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minutes of its posting.

As approaches to community management go, this is pretty much the opposite of what the mainstream Internet seems headed toward. Anonymity, once thought to be a defining attribute of online interaction, is nowadays widely approached as a bug to be fixed. Managers of newspapers’ online comment sections in particular have grown wary of it, blaming the irresponsible mentality of anonymous commenters for bitter flame wars and rambling digressions. Several newspaper sites have lately closed their comment sections to anonymous posting altogether, and at least one now requires commenters to post under their own verified credit-card billing names. But the clearest demonstration of the Internet’s move away from anonymity has been the rise of social-networking sites like Facebook, whose appeal to both users and marketers rests on a closing of the gap between online and offline identities. Facebook’s 26-year-old CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, seems to be an unusually fervent believer in the virtues of “radical transparency” in online dealings–he famously once told an interviewer that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”–but he is not alone among the Silicon Valley elite in linking the decline of anonymity to the promise of a more tolerant, peaceful, and profitable digital world.

Yet many, even among that same Silicon Valley elite, have found reasons to regret the loss of anonymity online. Poole’s selection as a speaker at the technology world’s invitation-only TED conference last February provided him with an opportunity to express those reservations. Standing in sneakers and a zippered hoodie on the expensively designed TED stage (the same one Bill Gates would be speaking from the next day), Poole gave a brief talk that was as thoughtful and polite as 4chan can be rude and unhinged, and he made a compelling case for the anonymity that helps make 4chan what it is. Support for anonymous communication often comes down to a standard set of arguments: people should have a place where they can speak truth to power (blow a whistle on corruption, assess whether an emperor has clothes) without fear of reprisal; they should also have a place where they can be true to themselves (explore an unconventional sexuality, seek treatment for a stigmatized disease) without risking ostracism and worse. But while Poole embraces these arguments, what he says in defense of the anonymity on 4chan is at once less high-minded and (in ways he is only slowly coming to understand) more far-reaching:

“People deserve a place to be wrong.”

MEME FACTORY

Poole didn’t particularly want 4chan to be anonymous when he started it. He was 15, an only child of divorced parents, living with his mother in a Westchester County suburb of New York City and gripped by a midadolescent fascination with Japanese animation, or anime. That had led him to a good place to find anime images: the Futaba Channel, a popular Japanese image board also known to its English-speaking fans by its Web address, 2chan.net.

One of the things that struck Poole was that the site let people post in its discussion forums exceptionally quickly. It didn’t especially register with him that Japan also happened to be a place where cultural distinctions between public and private life matter deeply–where, in a sense, having two identities isn’t so much a failure of integrity as a working definition of it. Nor did the related facts that Japan’s Internet users tend to have a particularly deep-rooted attachment to online pseudonyms and other alternate identities (as Facebook, still struggling to crack the Japanese market, has learned the hard way) or that the Futaba Channel, like most Japanese image boards, has always offered fully anonymous posting with no log-in required. None of this was what compelled him to grab a copy of the Futaba Channel’s source code, rewrite the site’s text in English (guessing at some of the Japanese words’ meanings, running the rest through the translation engine Babel Fish), and start operating it as 4chan in October 2003. Poole recalls how Babel Fish translated the kanji signifying Futaba’s default username: “Nameless.” He changed it to “Anonymous,” and that, more or less, was that.

“It wasn’t a principled decision,” says Poole. Not at first. “It became one, as I grew from 15 to 18

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Credits: Jordan Hollender

Tagged: Web, Internet, social networking, 4chan, anonymity online

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