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SXSW: Taming the Internet’s Unruly Masses

Can the founder of 4chan build a mainstream startup?
March 14, 2011

Can the infamous website 4chan, known as the home of the mercurial prank community Anonymous, hold the seeds of something more mainstream? In a keynote Sunday afternoon at South by Southwest Interactive, a Web conference in Austin, Texas, its notorious founder “moot,” going by his real name, Christopher Poole, outlined the insights from 4chan that he’s trying to apply in his new startup, Canvas, which has raised $625,000 in venture capital.

Like 4chan, Canvas is primarily an image board, where users upload and edit images, often building off each other to produce a humorous narrative. Unlike 4chan, Canvas requires users to log in, a fact sure to discourage at least some of 4chan’s more unsavory elements. Though users do have to log in on Canvas, they can still post anonymously. Also unlike 4chan, Canvas saves posts so that a lasting record is produced.

For both sites, Poole values the idea of “fluid identity.” When everything on the Internet requires you to attach your true identity, he said, “you can’t make mistakes the same way you used to.” Poole particularly criticized the popular social network Facebook, which requires users to maintain their real, single identities for all their posts.

While anonymity has been equated with lack of authenticity and cowardice, Poole said, “I think that’s totally wrong. Anonymity is authenticity.” Only in the safety of anonymity, he argued, can people play in the most honest way.

Poole is trying to change how identity works from 4chan to Canvas, but he also resists going as far as Facebook.

Poole also praised the “creative mutation” that has grown on both sites. He described the evolution of an image as a sort of “riffing.” Users are participating in a sort of musical jam, though in this case the tools are Photoshop and MS Paint, and the medium is Justin Bieber’s face.

Poole’s put a lot of thought into getting those tools into users’ hands as much as possible. Canvas is designed to make it easy for people to edit images even if they have no experience. It includes picture tags that people can slap onto images if they don’t want to put more time into the process. Soon, he hopes, that kind of playing with media can extend to other forms, such as audio and video.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Poole values the shared experience of participating in a group activity, even if that activity is ephemeral or has no purpose beyond having fun. He spoke reverently of being on 4chan at 9 p.m. on a Sunday–its peak usage time–and knowing that he’s part of a unique moment. He hopes that part of what will hold people to Canvas is the desire to come back and see how an image has progressed.

Poole is a powerful and important voice, particularly in his role as foil to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. It’s refreshing to hear a defense of fun, and to hear about a social site that is actually, essentially social.

On the other hand, other than slightly more rigid identity, and slightly more persistent posts, it’s hard to see how Canvas is ultimately much different from 4chan–particularly considering that Poole is likely to attract people who are already fans of 4chan to his new site. Poole previously founded the site that has come to represent the Internet’s id. His vision for Canvas sounds like a subdued version of the same, and it’s not clear what he’s aiming for.

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