At 11 a.m. on January 21st, Christopher Poole posted a note online saying he was retiring as the administrator of 4chan, the notorious website he had founded as a high school student in upstate New York 11 years earlier. The news was as shocking as some of the site's content: The Zuckerberg of the online underground was walking away.
Poole had started 4chan as a way for fellow anime obsessives to post and discuss images. But over the next decade, it morphed into the Net's greatest factory of memes and mayhem. LOLcats and Rickrolling started on 4chan. So did Anonymous, the international collective of hacktivists and geeks. Most recently, 4chan has been in the crosshairs of two of the biggest controversies on the Web: the celebrity nude leaks called the Fappening, and Gamergate, the increasingly vicious battle over sexism in the video-game industry.
With 20 million unique visitors a month — and more than 40 billion page views since its inception— 4chan is one of the most-trafficked websites ever. Poole, a lanky, acerbic 27-year-old with a mop of light-brown hair, has given a popular TED talk and been the keynote speaker at SXSW Interactive, and in 2010 Facebook brought him in to give an informational address to employees (one asked if he could ever see 4chan becoming a part of Facebook; Poole's response: "Uhhhhh, nope!"). Jeff Moss, founder of the offline hacker conference DefCon, calls 4chan "the embodiment of the original Internet spirit." When Poole topped Time's poll in 2009 as "The World's Most Influential Person" — beating out Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama — many thought he deserved it, especially the 4channers who'd gamed the vote to make sure he won.
All of which made his decision to leave 4chan seem so confounding. "I've come to represent an uncomfortably large single point of failure," he wrote in his farewell post. What he really meant and why he was quitting were a mystery.
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"4chan has given me some amount of notoriety," Poole tells me the week after he retired, "but it certainly hasn't provided me with wealth." It's a frigid afternoon in New York, and Poole, dressed in a gray hoodie and jeans, is digging into a brunch of poached eggs and bruschetta at a cafe in the East Village. Poole has never made money with 4chan — he tried to monetize the site's extraordinary traffic, but advertisers were always too wary of the site's content. Not long ago, he was $20,000 in debt and had moved back in with his mom.
The only child of divorced parents, Poole would routinely stay awake until the wee hours as an adolescent, due to a dysfunction of his circadian rhythms. At 12, he built his own computer, and three years later he launched 4chan. His model was 2chan, an image board that was huge in Japan. Anyone could upload and comment on random art and photos on 2chan, from anime to cars to gore and porn. 2chan users logged on anonymously and didn't have to register any personal information. "Anonymity enables people to share things they wouldn't otherwise do," Poole says. "That's always been my party line."
4chan was a radical reprieve from other online communities, which had strict policies against offensive content. Poole takes pride in what he describes as the site's "giant communal megaphone": Unlike Reddit or Digg, where posts have to be voted into prominent view, new posts appear automatically on the top of 4chan threads. This means every 4channer gets broadcast at full volume.
Choosing the handle "moot," Poole posted his inaugural greeting along with a request: "I politely [ask] people not to post stupid stuff on these boards," he wrote. The stupid stuff came anyway. English-speaking hackers and punks fled 2chan for 4chan, flooding 4chan with disgusting images — "Tubgirl," a diarrhea-stricken woman in a bathtub, was typical. "I'm not easily offended," Poole says, "but I have never sought out the grotesque."
Poole created more than 60 message boards, on everything from video games to LGBT. But the one that got the most attention is what he calls "the nuthouse": the Random board, most often identified by the last character of its website address, /b/. Racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic jokes pervaded the forums. Around 2006, the self-described "/b/tards" moved toward more extreme pranks, like inundating an online children's game with swastikas, or calling in bomb threats to a high school and an NFL stadium.
Poole excelled at making 4chan look like the Wild West, but he had no problem playing sheriff. Whenever the FBI traced bomb threats to 4chan, Poole complied with authorities, which sometimes meant turning over the IP address of the suspected user. He also complied with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which required him to remove content if a copyright holder objected (although he had cover if anything slipped through the cracks: The Communications Decency Act, which gives immunity to webmasters and Internet service providers over members' content, protected him).
Poole also implemented rules of his own: no one under 18 allowed on the site, no posting of anyone's personal information, no spamming. Violators were banned. Poole has never had any employees. Instead, a couple of dozen volunteers around the world monitor threads, kept discussions on topic and removed snuff films, child porn and other illegal content.
Poole's efforts to rein in some of the chaos earned him scorn not just from the /b/tards but also from the largest collective of wired rebels in the world, Anonymous, which had first coalesced on 4chan around 2006 as a kind of inside joke ("Anonymous" is the default handle on 4chan). For a while, the Anons were more like the Jackass posse of the Net, raiding sites and pulling pranks. But in 2008, after the group organized a widely reported protest of the Church of Scientology, Poole deleted its threads because they violated his rule against using 4chan to plan invasions or protests. Gregg Housh, an early and prominent Anon, recalls the group "yelling and screaming about the fact he shouldn't be censoring content on that site," he says. Today, Poole remains steadfast. When I ask him if there's free speech on 4chan, he doesn't flinch. "No," he says. "Not in the absolute sense. There never has been, ever."
Though Poole does find some 4chan posts "reprehensible" — like when a murderer posted photos of his victim on the site — he tends to speak of the site's extreme content with a clinical detachment. "If you, for example, are very offended by something like Goatse," he says, referring to a photo of a man stretching open his anus with both hands, "chances are you're not going to ever come back to 4chan."
Managing the site's content started to come with a price. Poole began getting death threats from angry 4channers. "I get a lot of e-mails of a threatening nature," he tells me. "It flares up if there is a decision that I have made that upsets people." Poole's response is to be private to the point of paranoia — he insists upon concealing his current location, countries he recently visited and even the name of the university he briefly attended.
I first met Poole in 2009, around the time he turned 21. Visiting him in his small apartment, I found him clicking through the 4chan threads for content that violated his rules. "Most sites that have 600 million impressions have a real company behind them," he told me, wearily. There'd been more subpoenas from the FBI, more bomb threats and more hijinks at his expense (4channers had voted him to the top of Victoria's Secret's "Love Your Body" online competition). "I'm at a crossroads," he told me, "with the site and with my life."
Soon after, he decided there was more of the world he wanted to explore. Poole attended college for a time, and launched his own startup, Canvas, which developed a collaborative art program called DrawQuest. He succeeded in getting $3.6 million in venture capital, but despite DrawQuest's popularity (it was downloaded 1.4 million times), Poole couldn't figure out a business model, and the company tanked.
After DrawQuest flamed out, Poole decided to clear his head. So last year, he undertook what he calls "the summer of Chris." He went to Europe and Asia, reread The Little Prince, and took classes in cooking and ballroom dancing. He began to unplug — leaving behind his laptop and weaning himself off social media. "Why am I so concerned about what's going on back in New York?" he thought at one point while in a cafe overseas. "It's taking me out of this really great moment, this new experience."
But the good times didn't last. On the evening of August 31st, Poole was thumbing through his phone in bed when a CNN report caught his eye. Hackers leaked nude photos of dozens of celebrities, including Kate Upton and Jennifer Lawrence. One of the main hubs for the pictures was 4chan. Poole complied with takedown notices from Hollywood lawyers, which 4channers expected. But then he went further. In the wake of the leaks, he decided to post the Digital Millennium Copyright Act policy on his site for the first time — something he'd never gotten around to doing before. Some 4channers cried sellout. "Is this the end of everything?" one posted.
The same week news of the Fappening broke, so did Gamergate. It started after the ex-boyfriend of indie game developer Zoe Quinn wrote a blog post accusing her of sleeping with a game journalist. A small mob on 4chan attributed positive reviews of her most recent game, Depression Quest, to this fact. "i have a standing contract with zoe for her to give me anal in exchange for a positive review on my blog," one detractor wrote. "I kind of want to just make her life irrepairably [sic] horrible," another, OpFag, wrote. "but what if she suicides," responded another. "Good," OpFag replied. "Then we get to troll #Rememberzoe."
As the threats grew, hackers began releasing Quinn's personal information. They also targeted women who came to her defense, including feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian and game developer Brianna Wu. 4chan "fosters an anonymous culture" of haters, Quinn tells me. "Giving them room to set up a mob and run unchecked is not helpful."
But Poole, to the victims' relief, banned all Gamergate discussion from his site. 4channers struck back, calling him a "soulless informant," saying he "doesn't give a shit" and that he "hasn't cared about 4chan for years now." Poole says the stress wore him down. "Week after week after week after week, there's this new controversy," he recalls. "I kept getting drawn back in."
Though he'd been thinking about leaving the site for at least a year, he'd finally had enough after enduring what he tells me was "probably the most stressful month of my life." Part of his motivation was a question that 4channers had been asking for years: "What happens to 4chan if you were to die?" Poole would deadpan that since his mom was his next of kin, "I guess you're going to be stuck with my mother as your new overlord."
But now, he wanted to appoint a successor so that the fate of 4chan was no longer solely in his hands. Poole says he didn't mean to imply that he had failed or, for that matter, been pushed out by his pet monster. "I was a link in a chain," he says, "and if that link was broken, the entire chain would fall apart."
Poole is in the process of turning over control of 4chan to three moderators who, unlike him, will remain anonymous. He hopes to find a buyer for the site, a prospect that leaves one of the moderators anxious that the wrong overlord might step in. "I hope he'll make a wise decision on who to sell it to," the moderator tells me.
As for Poole's own future, the boy who grew up online doesn't know what comes next. "Maybe I'll be a journeyman welder," he tells me, then falls silent for a moment. "I'm joking," he says. "I don't know — a trail guide? I like hiking. Maybe I'll become a surfer. I've only been surfing once."