So, the Internet walks into a bar.
The bar is in New York's Chinatown. It's a recent Saturday afternoon. The bar's beer-stained and sweaty with the lights on, packed with plastic folding chairs and power cords. A giant disco ball hangs above an audience of 425, all on their MacBooks.
They talk, blog, tweet and text during presentations in one fluid, convergent communicative stream. Even virtual people like to have actual conventions.
There are a few people at this conference who qualify as Internet celebs — people you either have or haven't heard of in direct proportion to how much time you're online. But the guy everyone really hopes to meet is named "moot."
Moot — and please lowercase the "m" — is the mysterious founder of 4chan.org, one of the weirdest, vast-est, most disgusting-est sites online. It's a sprawling web of message boards on which users post images of everything from their favorite actors to their favorite bowel movements.
Moot, the most influential and famous Internet celebrity you've never heard of, isn't on a panel but appears on the program nonetheless: "Pass out when you see moot IRL" (that's In Real Life, noobs).
Over in a corner, a serious-looking 21-year-old wearing a gray hoodie chats with friends about his two kittens and how, after dinner and the after-party, he'll be going home to his mom's house in the suburbs.
This is moot.
His real name is Christopher Poole. He is responsible for the online lives of 5 million monthly 4chan visitors — the hackers, slackers and potty-mouthed geeks. They come to 4chan when they should be doing calc homework. Now — in debt, out of work, another example of the Internet's intangibility — Poole just needs to figure out how to make that matter.
In the diaphanous online world where everyone has a Twitter feed and a Facebook account, everyone is someone. Blips of YouTube fame barely register, disappearing as they do within days or hours.
Content on 4chan is even more fleeting. The site, divided into categories like anime and video games, is almost entirely user-generated. It receives 400,000 posts a day, according to Poole's metrics, and some boards move so quickly that posts disappear in seconds. The quality of discussion is often akin to bathroom graffiti, and in fact, the site's "random" board has been described as the place where the Internet goes to vomit after a late night.
To understand why Poole is significant, it helps to understand 4chan. The way to understand 4chan is to understand that it has been responsible for half of what you've been forwarded recently.
Have you ever clicked on a link, expecting to go one place, but instead found yourself back in 1987, watching a music video of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up"? You are one of an estimated 18 million victims of "Rickrolling," a bait-and-switch joke that began on 4chan.
Or Lolcats, those photographs of cute felines with captions in broken English? ("I Can Haz Cheezburger?") Those were born on 4chan. The kid who hacked Sarah Palin's e-mail was a regular on 4chan; so have been countless other pranksters who have gained brief infamy online.
Much of what comes out of 4chan is juvenile or just plain gross. Yet the cesspool conditions have become a highly successful petri dish contributing to Internet culture in dramatic ways.
"It really looms big as the dark heart of the Internet. It's not common that one place generates so much," says Tim Hwang, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Hwang organized the conference, which is called ROFL Thing. (ROFL, as in rolling on the floor laugh — wait, do we really have to spell it out? OMG.)
Poole, who created 4chan at 15, has become so well known that he began eschewing his real name in favor of "moot" or other pseudonyms while still in high school. (With online fame, the border between love and loathing is precariously thin.)
There are two great ironies within Poole's life.
The first is the gaping chasm between his personality and the crassness of 4chan. Poole is considerate and measured, a dork who hasn't realized that he's also kind of cute. He confesses that he used to be fat before a healthy eating kick a few years ago. A guy who still takes children's chewable vitamins, and talks in silly voices to his cats.
"You know what my favorite joke is?" Poole asks friends. "A baby seal walked into a club.
"That's it. That's the whole joke." Almost cute, just a goofy play on words. "I'm sure people expect my favorite to be 'The Aristocrats' or something," Poole says. "I'm sure they would be disappointed."
The porn and potty humor found on 4chan aren't really Poole's style — he'd originally founded the site as an image-sharing hub for anime fans — though he lets them stay in the interest of letting the community grow organically.
"He's a very polite person," says pal Jessica Andrews, who met Poole when he was at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond for a few semesters. She didn't think much of his creator status until she tagged along to a conference where he was presenting.
"That's the first time I learned he was a big deal," she says. "There were a thousand people seated, and the whole room was screaming."
The second irony in Poole's life is that he can't get a job.
This would astound his fans, especially considering the success stories born of 4chan. The founders of ICanHazCheezburger.com got a book deal. Washed-up Astley released "Rick Astley: Ultimate Collection," won an award from MTV Europe and popped out of a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade last year.
Poole has been looking since leaving VCU last spring, and so far nothing has panned out.
There was the company in Boston that was going to pay him $65 an hour to consult. He moved there for three months, but the company couldn't figure out exactly what to do with him, and he never got paid.
He met with Hollywood agent extraordinaire Ari Emanuel for seltzers (Poole rarely drinks alcohol). There was the suggestion of a book, maybe an "Entourage" appearance. Neither happened.
He's actually losing money on 4chan by charging the site's server costs on his credit cards. The crass content makes it difficult to find advertisers. He was working with a company that sells Web ads until about six months ago. He says the ads too easily diverted visitors to junky ad sites, ruining the user experience.
Which gets at the final irony of almighty moot, which is that he has standards: If he didn't care so much about what kind of advertising 4chan users have to look at, he probably wouldn't be worried about money right now.
"I feel like I keep making it to the cusp of something," says Poole, who signed a deal with another ad company a few weeks ago.
He's currently $20,000 in debt, living with his mom and pouring money and hours into the dark heart of the Internet.
"Theoretically," says Poole. "I should be able to get some sort of job."
Poole's problem is the problem of the entire Internet. It's where people make friends, play games, get news — yet the smartest minds in the country still struggle with how to make even the most successful sites profitable. In 2007, Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook, but the site hasn't found profits to match its implied worth. Twitter has an estimated 6 million users but still grapples with a firm business plan.
How to explain what Poole actually does? He's not a programmer. He doesn't know code. His site doesn't offer a specific service.
What he does is foster community, making millions of people feel they have a safe space for creative discussion, deciding how far things should be pushed. Or something.
"I have no idea how to translate my 4chan skills on paper," Poole says.
He has it harder than, say, Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg. Poole's followers are not smiley joiners, posting endless self-portraits. They are unruly, anonymous and can come across like the pimply dweeb who sat behind you in English and made lewd gestures when you passed him handouts.
So Poole has managed to wrangle 5 million of them together in one place. So what? Maybe advertisers don't want to monetize them. Maybe they want to keep them away from humanity.
For Poole, remaining affiliated with 4chan means, in some ways, remaining affiliated with his 15-year-old self, when he really seems beyond that. At ROFL Thing, people are making jokes about "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." The last movie Poole saw was "Man on Wire," an Academy Award-nominated documentary.
He seems so ready to graduate from 4chan to ... whatever it is people do after 4chan.
Meet moot, the center of the 'dark heart of the Internet'
So, the Internet walks into a bar.