Anonymity is not cowardice, says 4chan founder (SXSW2011)

He arrives late, sidling awkwardly onto the stage. With his baby face and blond mop it’s easy to believe Christopher Poole is 24 years old. What’s harder to believe is that he founded 4chan – one of the web’s most creative, influential and infamously anarchic communities – when he was barely 15.

Speaking at this year’s South by South West festival, Poole outlined what 4chan has taught him about building online communities, and how he is applying that to his new project, a collaborative platform called Canvas.

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“Most of you know 4Chan because of our “random” /b/ board – more than half our traffic goes to that board. I don’t recommend you go poke around on the site without knowing what you’re getting into,” he says, smiling wryly. The fact the whole of 4chan now has more than 20-million visitors a month gives us some idea of the global popularity of /b/.

But it’s the creative fecundity of /b/ that has really made a name for the community. /b/ has acted as the spawning pool for hundreds of memes, many of which like lolcats, rickrolling, and Chocolate Rain have spilled out into the mainstream internet. The /b/ board is notorious for having no rules except those that prohibit illegal activities like posting child porn and soliciting hacking or denial of service attacks. Unlike the rest of the internet, 4Chan is anonymous and ephemeral with no archives – so ideas are a “survival of the fittest” affair.

In stark contrast to the current mainstream thinking on online identity, Poole values anonymity and very low barriers to entry. “Mark Zuckerberg has equated anonymity as a lack of authenticity, as cowardice and I think that’s totally wrong,” he said, in an uncharacteristic swipe at the Facebook founder who was born just a few years before him.

“There’s a loss of innocence on the internet, and much less room for anonymous failure,” mused Poole. “4chan is a place where people go to hang out – we’ve forgotten how important and cool that is.”

Poole emphasised the beauty of community as a shared experience rather than merely an output. “Topic generation is very interesting – not just the product of the meme – but the generation of that meme is fascinating to follow. Using 4chan at 9pm on a Sunday – our busiest time – is what’s really special – experiencing something you’re never going to experience again, in a communal way.”

And yet, for all it’s creative power, 4chan was built using extremely limited and rudimentary technology. “We’re a very basic, bare bones website – message boards and image board essentially haven’t changed in 10 years.” This simplicity has some advantages, and is part of 4chan’s success, but, with Canvas, Poole is hoping to do more. He sees the project as the distillation of 8 years of 4chan experience, but is quick to point out that it is not 4chan “2.0”.

One of the most intriguing features is an in-page photo remixer, built using HTML5’s canvas field. This removes the friction of having to use desktop software to participate in remixing, and also levels the playing field. As Poole says, “If no one is submitting perfect Photoshop creations, then the bar isn’t set too high.” Another idea aimed at lowering the barrier to participation is sets of virtual stickers which people can stick onto image macros.

“We wanted to design a product at the intersection of chat and commenting,” explains Poole, “something that works with shared presence when there are high numbers of users online, but works asynchronously when there are only one or two.” But they found that “scrolling back” through chat transcripts wasn’t very interesting, so they have reverted to a more comment-like model.

Poole has received some criticism for the fact that Canvas requires a Facebook Connect login in order to sign up and comment, but he dismisses this. He assures the audience that this is simply to keep an unwanted element from getting in and “mucking the system up”. Interactions will still be anonymous, but users are aware that Canvas knows who they are and so behave accordingly.

He explains the need to protect and nurture a new site. “We concentrate on building communities slowly and organically. You have to allow for a culture and identity to develop over time. At SXSW we often concentrate on scaling. Your challenge is not scaling – it’s nurturing a community that is worth scaling.”

And then, with a nervous little chuckle, and as abruptly as it began, Poole’s talk is over. He lingers on the stage for some questions, looking at any moment like he might bolt. But, like Zuckerberg, you’re aware that a mind like a quad-core processor lurks behind those clear blue eyes.

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