ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Christopher Poole, known online as “moot,” founded the forum-based social network 4chan when he was 15. Coding in secret, he spent late nights in high school hiding his online life from his friends and family, eventually turning 4chan into one of the Web's best-known meme-launchers and online communities.
4chan, which celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this year, has also been a springboard for groups like Bronies and the hacker group Anonymous. Although Poole is still running 4chan, he's now also working on Canvas, another image-based sharing platform, and Drawquest, a free drawing community for the iPad.
Forget College, Start In High School
ReadWrite: What’s it like to be a founder and a coder at the same time?
Chris Poole: Actually, I would say I don’t even fall into that bucket. I was probably a better programmer as a teenager than I am today. Which is kind of like the inverse of I guess what’s normally the case.
I don’t count programming as one of my talents. So I spent a number of years in my teens learning to program and doing it. But then, I reached this point maybe if you’re an athlete, or a pianist, and you kind of reach that point where it’s obvious that you’re okay at it, but you’re not going to go pro, or not going to play in the metropolitan opera house, you’re just not going to get to that high level. I reached that point in my teens, and it’s depressing on one hand, but on the other hand I think it was just like figuring out what I was actually talented at and honing in on that.
I think I was much better at product design and community management than the practical application of programming. So I made a decision pretty early, probably when I was 18 or 19, to just focus on the things I was good and not so much the things I wasn’t great at.
With 4chan, I basically took a step back, I mean I still basically design and inspect everything out and oversee everything. 4chan has always had volunteer developers anyway, and with Canvas, we had a founding CTO, so it’s definitely something I’ve kind of distanced myself from in recent years.
RW: When you started 4chan at 15 you were quite young, by entrepreneur standards anyway. What was your idea for this site and what was it like being a young entrepreneur?
CP: It’s based on a Japanese website, an image board. I basically found that site, Twochan.net and was pretty enamored with it because it was unlike anything I had seen before. I’m certainly like a child of the Internet, from a very young age I was using chat rooms and forums, and I spent loads of time in those places.
So this image-based discussion format was just new and interesting to me. I took that software and I translated it and modified a little bit and threw it up, then put it up for people to use and it spread from there. There wasn’t really much of a plan starting out; I didn’t have some grand vision like, “I want to have a large website and such-and-such amount of time.”
It was really just, “I think this is really neat, there isn’t really anything like it in the West for people who speak English as their primary language, and I would like to be able to use this.” [I] put it up and seeded it to few friends and everything is kind of current from there.
It was really just all word of mouth; I posted on a forum the day it launched just to say I started this thing. Aside from that I’ve never gone out of my way to ask for people to promote it or link to it or certainly pay for any advertisement, so it’s all been sprouted out of that.
RW: What was it like being a young entrepreneur juggling high school and this side project that turned into something huge?
CP: Nobody knew. My friends, family, my educator nobody knew about this site, until 2008. So it was actually a full five years that nobody from my personal life knew about 4chan. That was kind of interesting, because I kind of led these two lives. Where on one hand there were these kinds of people I was interacting with on a daily basis who had kind of had no clue, then there were other people I met online and I would later meet in person who knew about this thing I was involved with, so managing the two and keeping them separate was interesting.
I mean it certainly took up a lot of time. I was not a terribly good student in high school because I’ve always been a night owl, so I was going to bed at 5 a.m. If you look back at the oldest 4chan news posts, they’re all posted at like four or five in the morning when I’m 15 or 16 years old.
I was staying up super late and as a result missed a lot of school, thankfully I went to a public school that lacked a strict attendance policy so I kind of got away with a lot. I think they’ve actually changed this.
RW: You changed the policies of your high school? [laughs]
CP: Basically, I was like the worst, I mean I was just always tardy or absent, because I was staying up super late and there was some tension there between parents and myself. They didn’t know what I was doing at night. They knew I was on the computer but they had no idea what it was. Five years later I was vindicated in the sense that it made sense to them why I was up so late and then they saw that I wasn’t totally pissing away high school, and I was like actually working on something that would later become important and define a lot of my life and career. I think that was a little bit of relief to them once they find out.
Growing Up Online
RW: So why did you keep it on anonymous? Why didn’t you tell anyone?
CP: It was a privacy and safety thing. I was young and wasn’t even 18. The site had some, even in the early stages, inappropriate content like the pornography would be posted to it and choice language. I just didn’t think it would be appropriate if others found out about it. Later, it was nice to have that separation, what I saw as two separate worlds, and the reason I came out was that I knew it was inevitable.
I appeared three times in public, and I knew it was matter of time until somebody recognized me and revealed who I was and so I figured if that’s going to happen I would rather be the one in control of that and kind of do it on my own terms.
So when the opportunity to interview with Lev Grossman from Time, and Jane and Warner from the Journal, presented itself, what better way to reveal myself in national press? I either do it myself and it’s in a way that I can control, or its some 15-year-old compatriot that leaks my identity, so I chose the one where I had control over the message.
RW: So why did you select “moot” for your online persona? What does that mean?
CP: Unfortunately, the origin story is not that interesting, I just picked it. I do know that when I chose it I didn’t know that “moot” was a word.
RW: And you were missing school, so why would you know that that was a word?
CP: [laughs] Yeah, exactly, I was totally flunking. Also, the day I learned it was a word was when I watched Office Space, and if you remember there’s a “jump to conclusions” mat that their coworker makes, and one of the conclusions that is listed on the mat is “moot,” and I was like “Why is my name on that mat?”
So then I Googled moot and I was like, “Oh okay that makes a lot of sense.”
It’s kind of fitting there’s some irony in the name I chose; it’s kind of appropriate in a name.
RW: How big is the site now? Active users or unique visitors, do you have any numbers on that?
CP: We don’t, it’s hard to track. There’s no such thing as a login, but Google Analytics last time I checked it hovers around half a billion page views per month, that’s actually gone down a bit. But that’s actually [because we built it so] you don’t have to refresh pages anymore, they auto update using a background request using our API so that doesn’t count as a page view anymore, whereas people clicking refresh used to count as a page view. So it’s hovered in that realm for a while now. It’s about 22 to 24 million unique visitors per month.
It kind of fluctuates based on the season. The summers are our slow season as people are kind of out and about, and our high month is January because people are stuck in their rooms and it’s cold and crappy and they’re cramming for tests.
RW: Is there anything that’s happened that’s unexpected or anything that you wish you would have done differently?
CP: I guess the entire existence of the site. I always treated it more like a hobby than a company. When I set out, I never really set out with a long-term plan or goal, so to be standing here 10 years later with a million times more people using it than were on day one, that was kind of surprising.
Probably one of the larger mistakes I’ve made, something I wish I done better, is to do a better job of recruiting to help with the site. We have these volunteers who can delete things and block users from posting, but I kind of liked this idea of being a MacGyver of sorts and learning lots of obscure things and I’m glad I did because I have a pretty weird set of skills and knowledge now.
I’ve certainly been overburdened in the past just with all this work you need to be doing, and I was really the only person in a position to do anything about it. I think that if anything, one of the things I’ve learned from doing this venture-backed company, Canvas, is having really good help. Franchising people and giving them responsibility, doing a good job and appreciating their work is a really important management skill. At 15, I didn’t have any management skills, and in the time since, I have learned some of those things. The personnel side of things I could have done better.
Not Just Bronies
RW: 4chan has become a springboard for many memes. Did you ever imagine that it would be so influential?
CP: No I didn’t imagine it. But I think that it makes sense [because] the two things that really define 4chan are its anonymity and the ephemerality of its content. So the anonymity I’ve advocated in the past for allowing people to share using a pseudonym or share anonymously allows you to share in a way that’s unencumbered by your real life identity and it enables kind of discourse that you don’t find kind of elsewhere on the web.
Also, the fact that the site basically deletes itself every few hours. The content doesn’t last very long in the site, once it kind of gets pushed off the last page it’s deleted. It created this environment where people could be very experimental and provocative. At the same time, if ideas didn’t resonate with the community, then they were lost; they just rolled off the site.
So on one hand it’s surprising that it all happened, but on the other hand, the design itself really lends itself to the production of memes. It’s the ideas that can spread.
RW: Do you ever go on 4chan and just face-palm yourself? “What are they even talking about?” Do you ever have these moments?
CP: I mean, sure. There are certain boards that I don’t get because I’m not part of that sub-culture. But I’ve been using the site now for 10 years. In certain ways I’ve matured and moved on from things I was interested as a teenager or as a child, but I think in other ways I feel I’ve grown up with the site. So I think I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of modern nerdoms. It’s not all too surprising to me.
RW: What’s it like when your creation becomes bigger than yourself and takes on a life of its own? Do you like that its just sort of its own growing and changing site?
CP: Yeah, I mean I’ve always seen my role as, “I may be at the wheel of the ship but I don’t control the wind.” So I think a founder or proprietor of something can only exert so much control, after a certain point it’s just kind of the wheel of the community. Kind of like Mother Nature, it will kind of do its own thing.
As the proprietor you can change things about it, but at the end of the day you’re still subject to this external mightier force. That’s been pretty interesting to watch, and just to be smart about when to be involved and when to step back and let things run their course.
RW: You’ve talked about Canvas a little bit, was it a spinoff from 4chan? You guys use stickers before stickers were cool, so can you tell me a little bit about Canvas?
CP: It was founded to explore some ideas that I had about online communities. By that time [in 2011], 4chan was settled. People liked 4chan the way it is, and I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to change it on a whim just because I wanted to try things out.
So I decided to do it as a separate website and separate company and raise money for that company. It is related to 4chan … but it’s kind of meant to be an offshoot.
We’ve since started working on this iPad app that we launched in February of this year called Drawquest and that’s actually done really well. Drawquest is a direct descendant of Canvas. We honed in on just one of the things we were doing with Canvas, trying to help enable daily creativity with people.
RW: Drawquest, it’s kind of an opposite of 4chan. It’s kid-friendly, and the audience is primarily teen girls. So the audience is sort of varied a little bit in your endeavors. Did you do anything different? Were you trying to target different audiences? Why do you think there was that shift change?
CP: With Drawquest it was a surprise to us. We designed the app for adults, but it’s been popular with new teenagers and the elderly, and it’s really all over the place.
It’s got a pretty diverse set of users. It wasn’t done on purpose, but it certainly was our goal to make the app appeal across all [demographics]. We wanted it to kind of have mass appeal and so we designed in such a way that we wanted it to be playful, fun, and kind of serious and silly at the same time. Somebody very young could use it and somebody very old could use it and they could both kind of feel equally at home.
That was deliberate but we never really set out to capture the teen girl drawing audience. That was something that happened naturally, and it has been interesting. 4chan has already been this younger more masculine demographic and the Drawquest demographic represents the polar opposite. I have ten years experience with the former, and now six months experience with the latter so it’s kind of like “Oh shit what do we do?”
I’m certainly very comfortable dealing with the nerdy male demographic but I’m just at at total loss when it comes to the teenage girl demographic.
RW: So your main projects right now are Drawquest and Canvas, are there other projects you’re working on?
CP: No actually, I tell people I’ve had three ideas in 10 years, and those are the three— 4chan, Drawquest, and Canvas.
I’m not the kind of person that wakes up every morning and is like, “I’ve got a new idea that’s going to change the world!” I have very few.
On the side I advise a venture firm called Lerer Ventures here in New York, I’m a member of this open source art collective called F.A.T. Lab, so there are other things I’ve dabbled in. But in terms of projects I spend time on, it’s only ever been 4chan and the venture-backed stuff.
RW: You still go on 4chan everyday?
RW: Do you post on there everyday and participate in discussions?
CP: Not everyday, I do from time to time. I browse, kind of like most other people. My relationship and my way of browsing is different than that of a normal user.
I did this interview a few months ago with Rhizome, I compared it to gardening or something, or maybe cooking. I’ve been cooking a lot recently, now I have an appreciation for it. Cooking sucks for other people.
I love cooking with and for other people but, when you’re the chef and see how the sausage is made, you sit down for the meal and the other person is like, “Oh this is great!” and you’re like, “Oh this could have been salted more this could have been cooked a little bit.” You find the flaw. It’s the same thing with gardening, an outsider can appreciate something for its beauty, whereas you’re looking for the weeds
You’re like, “Oh there’s fucking weeds! That’s not right!” When it’s your thing and you have the power to change it, your relationship changes.
Not to say it’s stressful, but it’s a different way of using a product, and I think that goes for most everybody who uses a product they work on, you’re constantly looking to make it better.
Protecting Our Online Anonymity
RW: Let’s touch again on the anonymous thing. You’ve been a large proponent of maintaining anonymity online, and even the hacker group Anonymous was formed on 4chan. Is there a message that you want to give people regarding Internet privacy, especially now with the NSA and big Internet companies coming under fire for user privacy?
CP: Yeah, I’ve always been an advocate of giving people choices when it comes to how they express themselves online. It’s not to say that everybody should be anonymous, but I think that having the option to post with your real name or post with a handle or anonymously it’s powerful. Users should demand that they have those options when they choose use a service, and have that flexibility.
The trend is away from that. The trend is to use your first and last name and a picture of yourself, and that’s where the web and service providers have pushed us. Part of it is just that most people don’t stand up to it and kind of demand options.
I think it’s going to be a shame, though, that if five or ten years from now we’re in a place where we don’t have places like 4chan as kind of an outlet when people want to speak their mind; ways to express ourselves that’s unencumbered by our real life identity.
RW: Do you think it’s the responsibility of the company or of the users to maintain that privacy or advocate for that? You were saying that right now it’s accepted that everyone has his or her name and picture everywhere online. Do you think that users should be more wary or cautious of that and demand better privacy options?
CP: It’s a mix of both. As far as privacy goes, the service providers, in terms of what information they collect and how long they store it and how they make it available to third parties, that’s really all on the company. Users have the right to know what’s collected and how it’s stored, if there’s something wrong there then they should demand a change.
That’s been the case with Facebook over the years. Every little change they make people try and stand up to it, but at the end of the day as we’ve seen with Facebook, only a very small fraction of their users stand up and say something, even when they do it doesn’t really effect change.
It has to be a partnership, people should be have their voice be heard and be vocal about what should go and what shouldn’t, but also I think companies need to be willing to. Today we haven’t seen companies meet people halfway. We’ve seen one half, which is people being very upset about certain changes services providers have made and revelations about data government is collecting, but also service providers need to meet people halfway. So it’s kind of like a partnership between the two.
RW: Do you think that people will start moving towards social platforms that are more anonymous, or new social platforms will come up and say, “Well if you don’t want your stuff all over Facebook, I’ve just started this private social network?”
CP: I could envision a future where that would be the case. I’ve always been a huge fan [of forums]. Forums tend to be these interest-based communities where strangers gather around a common shared interest. Forums used to be the social networks of old, and I think there are plenty of things people want to discuss and want to be exposed to that they’re just not able to get on to something like Facebook. So I think there will always be demand for more traditional online communities.
Will there be some mass exodus from Facebook? Probably not, but it’s possible for people to use both and scratch your niche so to speak, by using sites like 4chan and other online communities like Reddit in addition to Facebook.