February 12, 2010
Posted: 04:10 PM ET
I just met one of the Internet's most mysterious people: Christopher Poole, the founder of the site 4chan. Online he goes by "moot."
Poole's image-board site, which he started at age 15, is known as one of the seedier dens of the Internet. Many posts on 4chan are pornographic. All are anonymous. And his 7-million-person community, which he called a "meme factory," has been blamed (or credited, depending on your perspective) for starting the LOLcats and Rickrolling crazes, rallying 7,000 people to protest Scientology, spreading child pornography and taking down social networking pages with floods of hateful comments.
"The site has gotten kind of notorious over the years for being a hotbed for memes and viral kind of activity - and exploits and whatnot," he said.
According to Poole, it's also becoming endangered, like a dinosaur of the Web.
Its predator? The Facebooks and Googles of the world, which are pushing people to reveal more about their real identities online.
"At this point, I really do stand behind anonymous communities," Poole said in an interview after a speech here at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.
"I think they are certainly endangered because we've just moved more and more towards persistent user identity. Your online identity lives in like all of like one or three places now. You've got a Twitter, you've got a Facebook. I guess you used to have a MySpace, So people are just putting loads of information about themselves in these places and we're becoming very comfortable with sharing very intimate details about our life. It's just everything."
That scares Poole, who is now 22 and a college student in New York - although he wouldn’t say where. He is a private person who says he mostly spends his free time online on 4chan and on news sites.
"If someone called you up on the phone and asked you all of these things [people post online] you'd say 'hell no' and hang up," he said. "But now we're flooding the Internet with information about ourselves and I think that's scary. So I would like to see people push back."
Poole fell into anonymous posting somewhat out of necessity. When he founded 4chan, he was younger than 18, and he didn't want to get in trouble for spreading pornography, which he wouldn't legally be allowed to access.
Over time he's become a sort of advocate for anonymous speech, even though he's been outed in the media (He said his dad didn’t know what he was doing with all of the time he was spending on 4chan until reporters called to talk to him about the site in 2008; his parents still don't really get it, he said).
Despite the filth that's somewhat prevalent on his site, Poole maintains anonymous speech promotes rational discourse that's more thoughtful than speech that's attached to a name.
"When you've got a community with identity, the discussion is mostly revolving around who is saying what and not what they're saying. And so those discussions become a criticizing thing. They become a bandwagon sort of thing," he said.
"And with the anonymous system you've got a place where people are uninhibited … You're getting very truthful conversation. And you judge somebody by the content of what they're saying and not their username, not their registration date."
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