Don’t look now, but there’s a new social network coming. No, it’s not Google Circles, no matter what the Read Write Web blog says. And it’s coming from the people you’d least expect.
Yes, that’s right — the purveyors of the most insidious (and some of the most grotesque) memes on the InterWebs – LOLcats, Rickrolling, and Justin Bieber’s North Korean tour, to name but three of the less disgusting ones – are working on a new online community called Canvas.
More accurately: Christopher “Moot” Poole, the founder of the 4chan message board, has been quietly working on his site, canv.as, for some time now. He just got a lot less quiet about it at this week’s SXSW conference, where the 24-year-old Poole took the stage and proceeded to lambast his elders – specifically 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg – about their failure to appreciate the benefits of online anonymity.
Per the UK’s Guardian:
"Zuckerberg’s totally wrong on anonymity being total cowardice. Anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, raw way," Poole said, adding that the internet allows people to "reinvent themselves" as if they were moving home or starting a new job.
"The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself," he said.
Chris Poole became somewhat infamous when he was named The World’s Most Influential Person in a 2009 online survey by Time Magazine. Of course, that survey was hacked by his pals at 4chan, which is also widely believed to be the source of the Anonymous campaigns that have bedeviled everyone from the Church of Scientology to the government of Egypt. At least, the two groups appear to draw from the same pool (if not, ahem, Poole) of digital prankster-vigilantes.
Canvas is in closed beta at the moment, so it’s impossible to gauge how much it is or isn’t like the 4chan boards (though Business Insider offers a preview of it here). But from the description it sounds like a grown up version (minus the grotesque bits) that allows users to take images others have posted and make then even sillier. The idea is to draw some or all of 4chan’s 8 million monthly visitors without a) alienating potential advertisers, or b) getting arrested.
In other words, Poole and his cohorts are finally hoping to cash in. This is what happens when you wake up one morning, realize you’re sick of living with roommates and need to make more money so you can get a place of your own.
In an interview with the New York Times’ Nick Bilton last March, Moot calls Canvas a “reboot” of 4chan. He also had this to say about the value of online anonymity:
I get a lot of e-mail messages from people who say thanks for giving them a place to vent, an outlet to say what they can’t say in real life with friends and work colleagues — things that they know are wrong, but they still want to say. Is it right? No, of course not. People say some disgusting, vile things. But just because we are hosting it doesn’t mean we agree with it. I don’t support what they are saying; I just support that there is a site like that to say that.
I’ve been writing a lot about online identity vs anonymity lately (and I seem to be doing it again), and I can appreciate Poole’s point. Still, I’m not buying the ‘anonymity = authenticity’ trope. I have a hard time considering someone ‘authentic’ when they post drive-by-slander under a made up name. Authenticity derives from identity, IMHO. And yes, the cost of failure is high – that’s the whole point.
If you need to vent about your boss or your friends or whomever online, that’s fine, but if you plan to get vile and disgusting, leave their names out of it, too. Unfortunately there’s no simple way to enforce that, so too many people use the relative anonymity of the Net as a barrier to hide behind.
I’m curious to see how Canvas pans out. But I suspect Poole will not be able to have it both ways – to create a community site where people are given free reign to roam anonymously, yet not have it turn into a cesspool where the rudest forms of communication drown out everything else.
Under what circumstances is anonymity acceptable to you? Post your thoughts below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post originally appeared in slightly different form at InfoWorld.