4chan finally feels the weight of economic reality

The Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina of the internet is in financial trouble

4Chan finally feels the weight of economic reality
flickr/Doc Searls

4chan, the wretched hive of scum and villainy that has caused more disruptions on the internet and in real life than any other single website, is in financial trouble and facing the harsh reality that success and traffic are useless without income.

The site went live in 2003 when then-15-year-old Christopher "moot" Poole set it up as a copy of a Japanese board called 2chan. The site is the ultimate in bare bones. No login or account is required; everyone is anonymous. Poole, a fan of Japanese pop culture, wanted to create an American equivalent of 2chan, where people shared images of anime and manga.

It rapidly grew beyond that, with the /b/ board, Random, becoming a hive of all sorts of insanity. For a while, it was the home base of the hacktivist group Anonymous. 4chan users became notorious for both good deeds and bad, both online and in the real world, resulting in profiles of the site by the Washington Post, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A book has been written about Anonymous and its 4chan connection, and the site was even the subject of an MIT research paper (PDF). 

Unfortunately, Poole had a problem. When your site frequently features gore and "rekt" (a misspelling of "wrecked") threads showing video clips of people dying horribly from accidents and murders, or kiddie porn threads started just to see how long it takes the mods to take them down, it tends to repel advertisers. 

4chan was ranked as high as 56 on the Alexa traffic ratings, but Poole could never monetize it. He sold the site to Hiroyuki Nishimura, the founder of 2chan, in September 2015, and now he has presumably a less stressful life working for Google.

A few days ago, Nishimura posted a message that the site can no longer afford “infrastructure costs, network fee, servers cost and CDN." He listed three options, none of which will sit well with users accustomed to the free ride they've enjoyed: halving traffic costs by limiting upload sizes and closing some boards; adding many more ads, including pop-up ads; or adding more paid-for features.

"Thank you for thinking about 4chan. We had tried to keep 4chan as is. But I failed. I am sincerely sorry," Nishimura wrote. 

Adding to the 4chan nightmare is Martin Shkreli, perhaps the most loathed person on the internet, who rose to fame after his pharmaceutical company bought the patent to an HIV drug and raised its price from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. Shkreli announced on Twitter that he was “open to joining the board of directors of 4chan.” Mind you, this is the same site that posted his home address and phone number after the HIV drug controversy.

A mix of good and bad

I'm far too old to be reading 4chan on a regular basis and yet I do because when you separate the wheat from the chafe, it's still a site of unbridled creativity that can be really good. Some of the boards are quite insightful, especially /fit/ for fitness issues, /biz/ for finance issues and /wg/ for Windows desktop customization. It was on /wg/ where I learned of Rainmeter and ObjectDock.

The internet would be a boring place without the memes generated by 4chan users, ranging from RickRolling to LOLCats to Pepe the Frog to Cool Story Bro and many others. 4chan users have righted some wrongs, too, such as the Burger King employee who posted a picture of himself standing in his work shoes on a tub full of lettuce, which he used to make burgers. That employee was caught and fired within a day.

But this is economic reality. Popularity can be a bane of a site if it doesn't have the income to pay for it, and no respectable advertiser would touch 4chan. Then again, given some of the things I've seen on /b/, I'm also amazed it hasn't been taken down by the FBI.

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