4chan users seize Internet's power for mass disruptions

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; A01

One morning in June, Google's list of the top global searches began to fill up with random words: "fried chicken," "comic book stores," "gyms." Before anyone could stop it, a racial slur jumped to the No. 1 spot.

Many observers concluded that Google must have been hacked. It wasn't.

It was the victim of a prank that redirected armies of people to search for the same things at the same time.

Corporations spend millions of dollars trying to understand and control traffic on the Internet, and more often than not they don't succeed. 4chan has mastered the feat for free.

Created seven years ago by a 15-year-old, 4chan is a vast web of anonymous, uncensored message boards. No one's in charge, but the site's users have managed to pull off some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the Internet.

(The Internet walks into a bar)

The 4chan "hive mind" has been credited with -- or blamed for, depending on your perspective -- urging tween idol Justin Bieber to head for North Korea as part of his upcoming world tour (as part of an online poll allowing fans to select which country he should visit), spreading a story that Steve Jobs had a heart attack (which caused Apple's stock to fall precipitously) and starting a rumor that there was a bomb at New York's JFK airport (triggering an evacuation).

The June 17 takeover of Google Trends, the powerful tool that companies use to track what's hot on the Internet, wasn't the first time 4chan succeeded in outwitting Google. The site's users have also managed to get a swastika, symbols depicting planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the words "[expletive] you google" on the trends list.

One user of the site was investigated for hacking Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account during the 2008 campaign.

Trying to game Google to make a search popular is not illegal, but some of the other pranks have brought inquiries by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

(Has Google stopped looking out for the little guy?)

The site's antics have also garnered positive attention: 4chan's founder, Christopher Poole, recently raised $625,000 in funding to create a new online community. Among his investors are some of the most revered Internet inventors and businessmen, including Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, former AOL executive Kenneth Lerer and former Googler Joshua Schachter. The startup is still in stealth mode, so Poole declined to give details.

Digital intuition

How 4chan -- a site built for fun by a teenager that barely ekes out a profit from online ads -- manages over and over again to outwit the systems that multibillion-dollar corporations use to make money on the Internet is one of the great mysteries of the capricious online world.

"The community self-organizes, decides on goals and achieves them in an ad hoc, undirected manner," said Schachter, who invented the social bookmarking tool called Delicious. "I see it like the financial markets -- sort of chaotic. It's hard to understand, but incredibly vital to understanding out how people operate together on very, very large scales."

(Facebook criticizes Google/Verizon deal)

"4chan is one of those things where we get a brief glimpse of what the future looks like," he said.

When 4chan was created in the fall of 2003, it was a narrowly focused "image board" where people interested in Japanese anime could trade comments and photos. Poole told nearly 20 people about it, and the site has grown by word of mouth ever since. It now has 11 million unique visitors (similar to The Washington Post's numbers in May) and 730 million page views a month (similar to the New York Times). There are 1 million new posts per day. Its demographic is largely males ages 18 to 25 -- "guys with nerdier interests," according to Poole.

'Antithesis of Facebook'

At a time when more and more of the Internet seems walled off into communities such as Facebook or MySpace, which operate with pages of rules and proper protocol, 4chan is the exception.

You don't need to register to post on the site and you can delete your posts at any time with no record. You can curse and insult all you want. While there are some thoughtful, wonky conversations, many of the posts range from juvenile to risque to just plain gross.

Its critics describe 4chan -- and especially Anonymous, a loosely affiliated group that is credited for some of the pranks -- as the dark side of the Internet. "Hackers on steroids," "domestic terrorists" and "Internet hate machine" are among the insults that have been hurled at it online. It has been blocked, albeit temporarily, by both AT&T and Verizon.

But fans say 4chan is a haven for free speech.

"The Internet needs some of these unstructured spaces. . . . This may be a reaction against other places that have developed that say, 'This is what you use Facebook for, this is what you use LinkedIn for,' " said Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Poole, who goes by the online name "moot," is now 22 and based in New York. He describes 4chan as the "antithesis of Facebook."

"Facebook is about real-life identity and having all these connections," he said. "4chan is anonymous and ephemeral."

Poole, who said he was not involved in any of the pranks by the site's users, said it's "pretty spectacular to see what they'll do." "Companies would pay people for that ability," he said. "They would love to be able to have their new product show up in Google Trends."

While part of 4chan's ability to manipulate search rankings comes from the use of clever technical tools, a large percentage must still come from sheer manpower because of safeguards Google has throw out searches that seem to be automated.

Poole, who says he neither instigated nor participated in any of the pranks, explains how 4chan users manage to get on Google Trends. They say, " 'Let's seize this idea.' " They then spread word through the discussion boards, e-mails, chat services and so on, asking everyone to search for a specific word or words at a certain time.

Next, Poole said, outsiders fan the flames. "Bloggers start to see this trending and think there must be a story, and all start to post stories. Higher up the totem pole, the bigger media outlets see rumors, and they'll comment, 'Hey look what everyone else is looking at,' " he said.

Gaming the trends

Search engine expert Barry Schwartz said the Google Trends list is generated by ranking searches and the number of news blog articles coming out about the Web on a new or unique topic. It's impossible to put a number on how many people must be involved to get a topic at the top, he said, but it's "a ton."

Why people would decide to spend their time following suggestions by 4chan is what's unclear in this chain of events.

"There's a lot of energy in the system from people who have nothing to do, no outlet for their goofing off," Schachter surmised. Seltzer theorized that "when people see it as a game to beat Google or stack a vote, they may be willing to do things that they wouldn't have been willing to do for pay."

In March, Poole was invited to speak at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. He was asked to talk to a group of engineers about 4chan vs. Facebook -- ways they are similar ("there aren't many," Poole says) and how they differ. He started out his talk by asking people to raise their hands if they had a negative impression of 4chan. Most everyone did. "Apparently," he recalled, "I was a controversial speaker."

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