Published April 08, 2009
The most powerful people on the Internet don't work for Microsoft, Google or the government. Rather, they're a bunch of antisocial, foul-mouthed, clever nerds who congregate at a largely unknown Web site called 4chan.org.
Ever get your MySpace page hacked into? Chances are it was 4chan's fault.
Surfing YouTube and suddenly find yourself watching an old Rick Astley music video? You were "rickrolled" by 4chan.
Enjoy reading Sarah Palin's personal e-mail? She's got 4chan to thank for that.
Hear someone shout out the ending of the latest Harry Potter book while you're in line at Barnes and Noble? 4chan strikes again.
4chan.org is the self-proclaimed Internet home for people who lack a social conscience, a Web site that's become a surreptitious cultural powerhouse.
It's responsible for launching several successful Web-based trends, from the wildly popular "lolcat" phenomenon to the surprise comeback of '80s one-hit wonder Rick Astley.
But what the heck IS 4chan?
Welcome to a new world, filled with terminology and conventions that the average person — or even the average nerd — may not know about.
4chan is a no-frills discussion Web site that features dozens of message boards and "image boards" within six broad categories, stemming from Japanese animation to travel, and given semi-random names ranging from "/a/"' to "/trv/."
That sounds harmless enough, except that within 4chan lurks the "/b/" board, dedicated to "random" images and topics, and its 5.3 million users, known as the "/b/tards."
The /b/ board, or just /b/ to its loyal visitors, is by far the site's most popular. Users fill the board with vile material, from pornographic images to incredibly racist and misogynistic comments.
It thrives on competition and users write "moar" to challenge each other to post further loathsome material throughout the day and long into the night.
What makes 4chan unique among message boards is its reliance on anonymity, a vast difference from most sites, which make users sign up with at least a verifiable e-mail address.
On 4chan, one can post anonymously using a nickname or a "tripcode," a system that uses an algorithm to give users unique coded nicknames.
Anonymously, /b/tards create alliances to plan their next big exploits.
In 2008, they bombarded MTV with votes to clinch Rick Astley the fan-picked "Best Act Ever" award at the MTV Europe Music Awards — which helped Astley get a slot performing in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Recurring jokes on 4chan sometimes spread out into the wider Web to become Internet "memes," a pseudo-sociological term for jokey phenomena passed from person to person.
Remember the Hamster Dance and the lonely heart Mahir "I kiss you!" Cagri? Those were two early pre-4chan memes.
Aside from Astley, 4chan's most successful meme has been the "lolcats," photos of cats accompanied by goofy captions written in 4chan dialect, phonetically-spelled words using childlike grammar — for example, a hungry-looking feline with the words "I Can Haz Cheezburger?"
And the 2007 YouTube stardom of Tay Zonday and his song "Chocolate Rain" was due to 4chan users who found his amateurism charming and decided to artificially boost his viewing numbers.
But the antics of the /b/tards also have a dark side far from cute cats. They've been suspected of replacing people's MySpace profile photos with pornographic images. /b/tards have even gathered together to drive past bookstores with megaphones, shouting the ending of new Harry Potter books.
One of the most serious allegations against the /b/tards concerns the invasion of hip-hop Web site SOHH.com in June 2008, where much of the site's content was replaced with racist photos and slurs.
Fellow hip-hop site AllHipHop.com shut down its own forums as the invasion spilled over into them, a stunt that AllHipHop's managers deemed an "unprovoked racist attack" by "cyber terrorists."
Since users are anonymous, it's never proven that /b/tards are the culprits, but online communities often point fingers to 4chan for causing much of the chaos in (and sometimes out) of cyberspace.
/b/tards retaliate by saying that all original Web content stems from something they once posted on 4chan.
As long as users play by 4chan's carefully listed rules, created by the site's founder "moot," they don't get in trouble with the outside world and mainly stay unnoticed.
The rules are few and simple: Invasions of other sites are not tolerated, the SOHH incident notwithstanding, child pornography and illegal material are prohibited and no one under 18 is allowed.
Moot — he insists on the lowercase "m" — is reportedly Christopher Poole, a college dropout in his early 20s who lives in New York with his mother and is looking for more active employment.
Since 4chan is anonymous, it's unclear if Poole is truly his identity and whether it's true that he began 4chan in 2003 while in high school using his mother's credit cards or that he's still deeply in debt as the site continues to lose money.
4chan has been moot's main focus since he was 15 years old, which he began with one "anime/random" board.
Since those early days of 4chan, the boards have grown from something small and slightly elite to a site that moot says is now mainstream.
"4chan ceased to be a 'secret clubhouse' ages ago. We serve over 15 million users per quarter, and are larger than 99 percent of other sites on the Web," moot told FoxNews.com.
Moot says the growth of 4chan has kept things interesting. In just a few months, figures have increased to 450,000 posts a day.
Users tend to push the envelope as far as they can without breaking the site's rules — including a vague "rule" known on /b/ eloquently coined, "Don't mess with football."
That rule was made famous in 2005 when 23-year-old Jake Brahm posted bomb threats to major football stadiums across the country during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 4chan.
What resulted was a media storm — and what may have began as a practical joke turned into Homeland Security's arrest of Brahm. He was sentenced in June to six months of prison and $26,750 in restitution.
"If you want to post illegal things to 4chan, I would highly discourage it, unless you want to end up in federal prison," moot said at a Web conference.
Another controversy to hit 4chan was the "invasion" of the teen-centric online social site Habbo Hotel. At this online "hotel," users create avatars that walk into various virtual rooms and chat with other users.
In 2006, /b/tards swarmed the site, created avatars of men with Afros and Armani suits and blocked the hotel's swimming pool and shut it down, due to "AIDS in the water." After this incident, moot added "no invasions" to the rules.
The September 2008 hack of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Yahoo e-mail was more muddled.
While some users applauded the /b/ newbie who claimed to have done it, others derided him as an idiot and amateur who would get the entire site in trouble — and quickly discovered his true identity long before the FBI figured it out.
Some see 4chan as a site filled with bored teenagers who like to push the limits on what they can do online. Others see users as part of an "Internet hate machine" filled with calls for domestic terrorists to bomb stadiums.
But it's hard to call someone a terrorist who posts photos of cats with captions in 4chan language every Saturday, or what /b/tards like to refer to as "Caturday."
The "lolcats" — Laugh Out Loud cats — became so popular that one user launched the images on his own blog, icanhazcheezburger.com, a site that has since been acquired for $2 million and spawned at least one book.
But why cats?
"At the end of the day, /b/tards are still human," says moot. "Cute cat pictures appeal to most people."
In an atmosphere where anything goes, the only thing that seems to truly rile a /b/tard is the abuse of a cat.
In February, a user documented abuse to his pet cat, Dusty, as a friend rolled tape. The video surfaced on YouTube and was viewed over 30,000 times.
In a rare 4chan moment, /b/tards created an alliance to do good and tracked down the cat abuser, Kenny Glenn, and alerted police.
Moot believes that 4chan has the ability to grow into something more powerful than a generator of memes.
During the past year, "Project Chanology," created by an amorphous 4chan-associated group calling itself "Anonymous," has become an organized effort against the legal and cultural power of the Church of Scientology.
Anonymous members, often wearing masks depicting the main character in the politically charged comic book and movie "V for Vendetta," protest across the country, claiming the religion endorses Internet censorship.
It all began in January of 2008 after the Church of Scientology tried and failed to purge the Web of a leaked Tom Cruise promotional Scientology video.
What the /b/tards may do next is anyone's guess. As moot says, if he had an idea for the next idea, he certainly wouldn't tell the media.
"4chan, both the site and its memes, has touched the lives of tens of millions of people from around the world, in one way or another, for better or worse,' he says. "I'd say that's culturally powerful."