4chan Creator Doubles Down on Web Anonymity With Canvas

By Gillian Terzis

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.

Nevertheless, anonymity remains central to Poole's vision because it liberates users -- or content-makers -- from the pressure of creating something hilarious. Anonymity enables users to express uninhibited creativity in a "completely unvarnished, unfiltered way," as Poole puts it, free from the hulking albatross of failure. When unsuccessful attempts at wit surface in 4chan and Canvas, they tend to disappear fairly quickly because the momentum that drives memes is fast-paced and instantaneous. But when there's no name, there's no shame. After all, there's no time to dwell on past failures when memes are in a constant process of regeneration.

In any case, the anonymous nature of these forums -- and the absence of archived posts -- means that such sins are quickly absolved. But most importantly, anonymity ensures that it is the content, not the creators, that reigns supreme. The act of collaboration between members trumps the efforts of the individual every time, an outcome unique to 4chan and Canvas. In comparison, the collaborative opportunities proffered by Twitter and Facebook are slim; the currency of personal status updates and tweets is constrained by a user's social clout. A real identity carries with it the burdens of accountability and responsibility, as well as the desire to deliberately cultivate a desirable online persona, which clearly impinges upon Poole's insistence on a no-holds-barred approach to content creation. While many would be hesitant to declare 4chan as an arbiter of taste, it would be hard to deny that it has spawned a unique mythology, culture and vernacular that has left an indelible imprint on mainstream Internet and popular culture -- a legacy that Poole surely hopes to build upon with Canvas.

Typically, Poole's critics view the Internet as a hotbed for anarchy, and thus place a high premium on establishing fixed identities as a necessary regulatory measure. Many are quick to point to 4chan's seedier side as an argument against anonymity on the web: the culture of bullying; the unbridled transgression of society's moral codes; the casual perpetuation of homophobia and misogyny -- all of which can be seen in the often-vitriolic comments section of most newspaper websites. Julian Dibbell has referred to anonymity in Internet culture as an embodiment of societal id: the one place where one can indulge, guilt-free, in what most would consider to be chronically inappropriate and base impulses.

Which brings us back to that bugbear of authenticity. Zuckerberg contends that anonymity breeds cowardice, that the value of online comments and dialogue is at a maximum when online identities are attached to real ones. His criticisms of anonymous online culture may have some validity, but they tie into an uncritical assumption that one's online self is a direct replica of one's self in the real world. Rather, it is anonymity that reveals most about human behavior: how people are inclined to act when there is no need to mask your opinions because there are no consequences. Anonymity negates the need for the meticulous posturing that bedevils an individual's need to conform to social mores. Sometimes, the results aren't going to be pretty, but surely its capacity to showcase a comprehensive gamut of opinions and cultural norms -- offensive or otherwise -- speaks to the definition of an authentic, online culture.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/4chan-creator-doubles-down-on-web-anonymity-with-canvas/72554/