However, the free-for-all has also been liberating, turning 4chan into an ideas laboratory and unleashing a ferocious creative force. Though most of what appears soon vanishes and is forgotten, the stuff that survives can easily jump to the wider Web community and “go viral,” passing from person to person across the world. It is an ability envied by advertising agencies, which have long sought to drum up publicity by word of mouth or now through viral videos of their own, relying on users to do the work for them. But 4chan just does it for fun with the help of a big army of users: 8.5 million page views a day and 3.3 million visitors a month.
The swastika was one such stunt. It appears that a post on 4chan instructed people to Google “卐.” When thousands did, they discovered that it was a piece of code that, when processed by a Web browser, translates into a swastika. Their collective curiosity unwittingly sent the symbol soaring to the top of Google’s Hot Trends.
One of 4chan’s biggest hits is a prank known as “bait-and-switch.” You receive a link to an “amazing Web site.” But when you click, it is in fact a link to a music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit single Never Gonna Give You Up. It is estimated that more than 10 million people have been “rickrolled.” The first such joke on 4chan was “duckrolling,” in which a link to a popular celebrity or news item would instead lead to a photomontage of a duck with wheels.
In another parade of silliness, 4chan users began a Saturday ritual of posting pictures of cats, for no particular reason except that they could. This soon became known as “Caturday,” with humorous phrases posted beside the so-called “LOLcats” — now the subject of LOLcat T-shirts, buttons and fridge magnets. When a plump gray cat appeared with the caption “I can has cheezburger?” it caught the imagination of a man in Hawaii and became the subject of his blog, icanhascheezburger.com. The blog was sold for about US$2m.
Last week 4chan was at it again. The site rallied users to search for “Scientology is a cult” and, written upside down, the words “fuck you Google.” Again, both leapt to the top of Google Hot Trends before being removed. 4chan users were also accused of attacking Habbo, a virtual world for children, by flooding it with avatars made to look like black men wearing Armani suits. In a previous raid, they lined up avatars to form the shape of a swastika.
Poole had never revealed his identity until Time and the Wall Street Journal came calling. When contacted by this reporter through e-mail, he replied: “I am extremely busy this week and will not have time to conduct a phone interview.”
He suggested questions by e-mail but did not respond to them. His message was signed “moot,” a code name he uses on 4chan for reasons no one has yet fathomed.
“My personal private life is very separate from my Internet life,” he told Time. “There’s a firewall in between.”
Poole set up 4chan because he wanted to share his passion for Japanese comics and TV rather than as a moneyspinner, which is just as well. Although the site is popular, its scurrilous reputation makes it difficult to sell advertising space.
Poole said: “That’s been an uphill battle for me personally. My biggest time spent has been convincing companies in marketing potential in 4chan but no one sees eye to eye.”