XOXO: Chris Poole - 4chan and Canvas
September 16, 2012
Chris Poole is founder of two of the Internet’s most creative communities, the notorious 4chan, and Canvas, its playful image remixing cousin.
Chris has been working on 4chan for the last ten years, a community defined by anonymity and ephermerality. You don’t have to log in, and all content rolls off the site within minutes or hours. Because the site is so open, the community uses offensive and obscure language and images to filter out who’s able to participate.
22 million people visit in a month, having much more tortoise-and-hare slow growth. By contrast, people seem to optimize for hockey stick growth, which (as in Chatroulette’s example), can disappear very quickly. So not focusing on that means that Chris has never had to read or follow metrics.
This leads in other companies to “design by spreadsheet”, where qualitative wholistic measures are overrated by quantitative metrics. But Canvas isn’t optimized for that, and 4chan’s metric is how much you’re trolling. So if you don’t track metrics, how do you know if you’re succeeding?
Andy’s definition is when users self-organize and do meetups on their own, and Chris likes Tim O’Reilly’s definition of creating more value than you capture is a good measure. There has been a rise in packaging communities like 9gag and Cheeseburger, taking user-generated content and wrapping ads around it, but just having Facebook comments under that doesn’t mean these are real companies, especially since they extract more value than they create.
4chan has always had hands-off community moderation, which means Chris doesn’t deserve a lot of credit for getting things right, but he has done a good job of not getting things wrong. In Canvas, the core piece of the site is the remixing tool, making in-line image editing a necessary community feature. And the community showed how important image editing was, as just another example of how they had their own will. The community is continually forcing Chris to have to let go of control, since he’s never had control over the community.
Every single mistake Chris has made comes from lack of communication. When he wrote a news post last month, that was his first update in four years. “I’ve been using 4chan every day for the last 9 years. I’ve seen some shit.” He loves the community, but hasn’t always done enough to communicate with the 4chan community, and they’re often resentful of him as a result.
Now he’s trying to address the “bus factor” -- what coders call being prepared in case a key leader gets hit by a bus. Some of this can be addressed by engaging early contributors and grooming them to become future leaders for a community.
A stream propels water in a direction, and it has enough motion to get water to where it’s going, but it has lots of obstacles and detritus in its way. By contrast, the Los Angeles River is geometric and constructed and structured. But 4chan is like a natural stream, and Facebook is like the Los Angeles River, where Facebook fails to meet Chris’ definition of a community.
IMAX may technically be the best way to watch a film, while a drive-in is not a great way to watch a movie technically because the sound and picture are terrible. Yet a drive-in experience is so imperfect, it’s memorable even if the film itself isn’t.
4chan has been losing money for most of its 9 years, but “It’s okay to not make money”. It’s more like a hobby than a business. We’ve got a lot of people in the room who’ve been doing what they love for a decade, and “I’d take that over a million dollars any day.”