Google raised eyebrows Tuesday after it announced Chris Poole, founder of the controversial online community 4chan, would join the company to help save the company’s social media efforts.
“I can’t wait to contribute my own experience from a dozen years of building online communities, and to begin the next chapter of my career at such an incredible company,” Poole wrote in a Tumblr post Monday.
Bradley Horowitz, Google’s VP of photos and streams (formerly Google Plus), confirmed the hire on Twitter.
— Bradley Horowitz (@elatable) March 7, 2016
The move comes at a critical juncture for Google, which is looking to increase Google’s anemic social media presence. Poole can certainly do that — under his 12-year reign, 4chan had 20 million unique monthly visitors and 40 billion page views. But the infamy 4chan gained during that time for relentless online harassment, and often racist, sexist, and homophobic topic threads, could either make or break Google’s plans to build a successful social network.
4chan started out as a photo-sharing forum for Japanese anime fans but quickly grew to becoming one of the most popular — and reviled — online platforms because of its commitment to free speech and anonymity. Those golden principles meant to champion privacy and uninhibited communication, however, gave way to intense abuse online.
The hacktivist group Anonymous started on 4chan. The site also bred two major controversies: Gamergate, a melee that began in 2013 over criticism of sexist character tropes in video games, and the celebrity nude photo scandal in 2014, which involved several female celebrities whose Apple iCloud accounts were hacked. Poole stepped down last year following the iCloud hack and later sold the site to Japanese founder of 2channel, 4chan’s inspriation.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Poole said that “stupid stuff” wasn’t supposed to be a part of the site but that quickly became part of the site’s identity. Poole encouraged the site’s sense of lawlessness but did what he could to follow the law, cooperating with law enforcement investigations and taking down copyrighted material, Rolling Stone reported. He also banned those who violated the site’s conduct rules — to the extent he could.
Anonymity or pseudonymity are key to an authentic online experience, according to Poole, who criticized Google and Facebook’s emphasis on linking users’ real life identity at a tech conference in 2011.
“Identity online comes into play mostly when we think about expression and sharing. And we’ve wrangled with this problem of ‘audience’ for many years now. When Google launched Plus, they introduced Circles, this form of asymmetric sharing where you can segment your audience and share with certain groups what you wish to,” Poole said at the 2011 Web 2.0 Summit. “[T]he core problem there is not the audience, it’s your context within that audience. It’s not who you share with, but who you share as in the context of that group.”
Identities are “prismatic,” he said, and they change with their roles as children, spouses, parents, friends, coworkers, or classmates.
“Twitter does the best job with [identity] because if you think about Twitter, you register using a handle,” a chosen name rather than one given to you at birth. “All of the interactions on the service is [done] using a handle, most people use their full name, and yet there’s still this rich form of interaction and communication…Your Twitter stream is interest-based instead of being identity-driven.”
The policy had significant drawbacks, such as making harassment victims and marginalized groups more vulnerable by requiring they use their real names. Facebook shut down Guardian editor and journalist Laurie Penny’s Facebook account for using a pseudonym to escape harassers. The social network requested government identification from drag queens and transgender individuals, and disabled their profiles when their stage or adopted names didn’t match their IDs. Facebook’s real name policy also raised privacy concerns with German regulators, who claimed consumers had the right to use pseudonyms under the country’s data protection law.
There is some link between anonymity and harassment. At least half of online harassment victims don’t know who their attackers are, according to a 2014 Pew Research study. Overall, 40 percent of internet-dwelling adults experience some form of harassment online, including offensive name calling and attempts at public embarrassment. One in four adults witnessed someone be physically threatened online with another 37 percent witnessing sexual harassment or evidence of cyberstalking.
Google hasn’t revealed its plans for the new Google Plus, which was split into photos and streams in 2015. Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the Verge last year that the company will increasingly “focus on communications, photos, and the Google Plus Stream as three important areas, rather than being thought of as one area.”
As Mashable’s Seth Fiegerman put it, “Think Pinterest, rather than Facebook.”
Poole’s passion for pseudonymity is what made 4chan popular and could help make Google’s social network ventures competitive. The challenge will be harnessing the vitriol that comes with allowing people to operate under a chosen identity instead of one that’s government verified.
To do that, Poole will likely have to embrace some form of digital vetting process that combines the perks of Facebook’s real name policy with Twitter and 4chan’s Wild West charm. (Poole’s failed startups Canvas and DrawQuest also had a third-party authenticating process that allowed users to have differing identities.)
Finding that balance of identity and social media is elusive and no company has gotten it right. “Facebook and Google do identity wrong. Twitter does it better. I want to think about what the world would be like when we do it right,” Poole said in 2011.
Google has already begun exploring solutions for online abuse and has had its own problems with it. The company’s Jigsaw team, which focuses on technology solutions for digital attacks, received a slew of racist and sexist tweets after posting a picture of a group — mostly women and people of color — tasked with fighting online harassment.
— Jigsaw (@JigsawTeam) September 23, 2015
The team fired back in a later tweet saying, “The replies to our last tweet are precisely why we are exploring ways to combat online harassment.”
Poole’s comments on online harassment have been non-committal. In an interview last year, Poole told the Verge he wasn’t sure whether scandals such as the Fappening and Ebola-chan changed his view of online communities, but that Gamergate and other controversies on 4chan were part of the community’s “arc” that teetered on the border of creative sharing and trolling.
It’s hard to say. That’s part of what I saw with the tomfoolery days of /b/ which I think were its best days in terms of the creative output of the community [that] later gave way to really legit trolling. And I think you still see elements to this day affecting larger communities like Reddit. Is it an arc in terms of the community or is it a transition in terms of broader youth culture? It’s hard to say. Everything changes, and so it will change in the coming years, but it remains to be seen whether this is a phase in communities or whether this is something that’s here to stay.
As 4chan’s founder, it’s easy to assume Poole would transfer the site’s negative qualities to Google. That concern could carry over even if he helped Google create a social network similar to Twitter, which only recently began ramping up its anti-harassment efforts.
Poole brings unique experience from overseeing one of the darkest corners of the internet, which ideally would mean he knows what doesn’t work. Ultimately, combining his desire for an online platform that welcomes individual’s multifaceted personalities and Google’s “don’t be evil” turned “do the right thing” mantra could give Google a vital edge in stemming harassment where other platforms have failed.