In real life, Christopher Poole is just another anonymous 21-year-old trolling the East Village. But when he sits at the computer in his small apartment, he becomes Moot – the most influential dude online. Moot is his nickname on 4chan.org, the controversial web community he created and owns. A self-taught programmer and whiz kid who dropped out of high school due to chronic insomnia, he launched the free site in 2003 while living with his parents in the Hudson Valley. He styled it after the so-called “image boards” in Japan, underground anime websites which let people anonymously post and comment on random pictures –cartoons, monster trucks, whatever.
Moot, who built his own computer at age 12 and grew up on Net, has an uncanny grasp on what appealed to him and the other early adopters online – the sick jokes, the absurdist humor. Be warned: 4chan is decidedly NSFW, the freer the speech, the better. People like to think that viral media (or a meme) is random, but it’s not. The biggest fads online – from Lolcats to Rickrolling to, most recently, Advice Dog – begin with 4chan.
Moot cultivated 4chan into the hippest hangout online - sort of the CBGB of the Internet, and gained a following himself. Just one comment by Moot on a message board elicits thousands of responses. Today, with six million rabid members and 286 million posts, 4chan is the crucible of everything edgy and sticky on the Web. But it's also the source of debate. Last year, 4chan’s anonymous pranksters punked the Time 100 poll, successfully getting Moot elected to the top spot as “The World’s Most Influential Person.” A few months ago, they got him to the top of the Victoria’s Secret best-body-online contest. Bad eggs on the site have also been blamed for threatening to blow up football stadiums and hacking Sarah Palin's email.
4chan is also a highly challenging site to maintain. Though Moot has been managing the site with 20 volunteer moderators, 4chan has grown pretty big and unwieldy from him to run from his apartment. The community’s high-profile pranks are spawning a backlash, leaving Moot to defend against hacker attacks – and the occasionally FBI inquiry. Despite his big role online, the real guy behind Moot remains largely unknown. But he's coming out in a big way in a couple weeks. On February 11, he'll be speaking about "provocation" at the prestigious TED conference in Long Beach, California. It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say, if you have the chance to go. TED describes 4chan as "the web's most bewildering -- and influential -- subculture." That's about right.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.