What is 4chan? A primer on the infamy engine of the web

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In 2009 Time ran an online poll for person of the year, and to the astonishment of 99% of the planet, somebody named moot took top spot. That’s what happens when you found a site that gets 2 million posts and 20 million visitors a month. You may never have heard of 4chan, but since then the site has birthed the online Anonymous movement, the A-list photo hacking scandal (parts one two and three, for which the site is under investigation by the FBI), GamerGate, and other online tidal waves and memes that increasingly reach into real life.

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While we’re not anticipating an explosion in B2B engagement on 4chan, there are things to be learned from it and good reasons not to ignore it, too. If you’re curious about this fabled dark corner of the web, and why it matters to B2B, read on.

What is 4chan? 4chan is an imageboard, a place where people post and discuss images. It was launched in 2003 to discuss manga (Japanese anime; here’s a good history from the Daily Dot) and has become a defacto messageboard/movement/social phenomenon unlike any other, exerting more real world influence today than its uptown cousin Reddit. If the internet is a family, 4chan is its dark sheep. It has spawned offspring, cousins, imitators and movements, is the 695th most trafficked website according to Alexa, and was described by The Guardian as “lunatic, juvenile… brilliant, ridiculous and alarming.”

Is it like Reddit? Like Reddit, people go there to post content and talk about it. But if Reddit is the Wild West of the web, 4chan is Tombstone, where the edgiest of the edgelings, predominantly adolescent men, go to congregate, socialize, and figure out ways to one-up each other. Reddit is the layer between 4chan and the world, and 4chan is the connective tissue between the web we see and the ‘shadow web’, populated by the disenfranchised, the military and the not quite legal. This year 4chan become politicized, as if the community suddenly realized that its collective energy can move the web, and consequently, move the world. The birth of Anonymous signified a maturing in 4chan and changes likely ahead.

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Who is moot? moot is Chris Poole, founder of 4chan and unlikely web deity. moot was 15 when he started 4chan. In its first six days the site generated nearly a million hits and has never looked back. Given his age, the site’s popularity has until recently been a big financial challenge for moot. He has also launched Canvas.

Why is 4chan so influential? In a phrase, 4chan is where things begin. Today’s great technical talent of the web has grown up there. Though it’s over a decade old, it has preserved the chaotic enthusiasm of the early days of BBS and IRC; unpolished and uncensored. 4chan though comparatively new has what much of the rest of the web lacks: not just tech street cred, but the power to inspire coordinated action. There is a tendency to demonize the site in the media and while it has given a lot of questionable things a home, it is also an engine of creativity and a cultural touchstone. Whatever it says about us.

What does its influence derive from? The web is not a meritocracy and you’re not influential online based on your pedigree, but on your community. And 4chan has demonstrated it can get more people to act in a loosely coordinated way than anything other than public institutions, a remarkable and largely uncelebrated achievement. The 4chan community is, well, legion.

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What is 4chan’s cultural significance? If some French Revolutionesque (functional) Occupy movement does ever spring into existence the odds are it would start here. The Steubenville and Ferguson Anonymous actions largely did. In the wake of the Anonymous misidentification of the responsible Ferguson police officer some of its credibility has waned, and GamerGate has been hard on everyone. It’s a pivotal moment for 4chan: will it stay what it is, or evolve?

What does 4chan have to do with B2B? Being aware of conversation on 4chan isn’t strange, it’s prudent business sense in 2014. There is a lot of noise on 4chan, a surfeit of bravado, and plenty to be avoided, but there is also a lot of information on trends, cultural memes and movements for marketers, strategists, risk management and security professionals. But unless you are prepared to wade through a lot of content of seriously questionable taste, you’ll need a lot of filtering to get it.

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