He has been called the Zuckerberg of the online underground. He has been called “the most influential web entrepreneur you’ve never heard of.”
He has been called, simply, the world’s most influential person.
Earlier this year, Chris Poole announced he was walking away from the thing he created that endowed him with all these titles: 4chan, the free-wheeling online community with a scurrilous reputation. And this week, already having liberated himself from day-to-day duties, he up and sold the sites
This was not your average startup sale. Partly this is because of what 4chan is: The darker parts of 4chan (especially boards with a /b/) are also known for being a cesspool of all the nastiness anonymous content is known to spawn: racist, sexist, and violently pornographic. It was a hub for the dissemination of celebrity nudes hacked from Apple’s iCloud servers, for instance.
But it’s also because Poole himself never really saw 4chan as a startup. At first it was a little Internet hobby: He created it as a simple message board, where people could post photos and text. This was 12 years ago, and Poole was a 15 year old in the suburbs of New York City. The name, and inspiration for the site in large, came from a Japanese site popular with Anime aficionados–himself included–called 2Channel, which was created by Hirovuki Nishimura. (The composition of 2Channel, known as 2Ch, is not so dissimilar from that of 4chan; it is composed of hundreds of forum boards, where users can anonymously post on threads.)
I asked Poole–now he’s 27–this week over the phone whether there were times over the past 12 years in running 4chan that he thought of it as a company; something that could or did make him a living, or even someday make him rich. “Um, not really,” he said, as he continued to haul his laundry down the street to a laundromat. (Poole declined to comment on the sale price and 4chan’s revenues.)
Over its early years, 4chan grew and stretched, and as millions of users poured in, contributing photos and thoughts and links on everything under the sun, from cute hamster photos to hentai to henna tattoos, the anonymity permitted on the site, and the temporary nature of posts, helped earn it the reputation as a creepy alley off the Information Superhighway. It incubated many of the Internet cultural moments of the early aughts: The concepts of Rickrolling, duckrolling, and the LOLcat. The very concept of “meme.”
It took Poole years to accept his role publicly as the site’s creator–and not just a screen name (moot) who happened to keep the servers running. He was outed by thewall street Journal in 2008and, by 2012, was accepting his founding role as father of this home-on-the-Internet for millions of hackers and gamers and film geeks and, well, anonymous anybodies. He delivered a keynote speech at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, in 2011. Nishimura showed up.
The 2Chan creator had been visiting Houston to film content for his site’s channels, and he took a side trip to Austin to find Poole. “We have been friends ever since,” Poole said, describing Nishimura as someone with whom he “never has a shortage of things to talk about” and “literally one of the only people in the world who has had a similar experience to mine.” They like hanging out and drinking beer together, and do so at least once a year, as Poole has since taken to traveling to Japan semi-frequently.
As the 10th anniversary of 4chan’s existence neared, Poole says he started to ponder the next 10 years.
He started to think: “What would it take to make it to 20 years?” One obvious answer: someone besides him. He explains it in a sort of morbid software-development term: “bus factor.” That is, how many engineers could a project lose–i.e., get hit by a bus–before being impossible to complete? For him, the answer was one. And there was only one of him. He had taken no venture capital, and had no employees. It was just him–and the 20 million monthly users of his site.
He spent a lot of the next year streamlining some of the processes that 4chan required in terms of paying vendors and maintaining the site and its servers. He also started trusting other users of the site to help him. While he was simultaneously running, and then dismantling, a startup called Canvas, out of Brooklyn, he found and trained three outside volunteers to run 4chan without him.
This year, he decided they were ready to go it alone. “I got to a place where I thought trying to step away would be the only way to find out if it worked,” he says. “It did.”
Along the way of disengaging himself from the site, though, something changed a bit: He did start to, out of necessity, treat 4chan as a business. In 2012, he introduced a subscription service called 4chan Pass. And there’s minor advertising. “In my heart it was just kind of a hobby that I did for 12 years, but it really needed to do better than break even.”
And he set it up to be not only self-sustaining, but also potentially to be in reasonably good order for a buyer.
He discovered something familiar to all foudners that try to take a step back. “Out of sight, out of mind is not true It’s still somewhere in your mind. It still was occupying a certain amount of time and mind-share,” Poole says. And, he said, “for the first time in 12 years I want that back.”
Poole posted a blog about his decision to step back from holding the reins of the company in January. And that caught the attention of Nishimura, who had let go of his leadership role at 2Ch, as well–but was now in charge of editorial operations of Japan’s Variety. He wanted to buy.
“He’s one of the only people in the world I’d trust to take my place, and it’s weird how full circle this is,” Poole says. “I feel pretty certain that if he had not started his website, 2Channel, in 1999, I doubt 4chan would exist. I really doubt it.” He announced the sale Monday.
Poole, for his part, has spent the past many months exploring the world away from computer screens–taking dance courses, learning to cook, eating out, walking around parks, all IRL. He replaced social media with a pencil and pad. And just absorbing the enormity of extracting himself from running a community that has produced cultural nodes that have been encountered by hundreds of millions of humans. He doesn’t expect to have any role in 4Chan in the future–except as an avid user. That’s big, and Poole says he is still waiting for the reality that he has both feet out the door to sink in.
And there is nothing else. Not yet. When I asked him what he’s going to work on yet, he said: “I have no idea. I probably should have put some more thought into that.”