Page 5 of 5   <      

A Virtual Unknown: Meet 'Moot,' the Secretive Internet Celeb Who Still Lives With Mom.

This would astound his fans, especially considering the success stories of 4chan's memes. The people of ICanHazCheezburger.com got a book deal for Lolcats. Even washed-up Rick Astley has seen career resurrection because of Poole's site. In April he released "Rick Astley: Ultimate Collection," and in September he won an award from MTV Europe, and then he popped out of a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. (Yes. Rick Astley.)

But Poole has been looking and networking and making connections since leaving VCU last spring, and so far nothing has panned out -- no matter how many interested parties think something should.

There was the company in Boston that was going to pay him $65 an hour to consult about something. He moved there and crashed with a friend for three months, but the company couldn't figure out exactly what to do with him, and he never got paid.

Last year, he got a call out of the blue from the office of Ari Emanuel -- Hollywood agent extraordinaire, brother of Rahm -- and the two ended up meeting for seltzers (Poole rarely drinks alcohol). There was the suggestion of a book, maybe an "Entourage" appearance. Neither happened.

Recently, Poole went to a marketing conference and tried to explain to one presenter that he was "probably the largest unsigned publisher there, making the least amount of money." In telling this story, Poole sounds uncharacteristically perturbed. The presenter "looked at me with this dumb stare, so the next day I brought in my laptop" and showed her some of 4chan's metrics. "She said, 'Oh, wow.' " She told him he should really do something with the site. As if he hadn't been trying.

Right now he's not making money on 4chan -- in fact, he's losing money by charging the site's server costs on his credit cards. The crass content of the site makes it difficult to find advertisers. He was working with a company that sells Web ads, until about six months ago, when he called off the deal. He says that the ads blasted users with unwanted sounds or too easily diverted them to junky ad sites. Poole felt the ads ruined the user experience, which gets at a final irony in his strange life as the almighty moot, which is that he has standards. If he didn't care so much about what kind of advertising 4chan users have to look at, he probably wouldn't be worried about money right now.

A few weeks ago, he signed a deal with another ad company, but it's too early to tell how well it will pan out.

"I feel like I keep making it to the cusp of something," Poole says. "Everybody gets really excited about the wealth that could" be generated, but then . . .

He's currently $20,000 in debt, living with his mom and pouring money and hours into the dark heart of the Internet.

"Theoretically," says Poole. "I should be able to get some sort of job."

Theoretically.

In this way, Poole's problem is the problem of the entire Internet, which is built on wireless connections and a lot of "theoretically." It's where people spend time, make friends, play games, get news -- and yet despite all of that philosophical worth, the smartest minds in the country still struggle with how to make even the most successful sites profitable. In 2007, Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook, but the site still hasn't found profits to match its implied worth. Twitter has an estimated 6 million users, but is still grappling with a firm business plan.

"4chan is the big question of the Internet wrapped into one big case study," says Hwang. "If Chris could find a way to hack the 4chan problem" -- to figure out how the site can make money -- "he'd be set."

What's a Meme?

Sometimes Elise Poole worries about her son. After the Boston stint didn't work out, he moved back in with her, to this spacious two-bedroom apartment. She wishes he were still in school. She wishes he had more support for the site than his volunteer moderators. "He does so much alone," she frets.

She and Poole's father divorced before their son was in grade school. His parents say they were benignly clueless about the empire their son was building in his bedroom throughout high school.

"To tell you the truth, I just never knew what Christopher was doing on the computer," says Elise. "At one point, I asked Tom to investigate what he was spending so much time on, but . . . " She pauses, looking helplessly to a visitor. "Do you know what this 'meme' thing is?"

How to explain a meme?

How to explain what Christopher Poole actually does? He's not a programmer. He doesn't know code. His site doesn't offer a specific service, like Google. What he does is foster community. He makes millions of people feel that they have a safe space for creative -- sometimes vitriolic -- discussion, deciding how far things should be pushed, tamping down upsurges when they get too unruly. Or something like that.

But, he says, "I have no idea how to translate my 4chan skills on paper."

He has it harder than, say, Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg. Poole's followers are not smiley joiners, posting endless self-portraits and 25 random things about themselves. They are an unruly, anonymous bunch, and they can come across like the pimply dweeb who sat behind you in English and made lewd gestures when you passed him handouts. So Poole has managed to wrangle 5 million of them together in one place. So what? Maybe advertisers don't want to monetize them. Maybe they want to keep them away from humanity.

As for Poole, remaining affiliated with 4chan means, in some ways, remaining affiliated with his 15-year-old self, when he really seems beyond that. At ROFL Thing, people are making jokes about "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." The last movie Poole saw was "Man on Wire," an Academy Award-nominated documentary. He seems so ready to graduate from 4chan to . . . whatever it is people do after 4chan.

"You get the sense," says Hwang, "that he's a little haunted by his creation."

A few months ago at a conference, Poole met Ben Huh, who owns ICanHazCheezburger.com. There have been rumors of tension between Poole and the people who have found success from 4chan. But Poole says he doesn't begrudge those who have figured out what he hasn't yet. Huh "asked if he could buy me a drink, and I said he could buy me a seltzer," Poole says. A $2 seltzer, compared to whatever income Huh has amassed. He shrugs helplessly. "A seltzer. See? Seeing a little bit of those millions right there."

Poole is thinking about going back to college. He plans to apply to both NYU and Columbia for the fall semester, though he's worried about the letters of recommendation. His grades in high school were terrible. He was doing other stuff.

For his recent birthday, Poole's acquaintance Jason Scott offered to help him write a résumé.

Scott, a somewhat well-known Internet historian, explains the difficulty of the endeavor this way: "It's like going to someone and saying, I need you to write a résumé to be hired to be you," says Scott. "Like, 'In one page, what do you do that makes you yourself?' Chris has been running this site almost all of his functioning life. . . . Sitting down and producing the words for what that means is just too hard. Him on résumé is a failure."


<                5

© 2009 The Washington Post Company