Canvas, a grown-up 4chan, opens to the public

Seven years after launching anarchic image board site 4chan, Christopher Poole aka “moot” unveiled Canvas in January, a re-imagined message board that takes the learnings of 4chan and applies them to a more mainstream community. Now, Canvas, which has been in private beta, is open to the public.

The site was built as a modern day message board or community forum, designed to engage users in real-time interaction around images that can be edited, tweaked and commented on. The site is meant to build off the growing interest in hanging out and engaging online, something Om calls the Alive Web, recently embodied in sites like Users riff off of uploaded images using a built-in remix photo editor or by applying stickers. Video, rich text and other tools are on their way in the months to come.

I chatted with Poole last week and he said the goal was to rethink what a message board should look like in a multimedia world. He said many of his ideas stemmed from his experience with 4chan, which has grown into a community of some 12 million users. But he wanted to evolve the premise beyond 4chan and create a more mainstream platform for community interaction.

4chan has gained a reputation as a sort of Wild West destination, where many an Interent meme is launched or fueled by its mostly anonymous users. Its denizens have also been known to pass around sophomoric jokes and graphic sexual imagery.¬†Poole said he believes Canvas can grow even larger by playing off the best aspects of message boards, and capitalizing on people’s growing ease in spending long periods of time on the Web.

“For the longest time, people felt bad if they spent a lot of time on a computer. But there’s now a richness to online relationships and socializing that didn’t exist before,” Poole said. “The market is huge. Tens of millions of people use message boards and forums to hang out, chat, meet people. If we do a good job of offering these community experiences, it could be potentially a lot larger than 4chan ever was.”

While born out of the work that went into 4chan, New York City-based Canvas makes some clear departures, including its much more refined look. It also requires people to register with their Facebook ID, which Poole said is designed to discourage bad behavior. Users must agree to a code of conduct which prohibits adult content and limits profanities directed at other people. And perhaps most interestingly, Canvas includes an archive, something 4chan never had. Poole said the idea behind the archive is to understand the relationship between content and make it easier for people to explore, navigate and study the site.

“4chan is hard to study because it gets erased. It’s hard to trace the source of an idea. We were excited to see how you can trace content and how assets are related,” Poole said.

The early results suggest that Poole is off to a good start. He said since starting out with 4,000 users, the site has grown to well more than 50,000 users via private invites shared by members. According to Poole, the average user session length is 13-15 minutes, not quite up to the 18 minutes of 4chan but very promising. And he said he’s gotten a lot of users involved already, something every community struggles with. More than a quarter of users have remixed a photo on Canvas, and between a 1/4 and 1/2 of users have uploaded an image, remixed a photo, or applied a sticker that includes messages like smiley face, frown or cookie.

Unlike 4chan, which was boostrapped by Poole, Canvas has some serious backing from top investors. Canvas has raised $3.6 million from Union Square Ventures, Lerer Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Founder Collective and SV Angel. With that money comes added expectations including questions about revenue.

Poole said he wants to introduce some premium features to Canvas that will help enhance engagement and improve the user experience. Display advertising will be a last resort and instead, Poole said revenue might revolve around premium tools or additional stickers like Canvas’ “#1” stickers, which users collect for participating and can redeem for items or share with others. He said the key is to introduce premium features quickly and let the community get used to them, rather than foist such elements on them much later after certain expectations have been set.

“The more you can learn earlier, the better you can respond,” he said. “We’re rather know the ways to add value and we’d like to get into the equation and identify and explore the opportunities sooner rather than later.”

Ultimately, Poole said he believes Canvas can host a lot of unique communities that gather around the central platform. That, he said, can help create a much bigger opportunity with Canvas than currently exists with 4chan and other forums.

“4chan was a destination, but Canvas can be a community platform,” Poole said.