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4chan founder defends online pranks

By John D. Sutter, CNN
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Anonymity may be 'moot' point
  • Christopher Poole, 22, is the founder of a Web site called 4chan
  • CNN talks with Poole about anonymity online and why Facebook scares him
  • 4chan is known for starting Internet pranks and spreading porn
  • But Poole says the site's anonymity promotes open, honest discourse

(CNN) -- At 15, Christopher Poole started a Web site that has become one of the seedier, darker corners of the Internet.

You may never have heard of 4chan, but chances are the Web site has touched your Internet browsing experience in one way or another.

The 4chan community of 7 million users, which Poole called a "meme factory," has been blamed (or credited) with starting the LOLcats and Rickrolling crazes.

LOLcats are those goofy pictures of cats with random phrases pasted on them. Rickrolling refers to the practice of sending a Rick Astley song to a friend, or posting his music video for "Never Gonna Give You Up" on a Web site in an unexpected place.

The image-based message board also is known for spreading porn and for hacking into mainstream Web sites and social networks.

Increasingly, Poole's followers have been jumping into real-world pranks, too. Some 7,000 4chaners rallied to protest Scientology, some wearing masks to preserve the anonymity they have online, Poole said.

Poole talked with CNN after a rare public appearance this month at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. TED, which stands for "technology, entertainment, design," is a nonprofit group that says it's dedicated to "ideas worth spreading."

In the interview, Poole said anonymity on the Internet is becoming an endangered species.

"We've just moved more and more toward persistent user identity," he said. "Your online identity lives in ... [several] places now. You've got a Twitter, you've got a Facebook. I guess you used to have a MySpace.

"So people are just putting loads of information about themselves in these places, and we're becoming very comfortable with sharing very intimate details about our life. It's just everything."

Poole said he finds the amount of information people post about themselves online these days to be frightening. All posts on 4chan are anonymous, and many are deleted shortly after they're posted.

Poole said that allows for open and honest discourse, although he admits it gets a bit explicit at times.

"With the anonymous system, you've got a place where people are uninhibited. ... You're getting very truthful conversation. And you judge somebody by the content of what they're saying and not their username, not their registration date," he said.

Poole only recently revealed his true online identity. For years, he went only by "moot" on the Internet.

Now 22, Poole still guards many details about his life. For instance, he told CNN he is a college student in New York but wouldn't say where.

His parents didn't know about the site until recently either, he said, and they only found out because a news reporter called them.

He said they still don't get the full reach of 4chan.

They understand it just enough to know it's a big deal, but not enough to be afraid of it, he said.