Some of the internet’s funniest (and most memorable) memes and events originated on or involved the old-school message board website known as 4chan. It is one of the Internet’s most trafficked websites and often stands at the forefront of promoting a free and open web. The website is completely free to use but, being so popular, costs a lot of money to operate, resulting in recurrent financial difficulties. This has not slowed down its output, however, and its user base continues to grow and exerts what some would call an “out-sized” influence on the Internet at large.
4Chan was founded in 2003 by Christopher “Moot” Poole. Moot was Christopher Poole’s posting name on the site, a website he built in emulation of the popular Japanese website 2chan. No one knew the identity of the founder and owner of the popular website until it was revealed in a July 8, 2009 interview with the New York City publication, The Wall Street Journal.
Poole was a regular participant in the Something Awful forums prior to founding 4chan, something he did at the age of 15 while still a New York City high school student. The website uses a small team of moderators that watches over its very active daily traffic. It is rare for users to be subjected to censorship, and the few instances of this have become national news stories. Like other prominent websites, 4chan has had to fend off massive web-based attacks that have crippled its servers in the past, even though it is often accused of being a hotbed for planning such events.
Spam also became a huge issue for the website, which does not have a user registration system, and in response Moot implemented a very disliked Captcha system that a user had to fill out prior to submitting each post. In a later attempt to monetize a bypass around this system, 4chan’s website helped raise some money to defray the costs of hosting but not enough to make windfall profits.
The pressures of running such an enterprise eventually pushed Christopher Poole to consider other options for the website, such as selling it and turning it over to someone else. He stepped away from it in January 2015 and sold it to Hiroyuki Nishimura later that year in September 2015. Rolling Stone did an interview with Moot about the reasons why he stepped away from the massively popular website he built in his bedroom at the age of 15. Moot reveals to David Kushner that the influence of becoming an internet celebrity coupled with the task of running one of the web’s most popular websites that Rolling Stone said had, “20 million unique visitors a month — and more than 40 billion page views since its inception — 4chan is one of the most trafficked websites ever.”
Christopher Poole became a celebrity in his own right and was iconic to some of 4chan’s users. Moot was even persuaded into giving a Ted Talk and received praise from a lot of the wider Internet industry. In response to this influence, and in explaining why he was quitting the site, he cites the notoriety it has given him but the lack of concomitant wealth. The website had its share of controversies, from the Gamergate controversy to the constant need for financing of the website. 4chan’s influence on the Internet’s current culture, however, cannot be denied – and it is indeed massive.
The website has a reputation as the origin of most of the Internet’s most hilarious (or notorious) memes. A meme “acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme” and are often described as the cultural version of genes “self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.” The word was invented by noted Atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins and is a neologism, or a word attributed to a specific use though not yet in the wider mainstream. As central as memes are to the Internet, 4chan is a kind of development area for them. Some of 4chan’s most notable contributions to the Internet in terms of memes are Lolcats, Rickrolling, Chocolate Rain, Boxxy, and Pedobear, to name a few.
Lolcats are one of the most well-known of all the memes to originate on 4chan. These memes often involve pictures of cats or kittens with misspelled and often grammatically incorrect text. Sometimes the message is cute or funny or completely obscure. These are probably the most recognizable memes originating from 4chan as most every user of Facebook or Instagram has encountered a Lolcat or a variation thereof. Lolcats are so popular that there is an entire website that is devoted to the production of lolcat memes – I Can Haz Cheezburger? While popular before the use of “I Can Haz Cheezburger” in 2007, the phrase caused the meme to become extremely widespread with variations including the beginning of the phrase and ending with a different known being the most common. Also, the memes do not exclusively include cats or kittens but have come to include a whole range of animals or even imaginary characters. The I Can Haz Cheezburger website is a collection of these memes and was co-founded by Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebesami.
The website was acquired in 2007 and became the head of its own network, including other websites like Fail Blog and Know Your Meme. I Can Haz Cheezburger represents one of the most successful attempts at monetizing 4chan’s Internet subculture and probably helped make cats some of the most viewed videos on YouTube, although that’s just a theory.
Another common meme that originated on the website was that of “Rickrolling” which involves a video file or some other intro that is then interrupted by the music video by Rick Astley for his 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Rickrolling is, like Lolcats, so ingrained in the culture of the wider Internet that is really demonstrates the power of 4chan’s boards to generate content. The first widespread experience of Rickrolling was apparently when the Rick Astley video was uploaded to YouTube and other websites as a mirror for the trailer Rockstar Games much-anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV whose official trailer was unavailable due to overwhelming traffic. In addition to its memes, 4chan is also one of the many homes of Internet group Anonymous. This might be because of 4chan’s famous “anonymous” posting status and its users’ penchant for Internet activism, but it seems Anonymous, like any organization, is spread out across multiple services.
4chan’s message board culture is embodied in its /b boards, where there are no rules to what can be discussed or posted. For many Internet users, this type of unrestricted space is what the web is about in its purest form – the ability for thousands of people to join together in unfettered individual or collective expression. This is probably why, whether fairly or not, 4chan is cited whenever any type of controversy erupts on the Internet. 4chan has been used to discredit legitimate movements and has sometimes been the subject of justified scrutiny. One more recent example of 4chan’s influence on the web and beyond is the “rise” of Donald Trump, the Republican President of the United States whose unlikely candidacy and subsequent victory sent shockwaves through the political establishments of both US parties. What does 4chan have to do with Donald Trump’s rise?
Dale Beran, writing for Medium, describes the 4chan and Something Awful forums as meeting places for younger Trump fans and factories for generating oppositional memes against his opponents. Beran cites 4chan’s cultural relevance with regard to Trump and beyond when he extends the influence of the message boards to the rise of Milo Yiannopolous and crediting its forums with creating the Pepe the Frog meme. Donald Trump’s rise on the Internet is well known, but Beran asserts his popularity with certain users of these message boards helped catapult him above his Republican rivals in the primary fight and later assisted him in securing the presidency against Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton.
In fact, Beran says that saying 4chan created certain widespread and well-known memes was actually an understatement and that, “Terms like ‘win’ and ‘epic’ and ‘fail’ were all created or popularized on 4chan, used there for years before they became a ubiquitous part of the culture. The very method of how gifs and images are interspersed with dialogue in Slack or now iMessage or wherever is deeply 4chanian. In other words, the site left a profound impression on how we as a culture behave and interact.”
The Hillary Clinton campaign even went so far as to explain what the Pepe the Frog meme was and how the meme was racist. Never before had an Internet message board commanded such discussion surrounding its threads and creations but 4chan was definitely discussed, if obliquely, in the 2016 US election between Trump and Clinton.
What, if any, impact vocal supporters on the Internet, 4chan or elsewhere, had on the results of a nationwide campaign is for a different debate and article; however, that 4chan’s threads rose to such prominence that they became the discussion of presidential campaigns is, by itself, an extremely noteworthy and important cultural moment for the rise and dominance of the Internet in daily life.