TED2010

Christopher "moot" Poole": The case for anonymity online

Filmed:

The founder of 4chan, a controversial, uncensored online imageboard, describes its subculture, some of the Internet "memes" it has launched, and the incident in which its users managed a very public, precision hack of a mainstream media website. The talk raises questions about the power -- and price -- of anonymity.

- Founder, 4chan
Christopher "moot" Poole is founder of 4chan, an online imageboard whose anonymous denizens have spawned the web's most bewildering -- and influential -- subculture. Full bio

Tom Green: That's a 4chan thing.
00:17
These kids on the Internet, they have this group of kids
00:19
and they like to say funny words
00:21
like "barrel roll."
00:23
It's a video game move from "Star Fox."
00:25
"Star Fox 20"? (Assistant: "Star Fox 64.")
00:27
Tom Green: Yeah. And they've been dogging me for a year.
00:30
I got to tell you, it's driving me nuts, actually.
00:32
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I scream,
00:34
"4chan!"
00:37
Christopher Poole: When I was 15,
00:43
I found this website called Futaba Channel.
00:45
And it was a Japanese forum and imageboard.
00:48
That format of forum, at that time,
00:52
was not well-known outside of Japan.
00:55
And so what I did is I took it, I translated it into English,
00:57
and I stuck it up for my friends to use.
01:00
Now, six and a half years later,
01:03
over seven million people are using it,
01:05
contributing over 700,000 posts per day.
01:07
And we've gone from one board
01:10
to 48 boards.
01:12
This is what it looks like.
01:15
So, what's unique about the site
01:17
is that it's anonymous,
01:19
and it has no memory.
01:21
There's no archive, there are no barriers, there's no registration.
01:23
These things that we're used to with forums
01:26
don't exist on 4chan.
01:28
And that's led to this
01:30
discussion that's completely raw, completely unfiltered.
01:32
What the site's known for,
01:37
because it has this environment,
01:39
is it's fostered the creation of a lot of
01:41
Internet phenomena, viral videos and whatnot, known as "memes."
01:43
Two of the largest memes that have come out of this site
01:46
some of you might be familiar with are these LOLcats --
01:48
just silly pictures of cats with text.
01:51
And this resonates with millions of people, apparently,
01:54
because there are tens of thousands of these,
01:56
and there is a whole blogging empire now
01:58
dedicated to pictures like these.
02:00
And Rick Astley's kind of rebirth
02:03
these past two years ...
02:06
Rickroll was this bait and switch,
02:08
really simple, classic bait and switch.
02:10
Somebody says they're linking to something interesting,
02:12
and you get an '80s pop song. That's all it was.
02:15
And it got big enough to the point where
02:18
there was a float last year at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade,
02:20
and Rick Astley pops out, and rickrolls
02:23
millions of people on television.
02:25
(Laughter)
02:27
There are thousands of memes that come out of the site.
02:30
There are a handful that have escaped into the mainstream,
02:32
the ones I've just shown you,
02:34
but every day, every month,
02:36
people are producing thousands of these.
02:39
So does a site like this have rules?
02:43
We do; they're the codified rules that I've come up with,
02:45
which are more-or-less ignored by the community.
02:48
And so they've come up with their own set of rules,
02:51
the "Rules of the Internet."
02:53
And so there are three that I want to show you specifically.
02:55
Rule one is you don't talk about /b/.
02:58
Two is you do not talk about /b/.
03:01
And this one's kind of interesting:
03:04
"If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions."
03:06
(Laughter)
03:09
And I will spare you that slide.
03:11
I assure you, it is very true.
03:13
/b/ is the first board we started with,
03:16
and it is, in many ways,
03:19
the beating heart of the website.
03:21
It is where a third of all the traffic is going.
03:23
And /b/ is known for,
03:26
more than anything,
03:28
not just the memes they've created, but the exploits.
03:30
And Chris just touched on one of those a second ago,
03:33
and that was the Time 100 poll.
03:36
So somebody at Time, at the magazine,
03:39
thought it would be fun to nominate me
03:41
for this thing they did last year.
03:43
And so they placed me on it,
03:46
and the Internet got wind of it. My community
03:48
decided they wanted me to win it.
03:51
I didn't instruct them to do it; they just decided that that's what they wanted.
03:54
And so, you know, 390 percent approval rating ain't so bad.
03:57
(Laughter)
04:00
So they broke that poll.
04:02
And I ended up on top.
04:05
I ended up at this really fancy party.
04:07
But that's not what's interesting about this.
04:10
It's that they weren't putting me at the top of this list;
04:13
they were actually --
04:16
it got so sophisticated to the point where they gamed
04:18
all of the top 21 places
04:20
to spell "mARBLECAKE. ALSO, THE GAME."
04:23
(Laughter)
04:26
The amount of time and effort that went into that
04:29
is absolutely incredible.
04:32
And "marble cake" is significant because
04:34
it is the channel that this group called Anonymous organized.
04:36
Anonymous is this group of people
04:39
that protested, very famously,
04:42
Scientology.
04:45
The story is,
04:47
Scientology had this embarrassing video of Tom Cruise. It went up online.
04:49
They got it taken offline and managed to piss off part of the Internet.
04:52
And so these people, over 7,000 people,
04:55
less than one month later,
04:58
organized in a hundred cities around the globe and --
05:00
this is L.A. --
05:02
protested the Church of Scientology,
05:04
and they have continued to do so,
05:07
now, two full years after the fact.
05:09
They are still protesting.
05:11
(Laughter)
05:13
So we've got this activist group that's this grassroots group
05:20
that's come out of the site.
05:23
And last, I'm going to show you the example,
05:25
the story of Dusty the cat.
05:27
Dusty is the name that we've given to this cat.
05:29
This young man
05:32
posted a video
05:34
of him abusing his cat on YouTube.
05:36
And, you know, this didn't sit well with people,
05:39
and so there was this outpouring of support
05:42
for people to do something about this.
05:46
So what they did is they -- I mean, they put CSI to shame here --
05:50
the Internet detectives came out.
05:53
They matched, they found his MySpace.
05:55
They took the YouTube video and they mashed everything in the video.
05:58
Within 24 hours,
06:01
they had his name,
06:03
and within 48 hours, he was arrested.
06:05
(Applause)
06:09
And so, what I think is really intriguing
06:16
about a community like 4chan
06:18
is just that it's this open place.
06:20
As I said, it's raw, it's unfiltered.
06:22
And sites like it are kind of
06:24
going the way of the dinosaur right now.
06:26
They're endangered because we're moving
06:28
towards social networking.
06:30
We're moving towards persistent identity.
06:32
We're moving towards,
06:34
you know, a lack of privacy, really.
06:37
We're sacrificing a lot of that, and I think in doing so,
06:39
moving towards those things, we're losing something valuable.
06:42
Thank you.
06:45
(Applause)
06:47
Chris Anderson: Thank you.
06:55
Got a couple questions for you.
06:57
But if I ask them, is the TED website going to go down?
06:59
CP: You're lucky that this is not
07:02
being streamed to them live right now.
07:04
CA: Well, you never know. Some of them --
07:06
we've got people in 75 countries out there watching.
07:08
Don't tell.
07:11
But seriously,
07:14
this issue on anonymity is --
07:16
I mean, you made the case there.
07:18
But anonymity basically allows people to say anything,
07:20
all the rules gone.
07:23
You've had to wrestle with issues like child pornography.
07:25
And I'm just curious whether you
07:27
sometimes lie awake in the night
07:30
worrying that you've opened Pandora's box.
07:32
CP: Yes and no.
07:36
I mean, for as much good
07:38
that kind of comes out of this environment,
07:40
there is plenty of bad.
07:42
There are plenty of downsides.
07:44
But I think that the greater good
07:46
is being served here by just allowing people --
07:49
there are very few places, now, where you can go
07:51
and not have identity, to be completely anonymous
07:54
and say whatever you'd like.
07:56
And saying whatever you like, I think, is powerful.
07:58
Doing whatever you like is now crossing a line.
08:01
But I think it's important to have these places.
08:03
When I get emails, people say, "Thank you for giving me this place,
08:06
this outlet, where I can come after work
08:09
and be myself."
08:11
CA: But words, saying things,
08:13
you know, can be constructive; it can be really damaging.
08:17
And if you cut the link between what is said
08:20
and any attribution back to you,
08:23
I mean, surely there are huge risks with that.
08:25
CP: There are, certainly.
08:28
But --
08:30
CA: Tell me about what -- I mean, I think you asked the board
08:32
what you might say at TED, right?
08:35
CP: Yeah, I posted a thread
08:37
on Sunday.
08:39
And within 24 hours,
08:41
it had over 12,000 responses.
08:43
And the thing is,
08:45
I didn't make it into that presentation
08:48
because I can't read to you anything that they said, more or less.
08:50
(Laughter)
08:52
99 percent of it is just,
08:54
would have been, you know, bleeped out.
08:57
But there were some good things that came out of that too.
08:59
(Laughter)
09:01
Love and peace were mentioned.
09:03
CA: Love and peace were mentioned,
09:05
kind of with quote marks around them, right?
09:07
CP: Cats and dogs were mentioned too.
09:09
CA: And that content is all off the board now.
09:11
Right, it's gone? Or is it still up there?
09:14
CP: I stuck that thread so it lasted a few days.
09:16
It went up to about 16,000 posts,
09:18
and now it has been taken off.
09:20
CA: Okay, well.
09:23
Now, I'm not sure I would have necessarily recommended
09:27
everyone at TED to go and check it out anyway.
09:29
Chris, you yourself? I mean, you're a figure of some intrigue.
09:33
You've got this surprising
09:36
semi-underground influence,
09:38
but it's not making you a lot of money, yet.
09:41
What's the commercial picture here?
09:45
CP: The commercial picture is that there really isn't
09:48
much of one, I guess.
09:50
The site has adult content on it.
09:52
I mean, obviously, it's got some very offensive, obscene content on it,
09:55
just in terms of language alone.
09:57
And when you've got that, you've pretty much sacrificed
09:59
any hope of making lots of money.
10:02
CA: But you still live at home, right?
10:05
CP: I actually moved out recently.
10:08
CA: That's very cool.
10:10
(Applause)
10:12
CP: I got out of Mom's, and I'm back in school right now.
10:14
CA: But what conversations did you or do you
10:17
have with your mother about 4chan?
10:19
CP: At first, very kind of pained,
10:22
awkward conversations.
10:24
The content is not dinner table conversation in the least.
10:26
But my parents -- I think part of why
10:30
they kind of are able to appreciate it
10:33
is because they don't understand it.
10:36
(Laughter)
10:38
CA: And they were probably pleased to see you
10:41
on top of the Time poll.
10:44
CP: Yeah. They still didn't know what to think of that though.
10:46
(Laughter)
10:49
CA: And so, in 10 years' time,
10:51
what do you picture yourself doing?
10:53
CP: That's a good question.
10:56
As I said, I just went back to school,
10:58
and I am considering
11:00
majoring in urban studies
11:02
and then going on to urban planning,
11:04
kind of taking whatever I've learned from online communities
11:06
and trying to adapt that
11:09
to a physical community.
11:11
CA: Chris, thank you. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for coming to TED.
11:14

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About the Speaker:

Christopher "moot" Poole - Founder, 4chan
Christopher "moot" Poole is founder of 4chan, an online imageboard whose anonymous denizens have spawned the web's most bewildering -- and influential -- subculture.

Why you should listen

Since its inception in 2003, Christopher "moot" Poole's controversial imageboard, 4chan, has gained worldwide notoriety as a breeding ground for many of the most recognizable Internet "memes" (think LOLcats). It was also the source of a high-profile hack of a mainstream media website and at least one spirited -- if morally inscrutable -- activist campaign in the real world.

Despite the server-crippling traffic it attracts, this last major enclave of the untamed Internet terrifies advertisers, and moot struggles to keep it afloat. Though you might regard much of its content as obscene or just plain weird, it's become a fixture on the fringe of the mainstream -- and a cultural force all its own.

In January 2015 Poole stepped down from 4chan after eleven and a half years as its founding administrator.

More profile about the speaker
Christopher "moot" Poole | Speaker | TED.com