AUSTIN, Texas – For most entrepreneurs, running a website that is rife with pornography and frequently criticized as a menace to society would not be considered a resume booster. Many venture capitalists would head in the opposite direction.
But Christopher Poole, the 23-year-old founder of 4chan, one of the largest forums on the Internet and widely considered to be one of the darkest corners of the Web, has never shied away from his first creation.
In fact, he has deftly managed to transform the notorious popularity of 4chan, which he said boasts a staggering 12 million visitors a month, into a launching pad for his successful career as a public speaker, an adviser at the investment fund Lerer Ventures and as the founder of the new website Canvas. It has received financing from such respected venture capitalists as Ron Conway, a noted Silicon Valley angel investor who was one of the earliest investors in Google, Kenneth Lerer, co-founder of the Huffington Post, and Joshua Schachter, who created Delicious, the popular social bookmarking service that Yahoo bought.
Andreessen Horowitz, the venure capital firm formed by Marc Andreesssen and Ben Horowitz, also invested. Horowitz said Canvas was “one of the easier investment decisions we’ve ever made.”
Canvas, was officially unveiled recently at South by Southwest, the technology and music festival held annually in Austin. The website allows people to upload images and watch as other members on the site add to and remix the content.
“It’s pure entertainment on the Internet,” Poole said. “I don’t think the idea that people just hang out online has really caught on, but that is a thing. It is an actual hobby for a lot of people.”
For now the site is limited to images, but eventually, Poole says he hopes to add video and audio.
On one level, the flow of ideas, or memes in Web parlance, across the site resembles 4chan. A recent popular thread on Canvas featured a cute tiny brown dog covered with snow. Each subsequent image added to the original. One introduced characters from “Star Wars” to the photo, then someone joked about calling in Charlie Sheen to help the dog clear away the snow, a thinly veiled reference to Sheen’s widely publicized struggles with drugs. Poole likens the spontaneous interplay of these interactions to watching a particularly funny improvised comedy skit unfold or the feverish excitement of attending the opening night of a movie with a cult following in the company of hundreds of other dedicated fans.
“It’s a shared experience, knowing that you and several other people are experiencing this and participating in helping something unfold in this moment,” he said. “That ephemeral nature of that moment is special and will never be repeated in the same way.”
“That is something 4chan is really good at,” he added. “The site is just a framework of pictures and text. There aren’t any rules. But an entire culture, complete with its own vocabulary and language, sprang up around it.”
June Cohen, executive producer of TED media, said, “Like it or hate it, 4chan is an important cultural force.” TED is the prestigious conference held annually in Long Beach, California, where Poole was invited to speak in 2010. “It is a huge site, and so many Internet memes are formed there, it’s hard to ignore it,” she said.
Canvas is somewhat similar to 4chan. Members of the online community do not have to use their real identities to participate, which flies in the face of the Quoras, Facebooks and Twitters of the Web, which bank their business models and reputations on knowing who each user is and establishing a fixed identity on the Web.
But Poole says he hopes Canvas will create a unique social culture online, and he is quick to add that Canvas is not intended to replicate 4chan.
“We’ve not building 4chan 2.0,” he said, thumping his hoodie-cloaked chest for emphasis. “Canvas is a separate endeavour.”
But the challenge now for Poole is to keep Canvas and 4chan as separate entities, to keep the lack of identification from devolving into bad behaviour and from cross-pollinating the mischief and mayhem that permeate his first venture.
It seems to be working. During the first few weeks while the site has been in private testing, the company has only had to remove a handful of the offensive images from Canvas that are common on 4chan.
Poole created 4chan in 2003 on summer break at 15. He modelled it after a Japanese anime site called 2chan. For the next several years, most people only knew Poole by his online handle, moot. He only came out publicly as the founder of 4chan a few years ago. Before then, he ran the site in secrecy from his bedroom. Even his parents were unaware of the site. “Even in my real life, I was anonymous,” he said.
During that time, the site exploded in popularity and cemented itself squarely in Internet culture, for better or worse.
The sheer power and influence that 4chan is able to wield online is difficult to deny and often goes beyond the Internet. The site is credited with creating one of the better-known Internet memes, Lolcats, pictures of cute cats paired with quirky, misspelled captions. In 2009, 4channers concentrated their efforts on electing Poole as Time magazine’s most influential person of the year, earning him a ticket to a red carpet event that included John Legend and Diane Sawyer.
But the site is often at the root of much mayhem on the Internet. Members taunted the family of a teenage suicide victim. A few years ago, members on the site started a rumour that Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, had suffered a heart attack, causing shares of the company to plummet. More recently, some 4channers initiated a Web attack that brought down PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, after those sites cut off donations to WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing site.
Nevertheless, the drawing power of Canvas intrigued venture capitalists who provided $625,000 in seed money. The investors say this is a new kind of service that may portend a very different future for Web services and behaviours.
“Our investment is in Chris,” Horowitz said. “No other site has started as many new ideas that have caught fire on the Internet as 4chan.”
“We don’t know what it’s going to become,” Horowitz said of Canvas. “But, if he can foster than in a better environment, we are willing to wait and see what happens.”
For all that traffic on 4chan, the site itself makes very little money. Few companies, outside of the adult services industry, are interested in running advertisements on the site. Poole says the site generates “in the low five figures,” enough to cover the costs for the servers and bandwidth needed to operate.
“Two years ago we used to joke about getting investors for 4chan,” he said. “And now here we are with Canvas. But we really think there is a kernel of something great here.”