4chan - the birthplace of the meme, Anonymous and cyber-bullying

Memes, internet trolling and hacker collective Anonymous all have something in common – they were born out of 4chan, a simple imageboard website which has over 20 million viewers a month.

While it is well known among geeks, the rest of the world has little idea what 4chan actually is unless the website makes the news. When a shooting threat led to the closure of 20 Dutch schools exactly a year ago and a 4chan user attempted to commit suicide and broadcast it live on the web in December, then the spotlight fell on 4chan.

So what is 4chan?

It was created by Christopher Poole in 2003 when he was just 15.

Christopher Poole, Founder of 4chan
Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan Getty Images

A fan of anime, Poole designed the site as a simple anonymous imageboard in the style of Japanese imageboards. Users could discuss and post pictures of their favourite anime cartoons and manga comics in various sub-threads in a similar way to how Reddit works.

But while the concept of 4chan is simple – an online community for fans of Japanese culture - in reality the boards have often been used for cyberbullying and explicit content.

Poole recently visited Columbia University to give a talk about 4chan and startups.

According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, he described his time running 4chan as "10 years of watching crazy people".

"It looks like ass but that's part of the charm. It allows for emergent behaviour which results in people making cool stuff," he said.


Cat meme
A cat meme - one of the most common memes made by users Acidcow.com

An example of the "cool stuff" to come out of 4chan would be internet memes – humorous images, videos or pieces of text that are copied and spread rapidly over social media and online forums.

  • Do You Know Your Internet Memes?

Often the images can be manipulated to become image macros, ie, images that have had text superimposed on them, or animated gif images.

Memes on 4chan have also given rise to new emerging internet lingo, such as the phrase "Epic Fail", which was inspired by a web-comic series posted on 4chan in 2006. The character, Epic Fail Guy, is a stick figure of a man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who fails at everything he attempts to do.

Over time, hacking group Anonymous, which also formed on 4chan, eventually adopted the Guy Fawkes masks for an anti-Scientology protest that mocked Scientologists as an "epic fail".

Internet trolls and the full extent of online bullying

Troll Face
Troll face meme

Another phenomenon to have come out of 4chan is that of the internet troll, an internet user who intentionally posts comments online to anger or frustrate another user. This behaviour is known as "trolling".

This form of cyberbullying is now on the rise on all forms of social media and has been reported extensively in the last year.

Teachers' union NASUWT revealed that one in five teachers has to deal with offensive comments, photos and videos about themselves on the internet, mostly on Facebook.

The phenomenon has been going on for years longer than is generally known. Geeks have been affected by it the most as they or someone from their community is most likely to see the offensive content.

For example, there is a popular thread on 4chan called /cgl/, which stands for cosplay and Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL). It is dedicated to young people who enjoy creative hobbies such as dressing up in costumes (cosplay) or Japanese street fashion.

Internet trolls download photos of people they don't like from Facebook or Tumblr, write offensive comments and post them for other users to make fun of them.

This thread is also a place to screenshot content from social media and paste it as an image on 4chan to share gossip about conversations other users have been having on their Facebook statuses.

At least it's not making any money

Business Insider recently asked Poole how he felt about the fact that 4chan hasn't made any money in the decade it has been in existence.

"I've struggled to make ends meet for the last 10 years. 4chan was created as a hobby, not a business. At least it's better than when I was 19, as I was constantly in the red," says Poole.

"It's the content, not just the adult content, but in general just user-generated content. Most brand advertisers won't want to run ads against content that isn't brand-safe, and most of the content on 4chan isn't work-safe."

Poole maintains that 4chan isn't meant to be a business, but a labour of love that is only run by a group of moderators.

"I didn't feel it was my place to take 4chan and change it because people really like it the way it is, so I launched start-ups to explore the creative ideas I've had."