to now 22…. But as a 15-year-old, I wasn’t too concerned with a lot of the things I really stand for now. I kind of grew into that.”
4chan kind of grew into it, too. In the beginning, the site had only two topic sections: /a/ for anime-related posts, and /b/ for everything else. In subsequent years Poole gradually added topics, and there are now nearly 50 of them, including /v/ for video games, /fa/ for fashion, /po/ for paper craft and origami, and at least three for specialized varieties of Japanese cartoon erotica and porn. But /b/ has grown more steadily than any of the others, and it long ago surpassed anime as 4chan’s principal reason for being. As the one section without any explicit rules about what can and can’t be posted (other than certain sitewide prohibitions against child pornography and other violations of U.S. law), /b/ is where 4chan makes good on what its anonymity promises: the freedom to say anything without the obligation to suffer consequences.
To a first-time visitor, /b/ may not seem very promising at all. Aside from the sheer quantity of tastelessness that courses through its message threads, they present a wall of endlessly recycled inside references, catchphrases, and fragmentary punch lines, the briefest sampling of which will baffle: “herp derp,” “newfag,” “over 9000!,” “So I herd u liek Mudkips,” “serious business,” “The Game (you just lost it),” “an hero,” “Candleja–.” Much harder to convey, though, is the improbable awesomeness of what /b/ reveals to those who come to know it better: the flashes of inspiration and deranged wit that flicker continually as /b/’s anonymous millions–the /b/tards, as they call themselves–work and rework variations on the esoteric routines. As this compost heap of in-jokes ripens, sometimes one of them will vault into popularity as a broader Internet meme (the most visible recent example, perhaps, is Pedobear, a creepy, vacant-eyed cartoon teddy bear whose picture is used to ridicule seekers of child pornography).
4channers have a word for all this: lulz, which in its strictest sense means laughs, jest, cheap amusement, but in a broader sense encompasses both the furious creativity that generates /b/’s vast repertoire of memes and the rollicking subcultural intensity they inspire. And if 4chan’s anonymity is good for anything, it turns out, it’s good for lulz. Consider, Poole explains, how the fixed identities in other online communities can stifle creativity: where usernames are required (whether real or pseudonymous), a new user who posts a few failed attempts at humor will soon find other users associating that name with failure. “Even if you’re posting gold by day eight,” says Poole, “they’ll be like, ‘Oh, this guy sucks.’ ” Names, in other words, make failure costly, thus discouraging even the attempt to succeed. By the same token, namelessness makes failure cheap–nearly costless, reputation-wise, in a setting like 4chan, where the Anonymous who posted a lame joke five minutes ago might well be the same Anonymous who’s mocking it hilariously right now. And as the social-media theorist Clay Shirky has suggested in another context (explaining how the plummeting costs of networked collaboration encourage, say, a thousand open-source software projects to launch for every one that gets anywhere), the closer a community gets to “failure for free,” the better its chances of generating success.
That may not be the only thing Poole meant when he talked at TED about 4chan’s importance as a place to be wrong. But it’s ultimately the reason he was on that stage, and it’s starting to look like the reason he’ll be in a spotlight for a while to come.
4CHAN INTO FORTUNE?
On May 13, 2010, just after the end of his sophomore year in college, Poole filed notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission about an extracurricular activity: raising $625,000 for a new online venture. The time had come, he felt, for something like a reboot. After seven years of administrative and technological tweaks to 4chan, he no longer sees it as a project much in need of his creative attention. Meanwhile, he notes, Web technology has evolved far beyond 4chan’s “decade-old code and decade-or-two-old paradigm”–that of the classic pre-Web bulletin board–and he is eager to reimagine what a modern discussion forum can be. The name of the new site is Canvas, and Poole hopes to launch it this fall. People will have the option of signing in, although Poole says he hopes to keep Canvas relatively free of “vanity and ego.” As on 4chan,