4chan Creator Doubles Down on Web Anonymity With Canvas

When 23-year-old Christopher "moot" Poole revealed Canvas at SXSW last week, he was not afraid to fire a none-too-subtle salvo at the overarching dominance of identity-driven social media. To borrow from the patois of Poole's first cultural phenomenon, 4chan, he was adamant that Facebook and Twitter were doing it wrong. He singled out Mark Zuckerberg for being "totally wrong" about the corollary between fixed online identity and authenticity, with Poole arguing that causality between the two concepts was fallacious. Instead, he argued the opposite was true. "Anonymity is authenticity" was Poole's catch-cry, and Canvas his platform for a public push towards embracing a culture of anonymity.

Poole's critics view the Internet as a hotbed for anarchy, and thus place a premium on establishing fixed identities as a necessary measure.

In a similar way to 4chan, Canvas is an imageboard where members post pictures and take part in the dynamic and unpredictable world of meme creation. A preliminary poking-around of Canvas suggests it is more benign but just as irreverent as its predecessor: One popular thread shows a picture of Justin Bieber being transformed by users into a piggish caricature, complete with a double chin. Poole's description of the site is quite holistic, suggesting that its value is derived from the simplicity of a "shared experience." He argued the idea that "knowing that you and several other people are experiencing this and participating in helping something unfold in this moment" forges a strong sense of belonging in an online community, a quality that has been integral in the success of 4chan. And unlike Facebook, which can sometimes resemble an advertisement of one's mundane existence, imageboards like 4chan and Canvas are, quite simply, places to hang out and create memes with others online. It may sound like a fairly arcane concept, but it's also an extraordinary cultural phenomenon: 10.2 million to 12 million visitors a month are compelled to loiter compulsively on Poole's myriad imageboards.

Canvas is still in beta mode, but Poole has been quick to posit Canvas as an entirely separate entity from 4chan. Certainly, Canvas has some crucial distinguishing features. For instance, it has attracted the largesse of prominent venture capitalists to the tune of $625,000. Investors included founder of the Huffington Post, Kenneth Lerer; Google investor Ron Conway; and Joshua Schachter, the creator of Delicious. Financial backing of this magnitude suggests it is a markedly more ambitious undertaking, and highlights growing recognition of an alternative to personality-focused social media. After years of being portrayed as an online ghetto for miscreants, 4chan has been co-opted into mainstream Internet culture, which surely bodes well for Canvas.

Certainly, this pull towards the mainstream is much more evident in the ambitions Poole has for Canvas, which contrast stridently with 4chan's devil-may-care attitude. Despite huge visitor traffic, 4chan makes little money, probably because the only advertising on the site is for adult services. But as Canvas is Poole's heavily bankrolled pet project, it has the potential to attract similar amounts of traffic, making it a potential cash cow for advertisers. But considering the amount of investment in the project, one assumes Canvas is as much of a business enterprise as it is a cultural one. Therefore, it probably needs to be more sensitive with content, so as not to scare off prospective advertisers. Perhaps this is why Poole has forgone absolute anonymity in the beta version of Canvas, which requires all users -- who still appear anonymous to each other -- to log-in via Facebook Connect.

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Gillian Terzis is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Foreign Policy and The Jakarta Post.

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