The beautiful people are lunching at a hip Ukrainian café in New York, but the hottest new Victoria's Secret model—the leading contestant in the lingerie company's online "Love Your Body" competition—goes unnoticed. Thousands of women have submitted half-naked photos of themselves along with earnest pitches for why they deserve to win the grand-prize spa vacation.
But they're no match for Christopher "moot" Poole: the slight 22-year-old dude slurping borscht across the table from me now. Moot is the founder of 4chan.org, the home of the most notorious gang of hoaxters on the Internet. In their latest prank, 4chan members entered their fearless leader into the Victoria's Secret contest and voted him to the top. "At first I thought, 'That's silly and dumb,'" moot says, stirring his soup. "But then I saw the prize and got kind of excited. I wouldn't mind a weekend at a spa."
4chan is behind some of the most legendary online pranks and attacks—from spawning the Rickrolling craze to embarrassing Sarah Palin and the Church of Scientology. But while the 9 million members of 4chan remain giddily anonymous, their ruler isn't so lucky. After trying to rein in the 4channers after a series of high-profile strikes, moot is incurring his followers' gleeful wrath. He's been berated, mocked, and gamely harassed. "Is it okay if you don't print where we're having lunch," he asks me, "or even what part of town? I don't need people knowing where to find me."
When moot launched the site in 2003, his model was Futaba, or 2chan, a Japanese site that lets surfers upload and comment on random art and photos, from manga and otaku nerd stuff to gore and porn. 4channers log on anonymously and don't register any personal information. For moot, this remains the essential way to preserve freedom and privacy on an increasingly regulated Internet.
"As the social craze grows, sites want more and more from you," he says. "It used to be just user name and password. Now it's user name, password, where do you live, how old are you? On Facebook they really want to know everything about you. 4chan is the antithesis of that. We don't ask for anything. You don't have to provide anything. You type in a comment, hit submit, and there you go. Anybody can use the site and that's becoming increasingly rare these days. Getting rid of 'Anonymous' would be like a stake to the heart of the site. That would kill it."
Using the handle moot (a goof on the sound made by a cow), he launched 4chan as an anime board, but users quickly took the site in a new, NSFW direction. "My interpretation of what's work safe is very liberal," he says, noting the types of posts that cross the line are "anything that's really graphic or just has lots of nudity." 4Chan members had a different definition, and outrageous and explicit images (Google image search Tubgirl or Goatse if you dare) flooded in. The barrage of non-anime randomness on 4chan.org/b split the content into two boards within 32 days, and the more radical denizens dubbed themselves /b/tards. Over lunch, I ask moot the downside of creating a site section as free as /b/. "People are troublemakers," he says. "[They] yell fire in the Internet equivalent of a movie theater."
The trouble began in 2006 when /b/tards stormed habbo.com, a free online game for teens. When kids clicked over to the pixellated swimming pool outside the virtual hotel, they found a horde of tiny cartoon dudes dressed in suits and giant afros. "Pool is closed due to AIDS!" one of the /b/tards exclaimed. In 4chan parlance, this kind of online attack is called an invasion or a raid.
There was one /b/tard that threatened to blow up stadiums and another who warned of shooting up a high school, and soon the FBI came calling. Since then moot has attempted in vain to delete all threatening posts. "At the end of the day, 4chan is my website, and I get to tell people what I want and what I don't want," he says. "The invasions were shitting up the boards. I said, 'Look, just fuck off, this is not what this is for.'"
But there was no way he could track the 800,000 or so new posts flooding the site every day. Some /b/tards began taunting moot online, challenging him, threatening him, and making him the butt of their jokes. In 2005, moot finally faced his public at Otakon, a convention for anime, while sitting alone onstage in a blue T-shirt and a baseball cap and fielding questions from his unruly minions. "People were surprised that I wasn't some very deviant, odd person. They expected me to personify the content on the site." Two years later at another Otakon convention the conflict came to a head when a /b/tard in a bad suit and giant afro wig asked moot if he would start a board on 4chan dedicated exclusively to invasions. "I think invasions are stupid," moot told the crowd over jeers. "If you post those threads you need to die. Seriously. You are the cancer killing /b/."
Today, moot does his best to keep the cancerous stuff off the site. After lunch, back in his small one-bedroom apartment, moot sits at his tidy desk and begins sifting through 4chan and keeping an eye out for illegal threats and images. Moot says calls from the FBI are now a semi-regular occurrence, and he has no qualms about turning over user information. "At this point I know that they can get a subpoena for anything, especially if it has to do with terrorism—those are the magic words," he says. "Then I comply or I go to jail. These 4channers are breaking the law, and I'm not going to jail for 4chan."
While some /b/tards may hold a grudge against their creator, moot has embraced the love/hate relationship. Last October, in honor of 4chan's six years of online mayhem, moot commissioned a homemade e-greeting card. It shows a little bratty cartoon girl with a baseball bat slugging a terrified kitty-cat piñata. The cat wears a pink T-shirt with the word moot on the front. But the letter o's are replaced by hearts. "Happy 6th Birthday 4chan!" the e-card says.
Moot proudly posted it on his site.