By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; C01
So, the Internet walks into a bar.
The bar is in New York's Chinatown. It's a recent Saturday afternoon. It looks beer-stained and sweaty with the lights on, packed with plastic folding chairs and power cords. A giant disco ball hangs above an audience of 425 who are all on their MacBooks. They talk, blog, tweet and text during presentations in one fluid, convergent communicative stream. Even virtual people like to have actual conventions.
There are a few people at this conference who qualify as Internet celebs -- people you either have or haven't heard of in direct proportion to how much time you ever spend online: Obama Girl is expected to be here; so are well-known bloggers, fontmakers and stunt artists. (Hey, there's the guy who once a year inspires hundreds of people to ride subway systems at the same time, without pants.)
But the guy everyone really hopes to meet is named "moot."
Moot -- and please lowercase the "m" -- is the mysterious founder of 4chan.org, one of the weirdest, vast-est, most disgusting-est sites online. It's a sprawling web of message boards on which users post images of everything from their favorite actors to their favorite bowel movements.
Moot, the most influential and famous Internet celebrity you've never heard of, isn't on a panel or presenting anything, but he appears on the program nonetheless: "Pass out when you see moot IRL"-- that's In Real Life, noobs -- is the activity listed to take place somewhere between the "Causing a Scene" presentation and "The Future of Online Video" panel.
Over in the corner, a serious-looking 21-year-old wearing a gray hoodie and a mop of curly hair chats with friends about his two kittens and the night's dinner plans and how, after dinner, and after the after-party, he'll be going home to his mom's house in a nearby suburb.
This is moot.
His real name is Christopher Poole.
He is responsible for the online lives of 5 million monthly 4chan visitors -- the hackers, slackers and potty-mouthed geeks. They come to 4chan when they should be doing calc homework. Now -- in debt, out of work, another example of the Internet's intangibility -- Poole just needs to figure out how to make that matter.'The Dark Heart of the Internet'
In the diaphanous online world where everyone has a Twitter feed and a Facebook account, everyone is someone. Blips of YouTube fame barely register, disappearing as they do within days or hours.
Content on 4chan is even more fleeting. The site, divided into categories like anime and video games, is almost entirely user-generated. It receives 400,000 posts a day, according to Poole's metrics, and some boards move so quickly that posts disappear in seconds. The quality of discussion is often akin to bathroom graffiti, and in fact, the site's "random" board has been described as the place where the Internet goes to vomit after a late night.
To understand why Poole is significant, it helps to understand 4chan. The way to understand 4chan is to understand that it has been responsible for half of what you've been forwarded recently. Have you ever clicked on a link, expecting to go one place, but instead found yourself back in 1987, watching a music video of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up"? You are one of an estimated 18 million victims of "Rickrolling," a bait-and-switch joke that began on 4chan and has spawned copycats like "Barackrolling."
Or Lolcats -- those photographs of cute felines with captions in broken English? ("I Can Haz Cheezburger?") Those were born on 4chan -- part of "Caturdays," in which weekends are dedicated to posting pet pictures.
Anonymous, the loose collective of activists (sometimes seen as trolls) who made headlines by staging a series of protests against the Church of Scientology last year? That's 4chan.
The kid who hacked Sarah Palin's e-mail was a regular on 4chan; so have been countless other pranksters who have gained brief infamy online.
Some of the memes -- virtual "catchphrases" transmitted through online communities -- are silly. Others seem to get at something culturally significant. (Economic failure = talking cats!)
Much of what comes out of 4chan is juvenile or just plain gross, so offensive that the frequenters of the random "/b/" board are known as "b-tards," which is, of course, offensive in itself.
And yet the cesspool conditions of 4chan have become a highly successful petri dish contributing to Internet culture in dramatic ways.
"It really looms big as the dark heart of the Internet. It's not common that one place generates so much," says Tim Hwang, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Hwang organized the conference, which is called ROFL Thing. (ROFL, as in rolling on the floor laugh -- wait, do we really have to spell it out? OMG.)
Poole created 4chan when he was 15.
He has become a virtual celebrity, so well known that he began eschewing his real name in favor of "moot" or other pseudonyms while still in high school. With online fame, the border between love and loathing is precariously thin. There are a lot of trolls out there, and Poole has been stalked or smeared by a few.
"Of course, there are the obvious rumors that float around," says a bald, tattooed guy. A bicycle messenger from Boston, he refuses to let his name be printed because he is part of the Internet group Anonymous, which tries to be, well, you know.
"Well, obviously, like he's an FBI informant," the bike messenger says.
"His real name." Though moot came out of the anonymity closet in 2008, lots of people aren't sure they trust the information. "If you take the initials he gave, they're 'C.P.' . . . which could just stand for 'child porn.' "
Maybe the real name is all a big hoax, a "gotcha." It would be just what you'd expect from the creator of 4chan.
"Holy [bleep], it's moot!" calls out a 20-something. He picks his way over to Poole's corner, and by the time he gets there, 12 other excited onlookers have joined him. Instead of addressing Poole, one fan looks to Poole's friend Christina Xu. "Are we allowed to talk to him?" the fan asks.
Xu turns to Poole and rolls her eyes. "Are they allowed to talk to you?"
Poole stands awkwardly, looking like someone who is used to fame, but isn't quite sure why he has it. The increasing crowd angles for pictures, holding out cameras to capture themselves next to Poole, who shoves his hands in his pockets and stares sheepishly into the flashes.
Are you really moot?
Are you coming to the after-party, too?!
Mr. moot, I just want to say it's an honor to meet you. I'm on your site every day.
[Post on Facebook and Flickr and everywhere else. Brag about meeting the infamous moot.]The Joke's on Him
There are two great ironies within Christopher Poole's life.
The first is the broad, gaping chasm between his personality and the crassness of 4chan. In person, Poole is considerate and measured, with Michael Cera appeal -- a dork who hasn't realized that he's also kind of cute. He confesses that he used to be fat before a healthy eating kick a few years ago. Now he's just "skinny-fat," he says. Slim but soft. Surprisingly sweet. A guy who still takes children's chewable vitamins, and talks in silly voices to his cats.
"You know what my favorite joke is?" Poole asks a table of friends over dinner at the hole-in-the-wall vegan restaurant near Union Square. "A baby seal walked into a club.
"That's it. That's the whole joke." Almost cute, just a goofy play on words. "I'm sure people expect my favorite to be 'The Aristocrats' or something," Poole says. "I'm sure they would be disappointed."
The porn and potty humor found on 4chan aren't really Poole's style -- he'd originally founded the site as an image-sharing hub for anime fans -- though he lets them stay in the interest of letting the community grow organically. But "I don't want to run ads with nudity above the fold," he says. It's just tacky.
"He's a very polite person," says pal Jessica Andrews, a student who met Poole when he studied at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. (He dropped out after a few semesters.) She was only casually aware of 4chan before meeting him, and didn't think much of his creator status until she tagged along to a conference where he was presenting. "That's the first time I learned he was a big deal," she says. "There were a thousand people seated, and the whole room was screaming."
The second irony in Poole's life is that he can't get a job.
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."
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."