4chan’s Founder on Why Anonymity Can Be Valuable

Christopher Poole, the founder of the anarchic website and discussion forum known as 4chan, spoke earlier this year at the TED conference, and the video of his talk has just been posted (it’s also embedded below — if you can’t see it, the YouTube version is here). In it, Poole talks about the incredible growth of the site, which he started in his parent’s basement and now gets over 7 million unique visitors a month and 700,000 posts every day. But Poole — known to 4chan users as “moot” — also talks about the governing principle of the site, which is that anyone can say or post anything and remain completely anonymous.

Poole hints in his talk at the downside of this anonymity, which is in evidence daily on 4chan’s notorious /b discussion forum (warning: do not go there unless you have a strong stomach and are over 18). He describes how he posted a comment telling 4chan that he was going to be speaking at TED and asking for suggestions about what to discuss, but then says he can’t mention any of the 16,000 comments that were posted in response because they were all offensive and/or obscene in some way. This is exactly the kind of behavior (albeit a little more subdued) that many mainstream media outlets often see in their comments, which they routinely complain about.

So anonymity must be bad, right? Surely no one would argue that 4chan produces anything of real value. Except that Poole also describes the movement that arose out of the site — known collectively as Anonymous — and challenged the Church of Scientology, including the church’s stifling of former members using copyright claims and other legal methods, in a move that many viewed as a public service. Poole also describes how a group of 4chan members saw a video on YouTube of two men abusing a cat, and within hours had identified them and alerted the authorities, who later arrested the two. Even 4chan users have their standards of behavior, it seems.

At the end of his talk, Poole wonders whether in the age of Facebook and “transparency” we aren’t giving up something important by losing venues where people can say anything without fear of personal repercussions. It’s a good question. As communications studies professor Nancy Baym discussed in a recent interview with GigaOM, plenty of people have good reasons for maintaining an online identity that is separate from their public one (something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly said showed a “lack of integrity”). And while it’s true that a platform like 4chan allows all kinds of offensive behavior to occur, it can also allow other things to happen, many of which could ultimately be valuable.

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