Moot Reflects On 11 Years Running 4chan, The Web’s Wild West

Lolcats, Anonymous, and countless Internet memes all spawned from 4chan. You have Chris Poole, aka Moot, to thank (or blame) for that.

 There was never another full-time employee through 11.5 years, over 42 billion page views, and 20 million active users. But after starting the image board where any one could post anything at just 15 years old, Moot is signing off. Signing off from the jokes, the trolls, the weird porn, and the chaos of anonymity.

Today, 4chan’s founder announced that he’s prepped the servers, finances and code, and empowered a team of volunteers to carry on the site without him. “I’m very zen about all this”, he tells me. But what has he learned? What’s 4chan’s legacy? And what’s next for him? Here’s my exit interview with the boy-sheriff of an Internet frontier:

Moot: I don’t know what to say, it’s been a long time. Eleven and a half years. It’s been incredible. Unprecedented, I think. Very few online communities make it 10 years. Even fewer people have the opportunity to be at the helm that long, at least at the scale that 4chan is. Thinking of who my peers would be in that sense, can’t think of any others.

Constine: What about what Zuck has built?

Moot: Yeah, but that’s a company. With 4chan, the most incredible thing is that it’s very large. Reasonably large by today’s standard [laughs]. It serves 20 million people a month, and all there’s ever been is me. There’s only been one part-time developer and 1 part-time helper-outer, and volunteers, but it’s mostly been a one-man operation. It’s almost peerless. Except for maybe Aaron [Peckham] who’s run Urban Dictionary for 15 years by himself.

But there comes a time when everyone has to take their bow. This announcement coincidentally a year after we last spoke when I was closing DrawQuest [Poole’s venture-backed drawing game startup]. Maybe January 21st is a special day for me.

It’s this comfortable, reliable place they could go to after they got home.

Constine: What is 4chan’s impact?

Moot: I think when people think about 4chan’s impact of over the years they think of Lolcats, and Anonymous, and Internet jokes, but I think it’s more. What’s kept me invested over the years is that when someone comes up to me on the street [who knows him from 4chan], every single intersection with someone face to face have been very positive. “Thank you for 4chan because it helped me in a certain time in my life. I was in high school, or in college, or after work and wanted to blow off steam.” I think it helped smooth over the peaks and valleys for people. It’s this comfortable, reliable place they could go to after they got home. It was a respite.

It’s touched the lives a of a few hundred million people who used it actively. I think for the most part it made their lives better. It was their third place, where they could go after school or work when they were stressed. It functioned as a home a way from home for a lot of people. That story’s not as sexy as Anonymous. It’s not memes. It’s not The Fappening. But overall, the culture that’s permeated from it has a touched an even larger audience. It was one of the early progenitors of Internet culture. Internet culture now is pop culture, but I think 4chan was at the forefront of that. I think that’s its legacy. And who knows what the next 10 years will hold.

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Constine: How have you grown and changed since 4chan started?

Pretty immensely, but I have and I haven’t. My 11 years at 4chan coincided with exiting my teens, and entering adulthood. Doing 4chan represented all of my adult life. It’s hard to say how much was a result of maturation and getting older, seeing the world, the normal things that happen.

I did an interview five years ago in Technology Review and the author noted that 4chan represented this chaotic Wild West, so I think a lot of people thought I would be a manifestation of the site, which I’ve never been. He said “You’re just this normal, boring kid. You’re not this kind of caricature of the guy from 4chan.”  My father said, “He doesn’t define it and it doesn’t define him.” I’ve been very permissive and hands off in that respect. It’s informed but not determined who I’ve become as a person.

I was the loneliest webmaster in the world.

Constine: What are the big insights you learned, if you had to pass knowledge on to someone else?

Moot: I’m still reflecting on that. Maybe I’ll package that and write that in the future. It was essentially this incredible education. The one very tangible skill I gained was a PhD in large-scale community management.

One thing I’d go back and do differently was elevate and empower more volunteers early on. When I was young I took on all the responsibility. We kind of joked it was a ‘Mootocracy’. The buck doesn’t fly until it passes me. As a teenager, it wasn’t clear to me that you should franchise and bring people into the fold and confide in them and make decisions as a group. It was always me, me, me. 

When I ran a venture-backed company, it’s like I was never really a good manager. I learned about treating people. It was stressful because I don’t have co-founder, I didn’t have a partner or anyone to look to for advice and lean on. It was lonely. I was the loneliest webmaster in the world. I had so few friends 7 years ago that I could go to to blow off steam or seek their advice. 

One of the things I learned was that there were miscommunications that happened over the years. Early on If you don’t communicate something will change, or ever communicate why something is happening, people are left to their own devices and fill in the blanks, and 90% of the time the blanks they fill in are totally wrong. But it’s not their fault. Without the straight facts they’re left to come up with things on their own.

The stresses of the community have come from making changes and not adequately communicating that in advance and why. These are things you learn as you get older. I was 15 and had never had a real job. There were things I had to learn from trial by fire. I think I still have a lot of reflecting to do to key out why these learnings were.

Constine: Any specific changes you made to the site you wish you had done differently?

No, not particularly. One of the things that impressed me about 4chan it that it’s been the same size for a while. “Oh, 20 million users, that’s respectable.” But the fact that it’s maintained that number of users for five years now. Communities come and go very quickly. It’s not hard to make one mistake…Communities peak very quickly.  4chan essentially hasn’t declined at all at least in terms of its traffic. The fact that it’s kind of stayed there is kind of unusual. 

It’s very tough to maintain traffic as a community. People will always find a reason to complain, but I learned long ago that you can’t believe everyone. There are 10s of millions pf people who’s interests have in mind. It’s hard to cater to any small groups’ needs. My actions have been in service of the larger community. What’s right for “4chan” is to make sure it can endure, succeed and thrive, and that means making decisions that impact a small group of people in a negative way. But it’s in service of a making it the best possible site for 10s of millions of people and ensuring there’s still a site to use.

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[Moot shared today that 4chan has 20.3 million monthly visitors, 1.2 million daily visitors, 620 million monthly page views, and 21 million daily page views. As for all-time stats, there’s been 42.1 billion total page views, 1.7 billion total posts, and 1 billion total visitors, but tells me those totals are actually low.]

There’s more that’s not accounted for. We started using Google Analytics in 2008.  The numbers are for March 2008 through today. If anything, the numbers are actually larger.

Constine: What’s next for you?

Moot: I honestly have no idea. Last year, I was coming off this four-year slog with a startup and was really burnt. I was really excited to veg out, I’ve had the last year, not vegging out, but investing in myself and a lot of hobby stuff. I took care of myself. After the four and a half years of Canvas [DrawQuest’s predecessor], I needed to decompress and treat myself better. Now I don’t have the same exhaustion.

I have no idea what’s next but I think i’m ready for something new because I‘ve spent the last year biding my time waiting for some inspiration. I’m excited to invest myself but i have no idea what that is. I haven’t really thought that far ahead.

Larry Page can give me a call

Constine: Would you consider working for another company rather than starting something yourself?

Moot: I’ve basically never worked for someone else but I’d welcome that opportunity. I actually would take the opportunity to go work for someone. I‘ve been by myself for 11.5 years. I’d be really curious about how much my knowledge and experience would apply to someone else’s business. I’m one of less than five people with a “PhD in large-scale communities”.

Constine: Any companies or managers you think that would be a cool opportunity to work for?

Moot: No one comes to mind. I’m easy. I don’t have any strong feelings in that sense. For me, the greatest benefit to me was the incredible learning experience. In my next project, I’ll be optimizing for having another experience like that soaking up knowledge and augmenting all the lessons I’ve learned for the last 10 years.

Constine: Would you run Google+ [laughs]

Moot: Is that open right now?  Well, Larry Page can give me a call. I gave a quote right when News Corp bought Myspace that Rupert could give me a call. Maybe it’s the same joke. Larry Page can give me a call.

Constine: What happens to 4chan next?

Moot: I don’t have all the answers in terms of what happens to it, but I tried to leave in the best place possible by focusing on servers, financials, the team, the code, to make sure it’s in a good place and not teetering on the brink when I moved on. I don’t think anything will change. I think there’s a bright future for 4chan because online communities are a powerful thing.

If anything, I see more opportunities. One of the things I wish I could have worked on was mobile. We’ve invested a lot in the mobile site over the year, as a fair percentage of traffic comes from mobile. But we never had a native app and that’s something I wish I could have shipped in my final year or two. So helpfully whoever comes next will invest in mobile and international. I’m excited to be on the sidelines cheering and rooting along to wherever the community wants to take it.

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Constine: From the new crop of online communities, is there anything that inspires your or you think is cool?

Moot: I am impressed by Yik Yak. I use Imgur a lot more now. It was pretty interesting to watch, last winter and last spring, with the “anonymous” apps getting really sexy all of a sudden with everyone making them and talking about them. It seems like Yik Yak won or at least pulled ahead as the enduring anonymous app. I’d be excited to see more [anonymous apps]. I’m glad at least one of them managed to figure it out.

If I had died two years ago, it’s very likely 4chan would have gone down with me

Constine: How have the interpersonal relations of people online changed since you started?

Moot: There’s obviously this era of social networking. The way I think about the web and how it’s changed over the years is that a decade ago or even longer, it was in the form of this interest-based web. You found people based on shared interests and navigating AOL [Disclosure: TechCrunch’s parent company] with keywords. How the web was organized was interests and this directory structure like Yahoo. Then there was this birth of Google and the intent-based Internet. Then you saw the rise of social and friendship-based networks with people you knew in real life.

I think we’re seeing a shift back with forums. People used forums to connect with each other around a shared interest and usually that meant connecting with strangers. As the graph got built out, it was easier to find friends online, but I think you see people are picking up on the value of “hey it’s fun to talk to strangers on the Internet”. I think you see that demonstrated in 4chan’s continued success but also in the rapid rise of Reddit and Imgur exploding in popularity.

There’s actually this demand for this lo-fi web. It harkens back to the early Internet years. I hope there’s more of that.

Constine: Do you think people are more snarky or more compassionate online now?

Moot: I don’t know. I basically stopped using social media in July, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. I wrote a little thing for the New York Times about narcissism. Does the Internet and social media make us vain? Yes, but not in that it rewired us to be more vain, but it rewards certain things like boisterous, very manicured representations of our lives. Which is why you see people self censoring and putting forward a sliver of their life on social media.

Are you going to get a lot of likes and comments on your photo vacation photos? There are things that get rewarded and things that don’t..though Twitter has proved that every day monotony can be interesting to people. I don’t think people have become snarkier or more compassionate, but what network you’re using determines how and what you share and what kind of a voice you share in.

Constine: Any concluding thoughts?

Moot: I’m very zen right now. This is a decision I made a long time ago and I’ve been working toward it. I’ve succeeded in creating something that can live on without me. If I had died two years ago, it’s very likely 4chan would have gone down with me. They say the captain goes down with the ship, but it was like the ship goes down with the captain. Clearly the ship should sail without the captain.