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End of era as founder of anarchic messageboard 4chan steps down

4chan lies at the source of much of contemporary web culture, for better or worse, but its creator is walking away.

Christopher Poole, aka "moot", has arguably had a greater influence over western culture and society through the last decade than most politicians, or musicians, or artists or filmmakers, or scientists. In 2003, the then-15-year-old New Yorker founded 4chan, a website with maybe more impact than any single other on what web culture has become.

Now, he's stepping down. Posting on his blog:

The journey has been marked by highs and lows, surprises and disappointments, but ultimately immense satisfaction. I'm humbled to have had the privilege of both founding and presiding over what is easily one of the greatest communities to ever grace the Web. It was truly an honor to serve as 4chan's founding administrator, and I look forward to seeing what the next decade holds for the site.

He also writes that after two decades of "bolstering its finances, strengthening its infrastructure, and expanding and empowering its team of volunteers" he now feels the site has a good enough "foundation" to survive without him, though he still hopes to return as either an "admin emeritus" or just another anonymous user.

Everyone who uses 4chan is anonymous, of course - that what makes 4chan what it is. Users post completely anonymously (for the most part), and - with very few restrictions - almost anything goes. The format was based on the Japanese imageboard 2chan (hence the name), and over the last decade 4chan has been the source of innumerable memes and movements, from rickrolling to the Anonymous movement. It's a heady brew of nerdy in-jokes, racism, altruism and anime discussion, and has a fundamentalist belief in free speech that can shock those unused to it. Acts like sharing images of child abuse, or leaking nude photos of celebrities an ex-girlfriends, or calling in armed SWAT teams to the houses of innocent people over an argument, could be reframed as an issue of freedom of expression on 4chan.

This essay by Jay Allen on Boing Boing, exploring the role of "chan culture" in forming Gamergate - one of the few topics of discussion banned on 4chan, hence its current exile on derivative imageboard 8chan - is a good explainer:

Anons have a broad, often absolutist view of free speech, sometimes extending that so far as to include threats of violence or extreme pornography. Anons are extremely protective of their culture and this very broad view of free speech, because of both great faith in their ability to self-police argument and an unconscious, internal reliance on irony.

...

Everyone’s anonymous, so a poster can just join the winning side of an argument, cheerfully mocking their own older posts. One poster can even play both sides from the start. Every anon can choose whatever opinion they want to have on a post-by-post basis, so everything flows smoothly even as people hatefully attack each other for having the wrong opinion. Anons believe in this free marketplace of ideas: good ones survive the firestorm, while bad ones burn to ash as everyone dogpiles on mocking them.

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Anonymous imageboards breed continuously frothing angry mobs with their hostility turned ever inward. This hostility is defanged by irony and anonymity, so it can sustain itself without doing lasting harm to the participants as long as it remains within its own bubble. However, because this culture evolved in that bubble and relies on silencing tactics to police itself, it does not blend well with the rest of the internet.

Whatever Poole does next, it's interesting that in his blog post he's written that he's "humbled to have had the privilege of both founding and presiding over what is easily one of the greatest communities to ever grace the Web", and that the biggest challenges (apart from doing everything himself) has been "satisfy[ing] a community of millions, and ensur[ing] the site has the human, technical, and financial resources to continue operating". A strange list, perhaps, considering the things that the people who visit the 26-year-old's website have tended to use it for over the years.

  • Now listen to Ian Steadman discuss the influence of 4chan on internet culture on the NS podcast:
     

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.