4chan, one of the wildest corners of the web, is growing up without losing its edge. The image board just opened a self-serve ads tool for scrappy businesses and trolls willing to pay for lulz. Founder Moot tells me “We’re already seeing users using it to troll one another, advertise specific threads or their favorite boards, etc. I think there’s a lot of potential for people to use the self-serve ads in a creative manner.”
Known IRL as Christopher Poole, Moot tells me “I’ve always operated 4chan more as a hobby than a business.” The site lets anyone post pictures and comments to any of its 60+ themed image boards. They range from Safe-For-Work topics like Pokémon and Paranormal to decidedly adult stuff like “Sexy Beautiful Women” and “Hentai/Alternative” (I’m not linking to it, and you’ve been warned). 4chan is most famous for /b/, its totally anonymous board where freedom of expression spawns both offensive filth and brilliant memes.
Moot’s tried to keep the site true to its counter-cultural roots, but wanted a way to make it more sustainable, especially as he devotes his time to his venture-backed startup DrawQuest, which tries to inspire fledgling artists. “We’ve had trouble making ends meet over the years — which comes as a shock to most people since 4chan serves approximately 575 million pageviews to 25 million unique visitors per month,” says Moot.
4chan has always managed display ad sales, but that’s tough to scale to the long tail of small businesses while staying lean since it requires sales people. To help bring in some money while fighting spam, 4chan introduced the $20 “4chan pass” that lets users bypass the captchas you have to complete to post to the site.
Now, self-serve ads could let the site stay healthy without the need for headcount bloat or outside funding. It’s almost completely DIY beyond ad creative approvals, so self-serve ads could bring in the cash to pay for servers without the team having to do much work.
Anyone can buy header, middle-of-page, and footer display banners targeted to specific boards. Though ads might end up next to images of unspeakable debauchery, they can’t be NSFW. Moot says one big advantage is that 4chan ads are “a great deal with prices starting at $0.20 CPM and a minimum buy of $20 (read: damn cheap).”
What’s really fascinating about all this is that these ads aren’t just for advertisers. Originally, the self-serve ads FAQ explained “Self-serve ads are intended for anyone who wishes to promote a product, website, Kickstarter project, etc—or just for fun/to get a message in front of the 4chan community (“MODS=FAGS”, promoting a board or thread/contest, etc).” Wait, what? “MODS=FAGS”? I told you 4chan was a little rough around the edges. That’s 4chan slang for “moderators of this forum are annoying,” a sign of the site’s rebellious users who hate even the tiny bit of censorship and restriction needed to keep the site usable.
The phrase has since been removed from the FAQ, but yes, 4chan was encouraging users to buy ads to call each other homophobic slurs. I’m not condoning that. But the suggestion may have been intended to show the site’s diehard community members that it’s still firmly rooted in controversial Internet culture even though it’s maturing and focusing more on advertising. And considering the gore, tentacles, and copious gay porn that live on 4chan’s racier boards, being offensive fits.
There’s no denying that 4chan is its own community with its own code of morals. By democratizing its ad offerings, it can avoid heavy-handed big brands or venture capital and retain its identity indefinitely.
[To give people a taste of what they can buy with 4chan ads, here are some of the ridiculous ones the site is running itself.]