What is 4chan?
4chan is an image-centric bulletin board. It's based on a Japanese site called Futaba. Their code was publicly available so I downloaded a copy of their source code and translated the text from Japanese to English from an online resource. It's me, a handful of volunteer moderators and a part-time developer. For a site that has more than 10 million users and 700 million page impressions, most people are shocked to discover that it's not a company, it's not an operation, it's our hobby.
How has it evolved?
All of its growth has been organic. We've never advertised the site; it's been word-of-mouth. Now our traffic is about 12 million unique visitors per month. Part of the way it spread is because the images that are posted lend themselves naturally to be shared via IM [instant messaging], chat or email. People see a funny or provocative image, send it to their friends, and their friends come to 4chan. The community has a very distinct culture and language, and it's responsible for creating and propagating internet memes like lolcats [amusing pictures of cats] and
[a prank involving the video for the 1987 Rick Astley song "Never Gonna Give You Up"]. As that started to trickle out into the mainstream… all of a sudden, it's not just something spread as word-of-mouth by 18- to 25-year-old video game nerds; it's hit mainstream consciousness.
The site is distinctive because users can post material anonymously, and some users have also organised themselves as a collective, using the name "Anonymous". What does that actually mean?
As recently as six years ago, people were used to forums where you could lurk, you could view, but in order to post and participate, you had to register. Because you didn't need to register on 4chan, people started to appreciate it, and realise how radically different it was. We began to see anonymity not just as an aspect or feature, but as a thing, as a principle, as an idea that we are one, we are a collective, we are Anonymous. People then came to the site who not only saw Anonymous as a principle, but started to exploit anonymity as a new platform where they could be rebellious and no one knew who they were.
"Anonymous" started a protest movement against the practices of the Church of Scientology two years ago. Were you complicit in their activities?
I didn't start 4chan as an outlet for dissenting voices and freedom of speech. At first the community was so tame. But as it became less tame, I felt there was something there worth protecting. The rise of social networking is an assault on the free, the open, the anonymous web. I started to appreciate that 4chan is one of the last bastions of freedom online. Anonymity – including anonymous posting – is something to be protected. 4chan is very privileged to be one of the last places for this type of discourse, for this type of interaction. That's important. That's why I've decided to be hands-off and to protect it as a place, and to deliver a platform.
Anonymity allows you to express and view opinions, images you wouldn't necessarily be comfortable with elsewhere. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to be negative. It's not about, "You can't say fuck on Facebook but you can on 4chan." Services where you have a persistent, registered identity such as Twitter and Facebook – in many cases it's your real identity – limit what users want to say and read. But you can on 4chan. It is an outlet. I was invited to speak at Facebook to provide an alternative and opposite perspective to theirs. Mark Zuckerberg's point of view is that anonymity and monikers and pseudo-identity represents cowardice. He said that if you have nothing to hide, what's the big deal? Why would you be concerned about putting all this stuff on your profile? Well, I'm not a zealot and people like what Facebook is doing. But there is a place for both. They both offer powerful utilities for different needs. The world still needs a Google, and Facebook. But it also needs the anonymous, ephemeral, open 4chan.
Are there any rules?
There is a set of codified rules and we do enforce them: don't break the law or post anything illegal. Past that, the users are left to their own devices.