Now 10 years old, 4chan is the most important site you never visit
Rail-thin, mop-topped, and Vulcan-faced, 4chan founder Christopher Poole, 25, is following a fan to his car, parked in an Atlanta parking lot at 2 in the morning. He's got something to show Poole, the guy says. He opens his trunk, and inside is a Mosin-Nagant, a Russian rifle known around the Internet as the Moist Nugget.
“I don’t know if I could say this with the police officers in the room,” Poole says to a crowd of more than 1,000 people nearly 19 hours later. “If he posts that on /k/”—4chan’s forum for “weapons, armor, and other myriad military technology”—“I actually did in fact sign that.”
Any other Web entrepreneur who found himself staring at a fanboy’s gun would scurry into his car and tell Google Glass to call 911. But this is Poole, a.k.a. moot, the creator of 4chan—the “Internet Hate Machine,” the “darkest corner of the Web.” Poole oversees more than 22 million people who flock to the site each month to post photos of their guns (/k/), anime porn (/h/), and the most disturbing images imaginable (/b/) (warning: NSFW). So the staff at Anime Weekend Atlanta (AWA) aren’t taking any chances with security.
Outside, one of the guards barks “No bags, no purses” to patrons dressed as characters from the games BioShock, Kingdom Hearts, and Pokémon. “If you’re wearing a big costume, you’ll have to leave it with registration.”
There are more than 300 fans waiting in line to see Poole, and the extra security measures are a nuisance. But for Justin Sims, 22, they’re unavoidable. “Seeing how previous panels have acted in the past, I can understand it,” Sims tells me. He’s got long dreads. He’s in streetwear. He traveled more than 14 hours on a Megabus from Baltimore to attend this one event.
This is 4chan’s 10th anniversary panel—the first 4chan panel in six years and likely the last Poole will ever hold.
Running a startup is like raising a child, only Poole’s kid has landed him in court, thrown homophobic insults at him, and even, at one time, left him in more than $20,000 in debt and living at home with his mom.
Since he launched 4chan a decade ago, it’s been the most significant and complicated thing in his life.
The community he built holds immense power. It’s capable of bringing animal abusers to justice and giving the world its most beloved inside jokes and despicable online traditions. The site's memes have spawned multimillion-dollar companies and resurrected entertainment careers. Yet for all the good 4chan has done, it's the pornography, obscene language, and ethically bankrupt pranks that have made it infamous.
In January, 4chan users tried, semi-successfully, to convince teenage Justin Bieber fans to slit their wrists, then post their own nudes publicly on Twitter. 4chan users have been linked to the hacking of Sarah Palin's email account and accused of ruining the lives of countless teenagers through doxing (the release of personal information online). And that’s not to mention the damage the 4chan-bred Anonymous hacker movement has leveled against the Church of Scientology, Mastercard, and Sony, among countless others.
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.
He is 4chan’s only official “employee.” If the site is down at 2am, Poole is the person to fix it (chances are, with a cup of tea nearby). If you want to buy ad space on its music imageboard, Poole will walk you through the process. And if you find yourself staring at a nude photo your ex put online or someone swiped from your private Photobucket, Poole is the one who'll handle your takedown request. Poole has worked for free and, on countless occasions, sunk the little money he has earned back into the site. In 2008, when the world’s economy collapsed and the little advertising the site had collected dried up, he asked his mother for $9,000 to keep 4chan afloat. (He paid back the loan just a few weeks ago.)
Why on Earth would someone punish himself like this? Why would he jeopardize himself financially and legally for a website that collects 10 negative headlines for each positive one?
It has to do with this idea of being a father, sure, but it’s also like being a priest. Leading a congregation isn’t about the money. It’s about giving people a place to worship freely. Under the confession booth’s guise of anonymity, they’ll share some deep, demented secrets, shit they’ve never told anyone—but they’ll tell an anonymous forum. Does that make Poole complicit in his community’s crimes and possibly guilty himself? Particularly when it comes to pornography, homophobic slurs, and pranks carried out at the expense of completely innocent people? Maybe. Certainly, it makes him similar to the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tumblr cofounder David Karp, two fellow Internet entrepreneurs who faced the same challenge: When you’ve got millions of users, how do you rein them in? Do you even bother?
The golden age of memes
The tale of 4chan’s humble beginnings is one of the Internet's favorite fireside stories, and it has received its fair share of personal embellishments through the years. Many people still believe Christopher Poole isn’t even his real name (a theory given credence in July 2008 by Time magazine’s Lev Grossman). Using more than a half-dozen news stories from the past 10 years, and fresh information from Poole himself, I tried to get to the truth.
In the fall of 2003, the walls of Poole's childhood bedroom were empty except for a nylon banner of an Intel Xeon Processor. Poole was 15 years old, living with his mother in a New York suburb. He had just started his sophomore year of high school, he was bingeing on anime, and he was a member of a comedy forum called Something Awful—which, before 4chan, was widely considered to be the Ground Zero of memes. Poole hung out in a corner of the site called ADTRW (“Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse”), an anime forum, and Raspberry Heaven, a spinoff from ADTRW that used Internet Relay Chat (IRC). He was also a fan of the anime-focused site Futaba Channel (2chan.net) and 2channel (2ch.net). Users shared photos and text on boards focused around specific topics. The only problem was that these sites were in Japanese. But for a resourceful teen like Poole—he built a custom PC featuring an aluminum case and water-cooling system made using a fish-tank pump and a car radiator—that wasn't a problem. He was determined to combine 2chan’s anime culture with SA’s dedicated community.
Poole tracked down the source code for the Japanese site and began translating it using Altavista's Babelfish translator. The entire process involved a lot of trial, error, and subtle tweaks (like changing the default submission name from "Nameless" to "Anonymous".) It took Poole a week to rewrite 2chan’s code in English.
To pay homage to the Japanese site, and because the 3chan domain was taken, Poole named his site 4chan. The first board he created was /b/, a place for all anime/random content. With hardly any money to his name, Poole convinced his mother to lend him her credit card to buy some hosting space.
Poole launched the site on Oct. 1, 2003, and shared the news on ADTRW.
"4chan is merely bringing to the table what English speaking people have lacked for a while; a diverse community united around the simple thousand line piece of PHP code that we call tagboard," Poole wrote in his second official post on the site (the first was a “TEST” post).
"The road to becoming a full-fledged sister-site [of 2chan] will be a long and difficult one, however I believe that with the help of a few dedicated individuals, and a large, helpful, friendly community, greatness can be achieved."
To help keep server costs down, Poole kept 4chan painfully simple and ephemeral. Users were not able to register accounts or search posts. For every thread created on /b/, another was deleted. In other words, there was no archive.
One of Poole’s first volunteer developers was John (shut), a member of ADTRW and Raspberry Heaven.
“I first got involved with 4chan by designing the favicon,” John told the Daily Dot, referring to the tiny icon you see next to 4chan.org in your browser's address bar. This design ultimately inspired another volunteer developer, coda, to create the clover logo in 2007, which is still used today. Poole “later had needed help with a bug in the site where the board would allow gigantic image uploads if the file headers were a bitmap. With my basic knowledge of PHP, I was able to fix that bug and work on other small changes.”
Poole added more than a dozen boards over the next year and recruited moderators to help remove content that violated the rules. He tweaked the site’s source code to help fix downtime issues. He also ran a contest to design in-house banners. He collected more than 200 submissions.
Six days after launch, the site collected 1 million hits. Two weeks later, traffic nearly doubled. By December, Poole’s Web-hosting bill was $400. He couldn't pay it. Due to all the pornographic content on the site, advertisers hadn’t materialized, and requests for donations had fallen on deaf ears.
"This site simply does not support itself, it's a sad fact, but it's the truth," Poole wrote on March 1, 2004, about a week after a former moderator explained how 4chan needed $2,200 to stay up through the end of the year. "Even with the tons of users (most of the leechers who don't even post), we haven't had enough people pony up enough to pay two damn bills. March will will be the last month that I use out-of-pocket funds to pay the bill. Starting this March, if there is not enough money to pay the server bill, it will go unpaid and the server will be abandoned."
A week later, Poole's post was answered by anonymous donors. But through the rest of 2004, he would turn to the community for more money.
The answer was DONATE OR DIE 2005, a Kickstarter-esque campaign launched on Aug. 28, 2005. The goal was to raise $20,000 to purchase three servers and a year’s worth of hosting costs. With the site collecting more than 50,000 visitors a day, Poole was optimistic his goal could be met. Two days after launching, the campaign had collected $5,000. By Sept. 30, 400 people had contributed $14,000, just enough for Poole to purchase three Dell PowerEdge servers. This was the last time Poole would ever ask for money from 4chan.
Then, in 2005, Poole got his first buyout offer.
“When I was 17, I was approached by an online Japanese toy store and they offered me $15,000 for the website,” Poole told the New York Times in 2010. “I told them I wasn’t interested in selling, so they bumped the price up to $50,000. I said no.” (He hasn’t received another credible offer to this day.)
With the crisis averted and his mind made up regarding ownership, Poole returned to what he enjoyed most about 4chan: fostering its freewheeling community. And along with it came the inside jokes that we now know as Internet memes. Three of the first memes to materialize were I Herd U Like Mudkips, a reference to the water-type Pokemon; duckroll, a bait-and-switch gag; and LOLcats, cute pictures of felines with funny-sounding text over them. While I Herd U Like Mudkips has never evolved past being a hilarious copypasta, duckroll and LOLcats were the first memes to grab the world’s attention.
Since the invention of photography, people have been taking pictures of their pet cats. The 1870s photographer Harry Pointer often dressed his cats up in hilarious costumes, having them pose in human-like positions, and overlaying text underneath. For more than a century, those photos went largely unnoticed—until 4chan discovered them in 2005. That's when an anonymous user created Caturday—a response to “Furry Friday,” when the topic of choice was Disney characters having sex.
Caturday involved users channeling their inner Pointer by taking photos of cute kitties and adding misspelled captions over them. One of the photos included a chunky gray feline with the phrase "I can has cheezburger?" underneath.
Over the next two years, thousands of cat photos were uploaded to 4chan. One eventually caught the attention of a Hawaiian blogger named Eric Nakagawa. In 2007, Nakagawa registered the icanhascheezburger.com and encouraged people to build and submit their own LOLcat images. By June, icanhascheezburger.com was collecting 200 to 500 submissions per day and Web traffic that translated into "about $5,600 (U.S.) per week,” Time noted. It was rumored that the site was worth $1 million.
In September of that year, icanhascheezburger.com sold for $2 million to entrepreneur Ben Huh. At this time, the site was collecting 500,000 visitors a day. Over the next four years, Huh would transform icanhascheezburger.com into a 53-site, multimillion-dollar empire known as Cheezburger.
The monetization of 4chan’s funny inside joke did not go over well with /b/. 4chan users felt like they were unfairly being taken advantage of. Those concerns were given a voice in March 2012 during a talk Huh gave at ROFLCon III, an Internet-culture convention. (Fast forward to 10:50 to see the disgruntled 4channer.)
“The voices complaining about the business side of Internet culture has always had the counter-4chan element that 'The Internet Is Serious Business,’” Huh told the Daily Dot. “We've grown up, and past most of this, although some parts of 4chan gets angry at a company du jour every year. Perhaps it's a rite of passage.”
While the heckler made his way out of the lecture hall, Poole sat quietly in the crowd.
“I don’t have a problem with Ben Huh. I have a problem with I Can Haz Cheezburger,” Poole told me. “I like Ben, he's a nice guy, but I don't like his business model. … Kudos to them for finding a way to make money in the age of the meme. But I think that you see this now reflected in their various businesses and websites. We've seen eBaum’s World come and go. We've seen Cheezburger, I'd say, peak. We've seen 9GAG peak.
"Businesses are good for a few years. At the end of the day, they're not communities. People don't give a damn where they get their funny pictures. There's not a real culture. People are fickle. They are ready to hop to the next thing.”
If anyone knows how bad it feels when people move on, it’s British pop sensation Rick Astley. After a string of hits from 1985 to 1990, the singer from Lancashire, England, slipped into obscurity until something happened called the duckroll.
Duckroll began in 2005 after Poole decided to have a little fun with the community. Using some clever coding, Poole made it so every time a user used the word “egg” in a message, it would automatically be changed to “duck.” As the switch picked up traction, reports Know Your Meme, “users started posting links to an image of a duck with wooden wheels as a bait and switch, advertising the link to be to an exciting post.”
The meme’s popularity waxed and waned over the next two years, until March 2007. At the time, the Internet was buzzing with excitement over the upcoming release of Grand Theft Auto IV. Knowing just how desperate GTA fans were for leaked details, photos, and videos, one 4chan user posted a link to trick people into believing it was a new video of the game. Only instead of using duckroll, this user swapped it with Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video.
The Rickroll was born.
By November 2008, Rickrolling had become so popular, Astley was asked to perform at New York’s Macy’s Day Parade.
“Rickrolling will never go away. It's something that's so ingrained in Internet culture, I don't think it will ever stop happening or being funny,” Know Your Meme researcher Amanda Brennan told the Daily Dot. “It's a cornerstone, one of those rites of passage.”
Dealing with controversy
In the fall of 2006, a college freshman named Robert arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). It was move-in day. Robert and his roommate had met over the summer and become friends, but now he had to 'fess up about something.
"I showed up in Richmond, I went upstairs and asked my father to give me a few minutes,” Poole told me. “I sat my roommate down and said, ‘Hey, dude, my name isn’t actually Robert.’”
Like the name “moot,” Robert was a name the teenage Poole used to protect himself.
"I couldn't even legally purchase pornography, and now it was being posted to this website I ran,” Poole said. “I kind of had two separate worlds. I had the Internet and everything else. And I kept the two entirely separate."
That all changed on July 9, 2008, when the Wall Street Journal and Time both published articles revealing Poole’s identity. The stories ended up changing Poole’s entire life. His life on the Internet and his real identity were now permanently connected. 4chan ate it up.
Up until this point, 4chan lurked in the shadows of the Internet, the closest a person could get to the Dark Web without having to dive in. Any sort of raids, hacks, or controversies had mostly been ignored by the mainstream press, aside from a threat made against NFL stadiums that resulted in the FBI and Department of Homeland Security getting involved. But now with a name and face to pin all of 4chan’s indiscretions to, the world was taking notice. And 4chan gave them something to gawk at.
Over the next two years, 4chan went on a trolling tear. Here are just a few examples.
July 2008: Google swastika
It was a mystery Google could not figure out. On July 12, 2008, the symbol of the Nazi regime hit the top of Google’s Hot Trends, a list that tracks the most-searched terms at any moment.
“The swastika is a traditional Chinese good-luck character, the Olympics are coming up, and good luck is on the Chinese mind,” suggested one blogger who tried to explain why the symbol was trending.
A tip sent to Google revealed that the real reason a swastika was trending was a simple post on 4chan telling users to search for 卐, a shortcode built into most operating systems. 4chan users played along, and a controversial symbol shot to the top of Google’s trending list and forced the company to issue a statement apologizing.
Fall 2008: Steve Jobs death hoax causes stock plunge
Following almost every public appearance Apple CEO Steve Jobs made in 2008, a death or illness rumor followed. On Oct. 3, 2008, just two weeks before Jobs presented a keynote, a rumor appeared on CNN’s iReport that Jobs had suffered a sudden heart attack. The rumor proved to be false and was ultimately tracked down to 4chan. But the damage was already done. The rumor of Jobs’s death spread to Digg and caused Apple’s stock price to fall “about 10 percent before rebounding later in the day,” CNET reported.
January 2009: Boxxy
Catherine “Boxxy” Wayne just wanted to create a few funny YouTube videos for her friends on Gaia Online, an anime forum founded in 2003. But her videos found their way onto 4chan’s /b/. From there, the teen went viral, becoming one of the most significant dividing forces in 4chan history. Some, wrote the Guardian, “professed to love Boxxy and all she stood for.” Others despised her. Soon, “every thread threatened to spill over into Boxxy spam or a flamewar, and hundreds of 4channers went hacking Boxxy's YouTube account and other websites in search of her true identity.” In the end, 4chan was taken offline for a few hours by a denial of service (DDoS) attack by 4chan users tired of all the drama.
April 2009: The Time 100
As a way to pay tribute to their fearless leader, and have some fun at the expense of one of the most respected media organizations in the country, 4chan decided to game a public poll to have Poole selected for Time’s annual Time 100 poll.
Not only did they push Poole to the top of the list, they also rigged the rest of the poll, spelling out the phrase “Marblecake, also the game” with the first letter from the first name of each contender.
The plan worked, and Poole was voted "Most Influential Person of 2009." Although the poll had obviously been gamed by /b/, Time editors have the final say about who belongs on the list, and they decided to award a spot to Poole.
“The 21-year-old college student and founder of the online community 4chan.org, whose real name is Christopher Poole, received 16,794,368 votes and an average influence rating of 90 (out of a possible 100) to handily beat the likes of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Oprah Winfrey,” Time reported.
July 2010: Jessi Slaughter
The story of Jessi "Slaughter" Leonhardt begins in the summer of 2010, when an 11-year-old, mostly known for the words "If you can't stop hating… I'll pop a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushie,” grabbed 4chan’s attention. At the time Leonhardt was a mainstay on Stickam, a livestreaming social network and video-chat site. Once 4chan found her videos, /b/ engaged in multiple raids against her family in an attempt to alert them to her online antics. These raids included publishing her personal information, sending pizza to her home, and spamming her social media accounts. That’s what prompted Jessi’s dad to say two phrases that now live in Web infamy: “You done goofed” and “Consequences will never be the same.” It got his daughter on Good Morning America. Jessi is now living as a boy named Damien.
These were tame pranks. Poole never had to answer to anyone. But the hacking of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s email brought Poole attention he never wanted.
In September 2008, less than two months before the presidential election, Palin had her Yahoo email account compromised. The hacker: David Kernell, a college student and son of state representative Mike Kernell of Memphis. Kernell was able to access Palin’s email account by using Yahoo’s password-recovery feature.
He posted screenshots of the emails to 4chan’s /b/ imageboard. Kernell was ultimately arrested and charged with four felonies in October 2008. If convicted, he faces up to 50 years in prison.
Kernell’s trial began in April 2010 and featured testimony from Palin, her daughter Bristol, and Poole, who was forced to travel to Tennessee to appear in court.
“It’s not a way I like to spend my time,” Poole said.
Instead of just asking Poole about the information he had been ordered to turn over to authorities, lawyers for the prosecution and defense felt it necessary to prod him on the stand about 4chan slang and memes. (Read the full transcript here.)
On Nov. 12, 2010, Kernell was sentenced to serve one year and a day in prison; he is currently on probation.
Poole’s trip to Tennessee was a pain in the ass. But 4chan has taken him to way more interesting places.
4chan (sort of) grows up
There are only so many pics of dead babies, deformed genitals, and bug-eyed anime characters you can view before you start looking for something more in life. For Poole, that something was Canvas.
Started in January 2011 with more than $3 million in funding, Canvas was almost the polar opposite of 4chan. It's a safe-for-work community where users can remix images on the site in exchange for colorful stickers. Users could also register accounts. Not to mention, Canvas has a board of directors, a staff of more than five people, and a quaint office in New York.
During its first year, Canvas saw considerable growth. It collected more than 77,000 users and more than 5 million stickers. The community became particularly proficient at interpreting breaking news. For example in January 2012, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was photographed greeting Barack Obama at the Phoenix airport with a wagging finger, upset over how the president responded to her book Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politicos to Secure the Border. Canvas latched on to the awkward image and created several notable remixes that landed in the Washington Post.
“[Canvas is] more of an attempt to reimagine message-board software for modern browsers and sophisticated users,” Poole told the Daily Dot in May 2012.
“Images are really important to me. We knew we had to start with something media rich and remixing was an obvious component of that. We were thinking more about software in general, but it’s kind of continuing the ball that 4chan got rolling.”
Although it wasn’t obvious, Poole was also keeping 4chan moving forward on his own time. From a purely structural standpoint, 4chan was growing up. Poole and a small team of volunteer developers rolled out a new underlying HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and an API that would make it easier for developers to use and parse 4chan’s code. An optional $20-a-year pass system was created to bypass typing a CAPTCHA verification every time you made a post. Poole unveiled the biggest updates to the site on Sept. 19, 2013. In a lengthy news post, he revealed that he’d beefed up moderator tools, board-by-board search functions, and a public ban log to give users insight into what content is being removed, and why.
“Despite a seven-fold increase in visitors, what hasn't changed much is the site itself,” Poole wrote. “Aside from the front-page redesign some six and a half years ago (a scandal in its day) and the introduction of the catalog and inline extension, from a user’s perspective, the form and function of 4chan has largely remained the same. This has been deliberate. While we’ve made numerous behind-the-scenes improvements to support the site’s growth, we’ve always sought to preserve the core 4chan user experience.”
But 4chan’s grip on Internet inside jokes has waned. It still generates original content, which is then organized by Reddit and culled by sites like BuzzFeed and Gawker, where it’s given a catchy headline and dropped onto your Facebook news feed. Eager to remain relevant, then, the community has remained in the news by upping the ante on its pranks and raids.
Oddly, despite occasional raids on the social media pages of dead teenagers, things seem to be getting more positive, more inclusive, more supportive on 4chan. It’s shown an aptitude for politics, crashing the George Zimmerman trial by Skyping in en masse. It launched an LGBT forum, /lgbt/, which seems to be catching on. /b/ got a teenager arrested after he tweeted a video that showed him kicking a helpless kitten. The same forum got an iPad-wielding jerk banned from his gym. Last week, a user launched a weekly newspaper that helped popularize the channel of disabled Scottish YouTuber Colin McCooey.
“4chan is like an asylum on the Internet,” Poole says at Anime Weekend Atlanta 2013. “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 is real life. They would just rape and pillage. It would be horrible on one hand, but fascinating.”
“I know that you’ve said that you like skinny, sexy girls, and stuff like that,” one girl from the Anime Weekend Atlanta audience asks. “I want to know your hobbies and interests.”
“Boxers or briefs?” inquires a dude. (Poole wears boxers.)
Could you imagine Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pausing his neverending selfie spree to answer a single one of these questions? Or Zuckerberg, tugging on his hoodie drawstring? David Karp, flashing his thousand-yard stare in one of his signature untucked button-ups?
Your average tech titan will place public relations hacks, investors, and campuses full of employees between himself and his users. It’s hard to measure success by community satisfaction. Dollar signs are easier.
That's what Poole has avoided since 2003, for better or worse.
“Chris has tons of integrity in regards to 4chan and the open Internet,” John, the developer, told me. “As for sites like Facebook and company, people have obligations, and it’s understandable that they would take the opportunity to cash in on something they've worked very hard for, I doubt the world is going to drop capitalism anytime soon. Chris was very forward-thinking in deciding to branch out from 4chan in order to pay the bills, making it a labor of love rather than his sole work.”
To this day, Poole vows never to sell out. But he realizes that there will be a time where 4chan will be too much for him to run by himself. It’s a question that has dogged him for years and one he hopes to answer soon.
“It's possible that it'll continue to grow, it'll decline. Either way, I’m happy,” Poole said. “I never set out to have a large website. Everything is gravy if 4chan went back to being 20 people in a room with me. I just want to make sure the lights stay on for people who need them to be on. How do we get things to a place where a site can outlive its founder? That’s what’s important.”
This article has been edited to reflect additional details provided by Poole.
Illustration by Jason Reed