If you’re like most casual netizens, you’ve likely heard about 4chan but never ventured in. That’s OK! We put together a comprehensive beginner’s guide. It’s got everything the New York Times won’t tell you about the “darkest corner of the Web.”
Christopher “moot” Poole founded 4chan in 2003, when he was a 15-year-old manga fanatic in Westchester, New York. Poole valiantly refused to monetize his site—not that he’d have an easy time of it, considering its content—even as his traffic skyrocketed to 22 million unique visitors per month. 4chan’s users are the most influential tastemakers and content creators on the Web—and also the most dangerous.
In recent years, some things have changed and others have stayed exactly the same. In 2015, moot sold the site to Hiroyuki Nishimura, the founder of Japanese imageboard 2ch. It was a fitting way for him to step down after more than a decade: 2ch was the prototypical anonymous imageboard that led to Futaba Channel, the underground anime board that eventually inspired 4chan. In a way, it was like 4chan had returned to its roots.
Beginner’s guides often become obsolete within months. Online communities change daily. Userbases are fickle; they get bored and vacate to make room for a younger generation. Web designers push for full site overhauls.
Not on 4chan. It’s as archaic and lawless as ever. It’s also still incredibly popular—the 381st most trafficked site in the U.S.
1) The devil is in the FAQ page
The last thing anyone wants to do when visiting a new site is read its FAQ page. But on 4chan it’s not only crucial, it’s extremely helpful. You can find all sorts of information such as an explanation from Poole on what 4chan actually is and why it does not allow users to register accounts.
“4chan’s collaborative-community format is copied from one of the most popular forums in Japan, Futaba Channel,” the page reads. “Different boards are dedicated to different topics, from Japanese anime, manga, and culture to video games, music, and photography. Users do not need to register a username before participating in the community.”
Because 4chan does not have an archive or a user registration system, the FAQ also contains details on how to keep track of your posts.
2) Know your boards
Of the more than 60 different communities on 4chan, its random imageboard, /b/, is by far the most popular, with nearly 700 million posts as of May 2016. /b/ was the second board Poole added to 4chan in 2003, right after its anime board, /a/. Since then, /b/ has spawned the Anonymous hacker movement and been behind some of the Internet’s most well known pranks. In just the last year, /b/ helped North Korea’s Kim Jong-un win Time magazine’s Person of the Year poll, tried repeatedly to have a creepy old dude win a contest to meet Taylor Swift, and bombarded a Facebook remembrance page for a dead teenager with despicable messages. And yet while all of this may inspire you to make /b/ your top spot, fight the urge. It’s not as glamorous as you think.
For nearly every thread detailing some prank or raid, there are hundreds of others filled with porn, unintelligible rants, and violent imagery. Broaden your horizons with these boards:
Paranormal (/x/): 4chan’s /x/ is like the summer fireside chat that never ends. A place where mysteries are solved, conspiracy theories debunked, and questions about life’s weird occurrences are addressed.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (/lgbt/): Launched only on March 18, is the first devoted to a serious societal issue. Users discuss serious topics like reproductive rights, sexuality, and same-sex marriage. Thanks to 4chan’s anonymity, users can open up about personal issues—hair removal, hormone therapy, coming out—without fear of backlash.
Fitness (/fit/): /fit/ is the bench press spotter you’ve always wanted. The community often takes a lighthearted approach to fitness (like posting an image of a massive looking cheeseburger) while providing constructive feedback on workout regimens. /fit/ rallied together in July to have one Australian man banned from his local gym chain after he secretly captured photos of people working out and posted them to Facebook to mock them
ROBOT9001 (/r9k/): It was January 2008 and comic artist Randall Munroe was tired of having his chatroom spammed and overrun with reposts. To fix this problem, Munroe and a coding buddy created ROBOT9001. The robot was so successful, Poole created a board using ROBOT9001’s technology “to keep the denizens of 4chan from reposting images, memes, or other text more than once, enforced by a bot that would scan posts for unoriginal content and ’mute’ users for increasing periods of time for each infraction,” Oh Internet reports. In terms of content, the board is filled with philosophical musings and posts on sex.
Shit 4chan Says (/s4s/): A 2013 April Fools’ Day joke about the 4chan competitor/derivative Reddit that users just decided to run with it and turn it into a “shitposting” board. It still exists today, and it mainly consists of attempts to start bad fake memes—which is, to a 4chan user, exactly what Reddit looks like.
3) Learn your vocab
sauce: Slang of the word “source,” used to ask where someone found a particular photo or to demand that they explain a certain claim. “Sauce” can either be a request for images/videos or 4chan’s version of “citation needed.”
bump: This is a comment that forces the thread to rise to the top of a particular board. Use sparingly, if at all.
sage: By entering the word “sage” into the email field will allow you to comment in a thread without bumping it to the top of the imageboard. It is typically used to comment on terrible threads without giving them more visibility.
cancer: Used to identify misused Internet memes or sayings, or accuse others of “ruining” a board or failing to embody its spirit. As a rule of thumb, everyone thinks anyone who joined 4chan before or after they did is cancer.
shitposting: This doesn’t apply to any bad post, just to bad posts made intentionally for fun. /s4s/ is dedicated entirely to shitposting, which theoretically means there’s less of it on other boards.
lurk: to read a board without posting your own contributions. Lurking is not just acceptable, but highly recommended. If you make a bad or unoriginal post, someone will likely reprimand you to “lurk more” (sometimes “lurk moar”) before trying that again.
feels: Short for feelings. Used when someone is overcome with emotions. Your feels–usually over things like childhood nostalgia or unrequited crushes—are valid and important. Others’ feels make them unmanly or “beta as fuck.”
GET: A GET is a "a randomly generated event on image boards that is noted when a post’s unique ID number consists of rare integer sequences, such as 1,000,000, 123456789 or 55555555," Know Your Meme reports. This numerical phenomenon is heavily celebrated on 4chan. If the post that scores a notable get is lame or unfunny, it will be decried as a “failget.”
OP: Stands for “original poster,” the person who originally published the thread in question. It’s a longstanding tradition for OPs to promise the board something—usually sought-after nude photos that can’t be found elsewhere online—and to fail to deliver. In such cases, the OP will be labeled with one of 4chan’s traditional slurs, “faggot” or “beta.”
roll: A roll is an attempt to have the last two digits of a post match up with a predetermined number. The OP often sets the number and purpose from the start, such as “27 or 72 decides what I name my new cat.”
dubs, trips: Post numbers ending with two or three of the same digit are known as dubs or trips, respectively. OPs often promise rewards contingent on rolling dubs.
kek, top kek: Kek is a word indicating laughter or amusement that grew up alongside, and eventually replaced, “lol.” It likely has its origins in World of Warcraft, where one faction’s “lol” is translated as “kek” by the other. It may also have derived from Korean Starcraft culture, where it’s short for the laughing expression “kekekeke,” or from the shift of “lol” to “lel,” which then became kek. (Notice that l and k are directly adjacent on standard keyboards.)
Top kek is just a really good kek, and also a brand of Turkish cupcake.
As of May 2016, kek has become played out, and some on 4chan are proposing replacing it. One of them is this thing—卍h†卐╠þ'—which is reportedly pronounced “manjithorn.” It probably won’t stick.
an hero: Outdated, but still used occasionally. Originated in 2006 after 7th grader Mitchell Henderson committed suicide. To commemorate his life, Henderson's friends started a MySpace page. One of the comments left in the page stated, “He was such an hero.” Since then, the term has been used by trolls as shorthand for “kill yourself.”
/b/tard: A combination of bastard and retard. It is used to refer to a person who posts regularly on /b/.
newfag: A new 4chan user. The cancer that is killing /b/.
oldfag: A longtime 4chan user. Also the cancer that is killing /b/.
summerfag: Often used in combination with newfag. Used to describe the influx of young, dumb 4chan posters that invariable arrives when schools let out for summer vacation. Again, cancer.
normalfag/normie: Shorthand for people, usually not on 4chan, who are passing members of mainstream society and don’t share 4chan’s interests in anime, video games, internet trolling subcultures, and weird porn. On the board, “normie” can be an insult, implying characteristics like being boring or unable to think critically. Normalfags are also sometimes the subject of envy for their ability to navigate social situations and get laid.
fap: A verb meaning “to masturbate.” Onomatopoea for a sound you don’t want to think too hard about. /b/ users often share fap material with the board, and save collections of good or novel porn.
Triforce: Somewhat dated, but an important part of 4chan history. The Triforce is a symbol from Nintendo’s Zelda series. It consists of three triangles shaped into one larger triangle. On 4chan, users are able to recreate the symbol using ASCII characters. As described on Know Your Meme, “Those who simply copy & paste the triforce will fail to achieve proper alignment, as shown”:
These users were often labeled “newfags,” and “newfags can’t triforce” was a recurring catchphrase during the middle years of /b/ history.
moot: This is Poole’s pseudonym and Internet handle he has used since 2003. He was the face of 4chan from the time he revealed himself in 2008 until he sold the site in 2015.
patrician: A self-aware hipster music snob on the /mu/ board. Can also refer to any music a patrician considers good. See antonym at “pleb,” a mainstream peasant with poor musical taste.
tripcode: Although posting on 4chan is mostly anonymous, you can choose to identify your posts with a unique “tripcode.” Sometimes “tripfags” who do this become minor or temporary celebrities on 4chan, but they’re usually subject to extensive ridicule. Moot has sometimes used tripcodes when he wants to make himself known. This is pretty advanced stuff, and you should lurk and post anon extensively before you consider trying it. Instructions can be found in the FAQ.
It’s worth noting that many of 4chan’s boards have unique vocabulary that you’ll have to pick up by reading frequently before you post. (The workout terminology on /fit/ comes specifically to mind.)
In general, lurk more.
4) Grow a thick skin
If you can’t stand being called nearly every obscenity ever created and the sight of deformed genitalia, 4chan may not be for you. Even the most focused imageboards, like technology (/g/), will ultimately feature the passing offense. 4chan is also a staunch supporter of Rule 34, which states that "pornography or sexually related material exists for any conceivable subject." In other words, you will see porn. Don’t browse 4chan at work unless your workplace is extremely open-minded.
You’ll have a better time if you remember that 99 percent of what happens on 4chan is driven by the philosophy that “nothing should be taken seriously.” Attacks typically aren’t personal, although they can become so if you complain or fight back—also known as “getting butthurt”–because your reactions are a rich source of entertainment for the site’s trolls.
To see this dynamic in action, try lurking more.
5) Fake it till you make it
4chan’s anonymity is its great equalizer. Not only can you be anyone, with the right amount of research and understanding, you can find the non-cancerous sweet spot between newfag and oldfag and avoid being accused of “killing /b/.” And hell, even if you make a fool of yourself, chances are the thread will expire in less than a day.
When in doubt, consider lurking more.
Additional reporting by Jay Hathaway
Editor's note: This story has been significantly updated for context and clarity.
Illustration by Jason Reed