has never really tried to monetize 4chan the way startups usually do, despite operating on the knife edge of financial ruin for many years, and despite the fact that his service has traffic numbers that many sites would kill for, as the Daily Dot points out:
“Today 4chan is more popular than ever. Between 2009 and 2011, 4chan grew from 5 million monthly unique visitors to 10 million. It now collects 22.5 million each month, making it one of the top 400 sites in the U.S. Those are the sort of stats that techies and investors salivate over. Yet to this day, Poole has shunned conventional business practices.”
Admittedly, 4chan would probably find it difficult to charge advertisers for the right to have their content shown alongside some of the material in /b/, which is arguably the worst of the site’s message boards. And Poole has added some revenue-generating aspects to the site recently, including a $20 pass that allows users to avoid the CAPTCHA system when they are posting content. He has also improved the design and functionality of the site, which has likely helped drive traffic up.
So why should anyone be glad that 4chan exists, when it has been criticized so heavily for hosting offensive pornography, targeting young internet users just for “the lulz” (i.e., the laughs) and other reprehensible behavior? Poole himself provided one possible justification in a presentation at a recent anime conference: because the site provides an outlet for the worst parts of the web, and that prevents some of it from infecting the rest of the internet.
“4chan is like an asylum on the Internet. And if 4chan were to cease to exist — this is like Arkham Asylum. I mean, we’ve all seen Batman. There’s no Batman in this story. It’s real life. They would just rape and pillage. It would be horrible.”
The last standard-bearer for anonymity
His semi-humorous argument aside, however, I think 4chan serves a purpose apart from that — that there is a larger principle at work, and that Poole deserves a lot of credit for sticking to that principle: namely, that people should have a place where they can post things anonymously. At a time when many sites and services are forcing users to register with their legal names, Poole continues to believe that anonymity has value, as he argued in a TED presentation last year:
The fact remains that while anonymity allows 4chan users (and those at other sites such as Reddit) to post horrible things without attaching their real names, or to create the lolcats and other internet memes we enjoy so much, it also permits those sites to engage in some fairly advanced social engineering that I would argue adds value — such as the creation of Anonymous itself, which for all its flaws has directed a lot of attention to worthwhile causes.
Whatever you think of those outcomes, there’s no question that Chris Poole has dedicated much of his young life to preserving 4chan as a bastion of lawless anonymity on the internet — and at a time when everyone just wants to create a new photo-sharing app and then flip it to some internet giant to monetize, it is refreshing to know that people like 4chan’s creator still exist. He wrote a note on his blog about the anniversary, and recently told Details:
“As the social craze grows, sites want more and more from you. It used to be just user name and password. Now it’s user name, password, where do you live, how old are you? 4chan is the antithesis of that. We don’t ask for anything. You don’t have to provide anything. You type in a comment, hit submit, and there you go.” — via Details magazine