In shadows: Christopher Poole is the creator of 4chan, an online message board where anonymity reigns.
Christopher Poole is 22 years old, and as is often true for men his age, his mental life has been punctuated by a series of passing enthusiasms: video games, online chat rooms, Japanese animation. Currently he seems to be going through a Robert Moses phase. On the nightstand in his New York City apartment is a copy of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a 1,300-page biography of the mid-20th-century urban planner who, in pursuing his vision of a modernized New York, destroyed one neighborhood after another. A book of photos on Poole’s coffee table documents the Moses-era demolition of midtown Manhattan’s vast and graceful old Penn Station. (“Gut-wrenching,” says Poole.) And on a recent Thursday afternoon, as he walked to work past Washington Square Park and observed the sweeping renovations under way there–a controversial relandscaping imposed by current city planners in the face of heavy local opposition–he saw parallels with the old autocrat’s imperious approach to such projects. “Robert Moses is probably smiling,” he said. “Like, ‘Fuck the people–what do they know!’ ”
Like many people, Poole thinks there are better ways than Moses’s to manage the tangled social, cultural, and infrastructural needs of a community of millions. But unlike most people–let alone most 22-year-olds–he actually has some experience doing just that. Seven years ago, Poole created the website 4chan, an online community that now has nearly 11 million monthly users and is, in some respects, as unruly as any metropolis. The site is what’s known as an image board, a type of online message forum that encourages users to post both images and text, and its users now contribute more than a million messages a day, their content tending in the aggregate toward a unique mix of humor, pornography, offensiveness, and, at times, borderline legality. It has long been one of the largest message forums in the world, but Poole, the only owner 4chan has ever had, continues to run it as he has always done: in his spare time, with a little help from online volunteers and just enough advertising revenue to cover bandwidth costs.
Visited mostly by young men in their late teens and early 20s, 4chan is loosely organized by topics of interest–music, games, TV, animation (Japanese and otherwise). But nearly half its messages are posted in a single random-topics section known as /b/, and /b/’s anarchy sets the tone for the site in general. It’s out of /b/ that swarms of gleeful online troublemakers–trolls, in Internet parlance–occasionally issue forth to prank, hack, harass, and otherwise digitally provoke other online communities and users. From /b/, as well, the Internet at large absorbs a steady stream of catchphrases and sight gags–LOLcats, rickrolling, and other ubiquitous Internet memes that seep up from the endless, dizzying churn of /b/’s vast reservoir of inside jokes. Often intended to shock, shot through with racism, misogyny, and other qualities deliberately chosen from beyond the contemporary pale, the words and images of /b/ have become an online spectacle: “Lunatic, juvenile … brilliant, ridiculous and alarming,” the Guardian newspaper’s website once called it. “The id of the Internet,” it has been called more than once.
By no coincidence, 4chan stands out not only for the content its users generate but for the way they generate it: with a degree of anonymity almost unheard-of in the online world. Though Poole himself is known to the site’s users by the cryptic pseudonym “moot,” on 4chan even using a pseudonym is rare. The site has no log-in function, so each message can be posted under whatever name its author chooses, but users are strongly encouraged to post with no identifying name at all. Roughly 90 percent of all messages on 4chan are posted under the site’s default identity, “Anonymous.” And those messages are not only anonymous but ephemeral, because 4chan has no long-term archives: old message threads are automatically deleted when new ones need the room. This mechanism was originally meant to save storage costs, but as Poole notes, “it’s both practical and philosophical.” Among other things, it challenges the idea that digital identity should follow you across time, linking what you say when you’re a teenager to the middle-aged business owner you might become. In 4chan’s heavy traffic, a message can vanish within hours or even