Alexander Howard Interviews Christopher Poole (Moot from 4Chan) at Web 2.0 Summit in 2011 (October 18, 2011)
The video interview is at YouTube Christopher Poole Interviewed at Web 2.0 Summit 2011
4Chan is 8 years old and Christopher founded it when he was 15 years old.
Transcript of the core conversation:
Alex Howard: ... What have you learned along the way?
Christopher Poole: I think that I've learned more about what not to do than what to do. Because, 4Chan itself is modeled after this other community, it is modeled after this Japanese website community called Futaba Channel and when I was younger I watched a lot of anime and found Futaba and though this is fantastic and nothing like this exists for English speakers and Western culture. So I translated it and hosted it. A lot of its success has come from the fact that it was very different at the time and was this image based form of communication that wasn't quite popular in the U.S. and elsewhere. It has grown steadily and organically over all these years. There has been a lot of work put into it, like creating a homepage, doing news posts, recruiting volunteers, creating a ruleset, adding new boards, and trying to guide it. But, it was something that has grown as a natural process over the years.
I think that I've deserved more credit for not making mistakes and pulling a Facebook and pissing everybody off, like clockwork. I've done things that have upset people and there are times there are things that people didn't agree with. But, it is more about how do you try the happy medium than going to the extremes, that was part of my talk today as part of the message.
AH: The thing with Facebook is the users are upset, but the users aren't leaving, from what we can tell. What is going on there?
CP: I think it is lack of alternatives. It is very hard to migrate off of Facebook as that is where your [social] graph is. Frankly, for a lot of people for a lot of uses it is a good product. I use Facebook and 800 million users use Facebook. It is just that it is not great at everything and they are sometimes insensitive to these decisions they have made. Part of it is educational, as users will act negatively to things they don't understand, like the profile changes a couple months a to and people acted really negatively to it, but really nothing much had changed. They just needed to do a better job of communicating what those changes were. But, it is hard to leave, like any walled garden.
AH: Right. The costs of leaving become bigger and bigger as more people join.
Facebook has a "real names policy" in theory, in practice there is some wiggle here and there, but that is the standard. With Google+ there has been quite a lot of controversy around that famous "nim wars" online. What's the role and importance of anonymity online? Should that be held up as an important thing for communities, as they become created, to keep or countries to protect?
CP: It is absolutely important. It is more important as a contrast to [real names]. People paint this in black and white, when it really isn't. Nothing should be no one right way of doing anything. I think most people view anonymity as a natural opposite to something like a Facebook identity. With Plus I think Google really missed this opportunity to really innovate in a way that Facebook hasn't, and to support this idea that you are many people. I mean, Christopher Poole with a face is different than Christopher Poole without a little picture. Which is different than a Chris, than a Moot. We are all different people based on the context where we are faced. We are different people in front of different audiences. Google could have used that opportunity to support this fluid identity.
One of the things I talk about is this prismatic identity, that you are multi-faceted. You are not just who you are sharing with, it is who you are sharing as. It is really a piece of you is changing and people are seeing a different face of you. Google could have done a better job of "that is totally it, let's run with that". Instead they deleted accounts without real names. They don't even let you pick a vanity URL or user names. It is even worse than Facebook is, in that sense.
AH: So, constant back and forths in the media community is whether you need to have someone's real name to have a good community on a site. Is community about having real names on the Internet? Or is it something more?
CP: No, because identity is not real names. It is about having an identity or having some amount of accountability within a community. You can even have accountability in an anonymous community. I mean 4Chan is the most accountable place on the web, because if you are an outsider there are no structural barriers to using 4Chan, you can come in, enter it, and use it - and yet you can't. In lieu of these structural barriers the community has erected these socio-cultural barriers to understand the community, to understand the language, and how to act on the site. If you are a new user and you post, there is this is this concept of "lurk more", people will identify that immediately, and will reject you and will be like "you need to lurk more" and you need to understand more before you try to be one of us. So again you don't need a full name and a registration date for someone to say this person is new and needs to lurk more, they can tell by the way you interact. You can have accountability in anonymous communities and you don't need a real full name. Most people try to draw this as anecdotal evidence that is drawn from YouTube comments, that have been historically pretty horrible in the things that people say. But then again they have a user name that is persistent across YouTube as a service and that YouTube name is now linked to a Google address. So clearly they are very accountable to having a person identity to Google, and yet for what ever reason people choose to feel like they can be total jerks on YouTube. I think that has more again to do with the community, because that community has been accepting of that. There are many communities that are the ones you see the bad comments and they don't seem to discourage this the way you see on other sites. So, it is not a one to one relationship between a real name and an identity.
AH: When you look forward to this future of other people trying to create communities or trying to fix the ones they have, what are the things they should not do?
CP: I think to try and prescribe that there is this one you. That is Facebook's version of the world, that there is one you, and who you are online is who you are offline. An example I used earlier was, Google and Facebook think of you as a mirror and that you have one reflection. That reflection you see in that mirror is the one everybody else sees. Again, not true. People are multi-faceted, people are more like diamonds. You can look at a person or a diamond from any angle and see something different, and yet it is still the same.
I would encourage them to think about, it is not just about anonymity versus full names. Encourage them to think about choice is not necessarily a bad thing, giving your users the options to choose how they are identified on the service is something that you want to do. Again, you can incorporate something like Facebook Connect to use it to authenticate a user, to ensure they are not a troll or a spambot. But, just because you are using Facebook Connect doesn't then require that you post with a full name and a profile photo. I think being very aware of the fact that as humans identity is a complex concept and to allow that flexibility in a web product.
AH: So, last question. When another site on the internet, whether it happens to be a person, a blog, a media site, or whatever happens to invoke the wrath of 4Chan, they can sometimes receive a great deal of traffic or sometimes or more difficult attacks. Right? When I say attack I mean only in the technical sense, there are some technically able people that are part of your community.
To what extent can you look ahead to the way the web is evolving and shape that conversation with the amorphous group of people when something happens that the offline world doesn't understand, when there is a great deal of focus put upon another website. Is it the fault of the website owner or is it the community? How should we understand what is happening?
CP: This mob mentality or groupthink is something that has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. You look at any war basically, particularly one motivated by religion. People are able to get riled up in mass quantities, given the right kind of spark.
I think now more than ever, it is not just 4Chan it is this group Anonymous that when you trace back is now something very separate from 4Chan, it is really its own distinct thing. Now more than ever we see it in the news we hear about it every day. It is not just then, we hear about Occupy Wall Street, that was a lot of different groups that came together. Now we are seeing this mobilization of online forces, not only online but also offline. That change happened so rapidly over the course of the past three years that we are still trying to come to terms with that.
The future of groups is so unpredictable. That is why with 4Chan I have felt that I am no more than the shepherd. I am the guy who only has a certain... I am at the wheel but I don't control the wind. Given the wind I can only have limited control over the direction of the site. I've always tried to maintain it as something where it had a very basic set of rules and believing there was this invisible hand, John Locke style of community moderation, where we can do some kinds of basic things and set some basic boundaries. But, more or less, it needs to come from the community itself. The community at some point needs to self regulate.
AH: Any principles for self regulation that exist come out of 4Chan?
CP: There are some basic rule, like don't be totally crazy and break the law. [chuckles] We are still figuring that one out.
AH: Okay. I think we are all still figuring this one out as we move forward.