In an exclusive interview, the 4chan founder discusses how Canvas builds upon his storied past and captures the “story” of a meme.
Christopher “moot” Poole cannot remix his past.
Since starting imageboard 4chan anonymously in 2003, Poole’s racy site has inspired people to do some very good and equally disturbing things on the Web. It has also turned him into a cult-like figure who was conspicuously voted Time’s most influential person of 2008.
Poole famously started the site at age 15 in his parents’ New York apartment as a place for anime fans to share their favorite photos. But like its Japanese inspiration Futaba Channel (also known as “2chan”), 4chan quickly evolved into an amorphous beast that still collects more than 300,000 unique visitors a month and is famous for starting memes, most notably LOLcats, rickrolling, and the Pedobear.
Yet, despite its creative tendencies, the site is still notoriously known for /b/, the random imageboard described by the New York Times as a “high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line.”
“I think 4chan is going to stay the same,” Poole recently told the Daily Dot.
“It works. It’s grown from zero to 20 million people. It’s still holding strong. It’s growing. It’s always been a slow and steady growth. It’s great in a lot of ways.”
Poole, now 24, has long since moved on from 4chan, but the curly-haired entrepreneur cannot go anywhere without talking about the site he created while in high school. That was the case at ROFLcon, the third annual Web culture convention, where Poole went to promote his latest endeavor, Canvas.
The new safe-for-work site allows users to remix images on the site in exchange for colorful stickers. Since starting the site more than a year ago with $3 million in funding, Canvas has collected more than 70,000 registered users and has become a haven for budding artists, meme addicts, and news junkies eager to express their opinions visually.
As Canvas’s treatment of a photo of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer greeting President Barack Obama at the Phoenix airport in January illustrated, the image-sharing platform has the potential to change the way people view and digest the news. That particular incident inspired several notable remixes and a mention in the Washington Post.
Even with Canvas’s growing success, however, Poole’s 4chan history continues to overshadow all else.
During his standing-room-only panel, Poole discussed his early beginnings, remix culture, and the business of memes. Poole answered each question with the same finesse seen two years ago during his TED Talk on anonymity, but he received only one question near the end of his talk about Canvas.
For Poole, the site presents a unique opportunity to build upon his past.
“There were just a lot of things where we took the opposite approach to 4chan,” Poole told the Daily Dot at ROFLcon, where he blended in with the college-aged crowd with a faded T-shirt. He still had the youthful, wide-eyed look seen in the four-year-old Wall Street Journal article that exposed him as the creator of 4chan, but he’s learned a lot since then.
“4chan is lacking an archive. And one of the things you miss is that a meme is the output of a much longer story. It captures the essence of a story.
“But it’s not just that ending that is special. It’s the process by which you arrive at the ending. All of that darting back and forth and that creative storytelling. And that’s really important. And that’s something you can’t capture on 4chan. I think keeping an archive and being able to trace the genesis of an idea—of an image—is really fascinating.”
Personally and professionally, the relationship between the two social networks seems to be a natural extension for Poole.
“I think that Canvas will kind of be separate but for those who kind of graduate from 4chan, it is there,” Poole said.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Dot, Poole elaborated on that idea, the future for 4chan, and what he hopes Canvas becomes.
Daily Dot: 4chan was originally started as a place for people to share anime-related images. Is Canvas the ultimate manifestation of that idea?
“It’s more of a attempt to reimagine message-board software for modern browsers and sophisticated users. 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.”
DD: Since the beginning, 4chan has struggled with advertising and monetization. How do you plan on addressing those issues with Canvas?
“That’s one of the benefits of being venture backed; it’s something we can defer for the time being. With 4chan, the cost of hosting it added up very quickly and at that time when I was 18, I didn’t have the income of my own so it was a challenge to make money and break even on it. With Canvas, we can pay our bills for a long time without monetizing. It will something we will be expected to do in the future, but I think that advertising is low on the list on what we want to do.
DD: What difference have you noticed with starting 4chan versus starting Canvas?
“It’s been very different. That was part of my dilemma two years ago was I wanted to do something new and I knew I wanted to do it separately because I knew that 4channer’s like 4chan the way it is and it’s not really my place to change it to suit me because I want to work on something new. So I decided to do it separately. Then there was this question of, well, do I do it bootstrapped again or do I raise capital? And the reason why I decided to do it with capital was, I felt that I had learned a lot from the experience of 4chan and starting it with no resources. It forced me to be resourceful and kinda [be] MacGyver.
“But I also know the pain of not being able to purchase more bandwidth, more servers, to hire more programmers, designers. I decided that raising money and having the resources to hire an amazing team of people and to pay for great hosting off the back and defer running ads was the way I wanted to try it.”
DD: What is the future for 4chan?
“The one thing we’ve worked on is we’re going to be rolling out new HTML soon. The design will be the same but the underlying HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), will be brand new. That’s because the code that we have is nearly 10 years old and more importantly, it’s a lot easier for extension developers, app developers and users to parse through our code and do things with it. It will look and function the same way.”
DD: 4chan has cemented its position in the history of Internet culture. Yet despite the early success Canvas has had, people are still very much fixated on your first site.
“We have a lot of meme culture on the site and whatnot. When we think of memetic culture, it is the ‘sausage factory’ of the old days. And I think Canvas can be factory for the ‘new Internet.’ And I think that 4channers are especially sensitive to that and monetization. With meme culture being everywhere it’s kind of lost a little bit of that richness and flair when it had more of an underground feeling. It will be interesting to see how Canvas navigates that. Will it become a meme-factory? Is remix something bigger and broader than just humor? Is it something that, again, just represents creativity in general?”
DD: Any Canvas meme or moment that stands out?
“The Canvas original photo challenge thread. That to me was a real test of whether Canvas creates more value than it captures. We’re all about creating and disseminating value. To have a user trek all the way up to Union Square [where Canvas has its headquarters] to meet us really touched us.”
DD: You and the Canvas team, in particular, regularly interact with users and are always looking for feedback on new features and stickers. How important was it to have this sort of open relationship with the community?
“It’s really important. I think it’s one of the mistakes I made with 4chan. It’s harder with an anonymous community, and it’s kind of an ideological thing to be as hands off as possible. One of the things we made clear with Canvas was that we’re there every day and their business is our business. We have a short list of company principals and one of the top things is to do good by our users. It’s always our goal to do good by them.”
Photo via Wikipedia