SXSW Day Three: Christopher Poole on the benefits of anonymity online

ChristopherPoole_TED2010Disclaimer: Because some of the content on 4chan.org is of a considerably adult or crude nature, I’ve chosen not to link directly to the site. For the sensitive souls in the bunch, I’d advise doing some additional reading on 4chan before deciding to visit. -J.

What makes an online community grow, evolve and thrive? Christopher “moot” Poole, founder of the web forum and community 4chan, believes that a large part of this success is providing its users the choice of anonymity. While Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, pushes for the use of a single, real online identity that carries throughout the user’s life, Poole believes this not only restricts what users feel comfortable saying, it also constricts the creative process itself.

Riffing for the LOLs

Christopher Poole started 4chan as a community for anime culture, which over the past several years has gained reputation for everything but — if you’ve seen a cartoon spread like wildfire among your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or even in an e-mail (a LOLcat, for example), chances are fair that it originated on 4chan. How can one community generate much of internet culture’s most pervasive humor? Poole attributes it to the ability to fail. Like musicians riffing, users on 4chan build on an image to distort or remix it, until ultimately the funniest among the bunch spread virally in a digital version of “survival of the fittest.” In the creation of any good meme, Poole views the process to be just as significant as the final product.

Does anonymity make us more creative?

When given the opportunity to post anonymously (combined with 4chan’s lack of an archive — the turnover in some sections is faster than a few hours), members feel more free to contribute, even if what they add doesn’t ultimately spread. When they are not tied to their prior mistakes, members feel encouraged to continue contributing, much in the way a child can choose to reinvent himself at a new school, leaving his old identity behind. Anonymity also puts emphasis on “content over creator” — without “experts,” much like other forums promote, anyone can be the funniest or most creative member of the day.

Combining Facebook Connect and fluid identity: A new chapter in 4chan’s history

Since rolling out 4chan in 2003, the forum “has not changed very much in function, form and aesthetic.” To encourage more everyday visitors to create content, Poole has introduced a new community called Canv.as, complete with in-site tools to remix pictures and add text. The new site, much unlike its bigger brother, requires the use of Facebook Connect to create an account (to better weed out trolls and other abusive posters, Poole reasons). However, once logged in, the option to post anonymously still exists, continuing the ability to play, make mistakes, and create shared experiences online.

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Image courtesy Red Maxwell on Flickr / Creative Commons.


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