Speaking at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, over the weekend, 4chan founder Christopher Poole sparked a bit of controversy when he emphatically declared that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was "totally wrong" about online identity. Zuckerberg -- and Facebook -- argues that individuals should have one online identity that follows them from site to site. Poole, who is probably better known by his 4chan username, "moot," believes in anonymity.
Poole argued that anonymity allows users to reveal themselves in a "completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way." One of the things that's lost when you carry the same identity everywhere is "the innocence of youth." ("Innocence" isn't the first word that would come to mind when I think of 4chan, but okay, I'll go with him here.) In other words, when everyone knows everything you've done online, you're a lot more worried about screwing up, and you're less willing to experiment. Poole compared this to being a kid, moving to a new neighborhood, and having the opportunity to start over. On the Internet, you don't get that opportunity.
"The cost of failure is really high when you're contributing as yourself," Poole said.
In the case of 4chan, users feel a lot more comfortable trying to create funny images that can become memes, because content that doesn't catch on disappears quickly, and they're not weighed down by their failures. Poole said another benefit to 4chan's anonymity is that content becomes more important than the creator, which is unlike virtually any other online community. Rather than prioritizing the most valued and experienced users, 4chan allows anyone to access the site and post something that might take off.
At the same time, it seems Poole's attitude towards privacy has evolved. He's working on a new community site called Canv.as, which actually integrates with Facebook Connect, although users can still post anonymously. Poole said the fact that "you know that we know" the user's real identity, even if other users can't see it, discourages people from indulging in the most obnoxious behavior.
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