The Rules of 4chan, the Machine That Feeds the Web

Love it or hate it, you can thank 4chan for countless online phenomena like lolcats, the ubiquitous photos of cats combined with humorous text, often in "kitty speak."

The image-based Internet forum has been the breeding ground for some of the Web's most well-known inside jokes, but it's still unknown or mysterious to many. But thanks to the Smoking Gun, a site dedicated to unearthing court and government documents, we now know a little more about how the site works directly from the mouth of its founder, Christoper Poole. Poole delivered testimony, just posted by The Smoking Gun, in the criminal trial of the Tennessee man who hacked into Sarah Palin's e-mail account. The on-the-record question-and-answer session doesn't reveal anything major, but it serves as a very simple introduction to what the site is and how it works.

Many of 4chan's users, especially those in its random section known as "/b/," are pranksters whose actions range from playful to obscene to downright hateful. They have rigged a Time magazine online poll, securing 4chan's founder the spot as the most influential person of 2009 and popularized the practice of Rickrolling -- a bait-and-swtich in which a person is tricked into watching the music video to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." Most recently, 4chan's users helped to launch a campaign to harass an eleven-year-old girl and then another against Gawker for writing about it.

At roughly 5,000 words, the transcript is rather long, but it's a useful 4chan primer. Here's an exchange in which Poole (the "A" in the Q and A) defines some key terms used by members:

Q. Like "OP," what is "OP"?
A. OP means original poster.
Q. Are you familiar these terms, having been the founder and administrator of the 4chan site?
A. Yes.
Q. What would "lurker" mean?
A. Somebody who browses but does not post, does not contribute.
Q. What do the words "caps" mean?
A. Screenshots.
Q. And is there any significance to "new fags"?
A. That is the term used to describe new users to the site.
Q. What about "b tard"?
A. It's a term that users of the /b/- Random board use for themselves.
Q. What about "troll"?
A. Troublemaker.
Q. "404"?
A. 404 is the status code for not found. It means essentially gone or not found.
Q. Not found on where, the 4chan site?
A. 404 is the http status code for not found, a page not found by the Web server.
Q. In what about "peeps"?
A. People.
Q. "Rickroll"?
A. Rickroll is a mean or Internet kind of trend that started on 4chan where users -- it basically a bait and switch. Users link you to a video of Rick Astley performing Never Gonna Give You Up.
Q. What about "white night"? Does that have a unique meaning on 4chan?
A. On 4chan I am not sure. White night in general, I guess, would mean a do gooder.
Q. Have you seen that word used on the 4chan boards?
A. Yes.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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