users will be able to post comments anonymously and to switch fluidly between multiple identities.
It says something that investors in Canvas–who include Marc Andreessen (creator of the first graphical Web browser) and Ron Conway (an early Google backer)–would bet on a track record like Poole’s. For all of 4chan’s eye-popping traffic stats, it’s doomed to bare-subsistence revenue by the combination of its scandalous content (palatable only to low-rent advertisers like porn sites) and Poole’s profound discomfort with, as he puts it, the “tons of ways I could essentially rape the site for dollars” (including pop-ups, ads with sound, and other high-paying but obnoxious forms of advertising that would antagonize 4chan’s community). And whether it was the 2006 “dirty bomb” incident, in which 20-year-old Jake Brahm flooded /b/ with threats to detonate radioactive explosives at NFL games, or the harrowing of Jessi Slaughter this July, in which the troll hordes of /b/ rained death threats and other anonymous harassment on an 11-year-old Florida girl, the portrayal of 4chan in the national news has mainly reflected the image of a menace to be contained rather than an enterprise to watch.
And yet, many in the Internet business have been watching 4chan with interest. The steady growth of its traffic and the viral spread of its content, after all, represent the kind of social success that Web businesses require. “Getting engaged users is the tough part,” says David Lee, who invested in Canvas as a partner in Conway’s SV Angel firm. Profit or no profit, he explains, 4chan shows that Poole “is the rare entrepreneur who can get engaged users.” And given how firmly anonymity is held to be a recipe for social-media failure, it’s intriguing that the site works at all. 4chan “was a thing that challenged people’s assumptions in the Web industry,” says Jonah Peretti, CEO of the viral-media startup BuzzFeed and cofounder of the Huffington Post. “It was just so different from the way other people were thinking about community.”
This year Poole got an official invitation to speak to developers at Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. He was asked about his experiences running a site that Ruchi Sangvi, the Facebook product manager who proposed the visit, calls “the polar opposite” of their own. Roughly 80 Facebook employees attended, squeezing into a standing-room-only conference room, and though there was some trepidation at first–some Facebookers expected Poole to be an apologist for hackers and child porn–by all accounts the visit was cordial. “He’s a really, really smart guy with a great vision,” says Richard Cho, a Facebook recruiter who helped organize the event. In fact, Cho says Poole is “not dissimilar to Mark Zuckerberg,” in that both have “interesting viewpoints” about how people connect and share information. But there was also a simpler reason for Facebook’s sympathy for the man behind 4chan: “There are some of us that have frequented that site quite a bit,” Cho says. “ ’I can has cheezburger?’ is just a common part of our vernacular internally.”
After all, the radical transparency of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook may not be mutually exclusive with what we might as well call the radical opacity of Christopher “moot” Poole and 4chan. Their uses may even be mutually necessary. Peretti puts it this way: if 4chan is the id of the Internet, then “Google is kind of like the ego, and Facebook is kind of like the superego.” If that’s so, then there’s only one way the trend toward radical transparency won’t end up killing the Internet’s soul: if we can leave the light of all that openness every now and then to spend some time in the shadows where the crazy lives.
Julian Dibbell is a freelance writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Best Technology Writing series in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and he is the author of Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot (Basic Books, 2006).