In 2003, the consumer internet was still relatively new, and there were still pockets of the web that were largely undiscovered — like 4chan, an online message board that Christopher “Moot” Poole first set up in his parents’ New York apartment at the age of 15 as a way for fans of Japanese animation to share images. The site soon became a massive, sprawling experiment in group psychology and the benefits and drawbacks of anonymity, like the internet’s collective id.
Now Poole has announced that he is stepping back from his involvement with his problematic creation, saying he came to the conclusion that “as 4chan’s sole administrator, decision maker, and keeper of most of its institutional knowledge, I’ve come to represent an uncomfortably large single point of failure” for the still rapidly-growing site.
Henceforth, Poole says, the community — which his parents didn’t even know he was operating from their apartment until a Wall Street Journal story first revealed his secret identity in 2008 — will be run by a group of supporters and volunteers who have been helping Poole over the past few years, and the site has enough funding to be self-sustaining.
600 million pageviews
For a garish-looking web community with an internal culture that is so arcane — and content that is so repulsive, in many cases — that it actively repels “ordinary” people, 4chan has become one of the most popular places on the internet anywhere: in his post, Moot notes that the site has received more than 42 billion pageviews since it first appeared on the internet, has hosted over 1.7 billion posts, and gets more than 600 million pageviews a month.
The site itself will continue, Moot says, because he has spent the past couple of years putting together a structure that would keep it functioning without his input. That likely took a lot of effort, since for most of the past 11 years or so, he has been the only full-time employee of 4chan — and the content on the site has made it extremely difficult to pursue the normal methods of funding a site with such a massive audience, such as ad revenue or venture capital.
At a couple of points over the years, 4chan has gone offline for extended periods because Poole ran out of money to operate the servers or pay for the bandwidth required, but donations have enabled it to continue. The site also has some advertising, but for obvious reasons doesn’t get much.
Value of anonymity
More than almost any other site — with the possible exception of Reddit, which is like 4chan’s older, more responsible brother — Poole’s creation has become a kind of standard-bearer for the value of anonymity and pseudonymity online. While many critics argue that it enables the worst kind of racist and misogynistic behavior, Poole has remained adamant that it also allows people to share their thoughts and feelings in a more authentic way, for better or worse.
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”4chan’s gift of anonymity offers us something not often found on today’s Web—the opportunity to speak our mind and share ideas and be judged for the content of what we write rather than who we are.”[/blockquote]
Poole talked about his commitment to anonymity, and why he thinks it has value for society, in a TED video several years ago, which is embedded below.
At a time when BuzzFeed has raised $50 million and is now valued at almost $1 billion after starting its life as a repository for cat photos, and Reddit has also raised a similar amount of venture funding despite hosting sub-Reddits aimed at people who are sexually aroused by pictures of dead bodies, it’s a little surprising to think that 4chan has remained virtually unchanged both in purpose and in execution for over a decade.
For many people, 4chan probably represents the dark underbelly of the early internet, the kind of infantile humor and unrestrained emotion that we’ve put behind us, now that the web is everywhere, President Obama is doing Reddit AMAs and Facebook and Twitter have become multibillion-dollar, publicly-traded companies. But whatever happens to the site now that Moot is gone, I think there will always be a little 4chan inside all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. And I for one would miss its sense of lawless enthusiasm.
Poole, who says he would like to stay involved with the site as “Admin Emeritus,” is planning to take part in a live-streamed Q & A session on Friday, January 23rd via YouTube. He said he is also taking questions via email at [email protected]