The Fappening, Ebola-chan, revenge porn: Why isn’t 4chan’s founder accountable for 4chan’s crimes?

People Hate 4chan. So Why Do They Love Its Founder?

People Hate 4chan. So Why Do They Love Its Founder?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 25 2014 3:48 PM

Boards Against Humanity

Why isn’t 4chan’s founder accountable for 4chan’s offenses?

Erick Schonfeld (L) and Christopher Poole (R) speak at TechCrunch Disrupt New York May 2011 at Pier 94 on May 25, 2011 in New York City.
Somehow, Christopher “moot” Poole, right, pictured at TechCrunch Disrupt New York on May 25, 2011, takes almost no heat for the content that appears on the site he controls.

Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images for AOL

Since 4chan was the epicenter of both “the Fappening” (featuring hundreds of private photos hacked from iCloud accounts) and “Ebola-chan” (the racist “mascot” of the deadly virus), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the infamous site might be the Eye of Sauron itself. It’s been a fount for such harmless inventions as lolcats and Rickrolling, but it’s also been responsible for more than its share of stalking, tastelessness, and revenge porn. Some of 4chan’s users have been complicit in nasty business from harassment of teens to widespread invasions of privacy. 4chan’s reputation is so bad that a viral marketing hoax involving nonexistent nude photos of actress Emma Watson pinned responsibility on the site’s users—all too believably.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York, and a fellow at New America.

People tend to assign blame for various 4chan-related offenses to 4chan as a collective. The Independent: “What or who is 4chan? And why are they such utter douchebags?” The Guardian: “4chan is a cesspool.” 4chan has flooded Jezebel with “gifs of rape porn and violence,” the feminist site claims. The Huffington Post writes that 4chan wants to “drag gender equality back to the Stone Age.” Caitlin Dewey writes in the Washington Post that 4chan is “unsavory,” “dangerous,” “witless,” and “vile.”

But who really bears responsibility for 4chan’s crimes? The individual miscreants themselves, of course, but if we’re looking for where the buck stops, 4chan’s critics should look to the only person who has total control over the site itself: founder and operator Christopher “moot” Poole.  

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4chan is not a singular unity. Its different boards, which cover everything from anime to video games to sports to My Little Pony (it has its own dedicated board, /mlp/), have very different memberships and personalities, just as various groups on Reddit and Facebook do. 4chan’s elaborate Rules specify different policies for different boards. For example, certain content is permitted only on infamous “random” board /b/:

Trolls, flames, racism, off-topic replies, uncalled for catchphrases, macro image replies, indecipherable text (example: "lol u tk him 2da bar|?"), anthropomorphic ("furry") or grotesque ("guro") images, post number GETs ("dubs"), or loli/shota pornography.

On the other hand, socializing board /soc/ has a rule conspicuously absent from the other boards: “Do not stalk or harass any users.”

Site owner Poole, who started 4chan in 2003 when he was 15, has maintained that the restrained approach to NSFW moderation has made 4chan what it is. In a Reddit AMA, he wrote, “4chan stands out as having the dominant culture, mindshare, and influence that trickles down to the other communities and spreads elsewhere across the ’Net.” Poole told the New York Times that “the power lies in the community to dictate its own standards.” But clearly that power is not, or shouldn’t be, absolute: 4chan moderators (who themselves are wholly anonymous, known only to Poole) clamp down on posting of personal information (“doxxing”), incitements to “raid” other sites, and child pornography. So the question is deciding where else the site’s moderators should draw the line. Obviously anything illegal should be policed, but what about morally questionable but legal activities, such as encouraging certain forms of harassment?

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Responsibility for drawing this line lies only with Poole himself. Tech gadfly Anil Dash once wrote, “[I]f your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault.” Dash excoriated many of 4chan’s anonymous policies and those who share Poole’s hands-off attitude: “[T]ake some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.” Whether or not you agree with Poole’s views on freedom of speech (I myself am in fact sympathetic, if not in total agreement), Dash is right that Poole bears the ultimate responsibility for the standards—or lack thereof—set in place on 4chan. For all the bile directed at “4chan” and “4chan users,” very little of it has been directed at the single person with the ability to change the site’s standards and enforce them, should he so desire. It’s one thing to share a site with awful people; it’s another to make money off of them.

Moreover, 4chan’s notoriety has not made Poole any less palatable to the tech world, which has accepted him as a budding young entrepreneur. Poole’s recently deceased startup Canvas got venture capital backing from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, SV Angel, and Lerer Ventures, among others; BuzzFeed Chairman Kenneth Lerer made Poole an adviser to his VC firm; fellow Lerer adviser Jonah Peretti, who is also BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO, gushed that Poole “has the deepest understanding of community dynamics and hacker culture of anyone I have ever met.” Meanwhile, BuzzFeed writers such as Rossalyn Warren and Ryan Broderick have written more than a dozen articles criticizing 4chan users without mentioning that both their chairman and CEO have connections to Mr. 4chan himself. For all the buzz about 4chan lately, I have seen no criticism leveled at Poole directly, nor any interviews with him since 2013, when he reiterated his hands-off approach to moderation. If there is going to be a conversation about 4chan, Poole should be a major part of it.

No one, least of all 4chan users, disputes that 4chan is full of assholes. Yet even Anil Dash himself has written fondly of Poole without taking up the issue with him. Gawker Media’s VP of operations publicly calls Poole a friend, even as the Gawker Media site Jezebel rails against 4chan and Gawker claims 4chan is trying to “silence” it. Although Portland’s hip art-tech XOXO festival disinvited Cards Against Humanity creator Max Temkin this year after informal rape allegations were made against him on Tumblr, the festival specifically selected Poole to attend for the third year in a row even as the Fappening and Ebola-chan—and, as always, revenge porn—were verifiably occurring on his own site.

Poole clearly has strong opinions on free speech, but when Brendan Eich is booted from Mozilla over having donated to a pro–Prop 8 campaign, should the proprietor of 4chan be endorsed, employed, fêted, and funded by the tech elite? Should he not have to answer for what happens on his site? It’s a question 4chan’s critics should be asking.