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Canv.as Paints a New Approach to Social Networking

A new venture by 4chan founder Chris Poole intends to be both social and fun.

Too many social sites today are more work than play: another in-box to keep up with, another place to trudge through friend connections, another status bar to update.

Chris Poole may have brought the fun back to social with his new site, Canv.as, which offers users “a place to share and play with images” that’s built with a fierce commitment to spontaneous creativity. Poole is the 23-year-old founder of 4chan, a site famous for embodying the Internet’s id in all its glory and squalor. 4chan’s anonymous community has been behind a number of pranks and Internet “memes,”  including “Rickrolling.”

With Canv.as, Poole hopes to bring his countercultural perspective to a site that will gain a mainstream audience, and make a profit. In the process, he also hopes to remind people that socializing is supposed to be fun. “The idea of play was very important to us,” Poole says.

A Canv.as user is greeted with a wall of images—some pretty, some funny, some political. He or she can either manipulate those images using lightweight image-editing software built into the site or upload a new image for anyone to play with.

Users can vote on different images by giving them virtual stickers, and add comments. They can also join groups devoted to specific types of content. The process is simple and inviting, and it resists efforts to control the results of any contribution.

Perhaps most importantly, Canv.as bucks the trend of forcing users to post under their real names, or even post under a consistent identity at all. “Identity is not black and white,” Poole says. “It’s a rainbow. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities.”

Users can choose whether to post content using their profile, or anonymously. The anonymous option gives someone the opportunity to test the waters, gauging response without having his or her reputation on the line. Users can also decide to claim results after the fact, attaching a name if an effort has been well-received. Poole believes this encourages people to participate more. He says, “Most people have been conditioned to be afraid of the response that they will get. [In Canv.as], you’re rewarded for your success as opposed to being punished for your failures.”

Poole also dismisses the advertising revenue model that sustains most social sites, saying that display ads are “not interesting.” What he does find interesting is the business model made famous by Zynga, which sells small virtual items to people who play its games. He suggests that Canv.as could make money by charging users for cool stickers, extra features, or advanced tools for groups.

Remix me: The Canv.as homepage on launch day.

By building simple artistic tools directly into the site, Canv.as is lowering the barriers to entry for participation, says Tim Hwang, who cofounded ROFLCon, a conference devoted to Internet culture. He says, “A common theme embedded in some of the most successful memes [such as LOLCats or Advice Dog] is that they provide really simple templates that anyone can participate in. That’s powerful since it enables anyone to contribute, and also makes it easy to spread because no explanation is needed.” He calls Canv.as a “great experiment in greasing the mighty engines of meme production.”

The service is not entirely without precedent, however. Aside from 4chan, companies such as the Cheezburger Network have created large communities and large revenues around letting people play with and produce images. Cheezburger devotes sites to specific memes. For example, the LOLCats meme finds a home on “I Can Has Cheezburger?” Cheezburger’s chief revenue officer, Todd Sawicki, says, “Done right, [memes] can be viable commercial properties.” The company gives its community editing tools that can be used to create meme-related images, opportunities to share with each other, and then the option to submit images for publication on an official site. The combination of community and editorial control has attracted “millions of dollars in ad revenue,” Sawicki says, adding that brands are realizing that “memes are the TV shows of the future.”

What’s different with Canv.as is that Poole doesn’t plan to exert any editorial control. And while he certainly expects memes to be part of the media that people play with on the site, he also thinks the community will go further. He points to sections on the site devoted to fashion and photography, suggesting that groups might form that are more serious about sharing art with each other than creating memes.

To that end, he says, his company is currently focused on tinkering with features in an effort to get the people who visit the site to participate as much as possible. “For any forum product, the challenge is always that for every contributor, there are nine lurkers,” Poole says, referring to visitors who don’t add content or otherwise make their presence known. Canv.as’s early results suggest high user participation. Poole says that 50 percent of visitors put stickers on others’ posts, and 25 percent contribute images or text of their own. He hopes to draw in even more participation from users who have logged in as well as those who haven’t.

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