What's the Internet's scariest hivemind like in real life? A bunch of geeky twenty-somethings hanging out in a bar in Brooklyn. This is what I learned last night at the first official meetup for the notorious message board 4chan.
On the Internet, 4chan equals chaos: hacking Sarah Palin's email; flooding YouTube with hardcore porn; taking down gossip blogs; vandalizing dead teens' Facebook memorial pages. What comes to mind is that scene in Lord of the Rings where the orcs are running around like crazy in their underground fortress.
So, I expected something a little more havoc-filled than what I found when I arrived at Barcade in Williamsburg at around 9:30 Friday night: about a half-dozen very normal-looking young men and one young woman crowded around a table, lit up by blinking 1980s arcade games that lined the room. Their 4channess was signaled only by the woman's iPhone 4, on which she had loaded a picture of "Troll Face," a crudely drawn caricature that's sort of a 4chan logo. She waved it around like a beacon.
Upon sitting down, I was relieved to see that none of the assembled 4channers looked very capable of violence. Relieved, because this summer, some 4chan users declared war on me and Gawker over a few blog posts I wrote about the site's role in harassing an 11-year-old viral video star. They brought down Gawker, prank called me and tried sending a bunch of cardboard boxes to my house. (The address was wrong; some random Chinese lady in Queens got the boxes.) Before heading to the meet-up, I steeled myself with beer, figuring it would hurt less to be felled by a 4channer's poison blade if I was sort of tipsy.
But all the 4channers here were friendly; the few that recognized my name actually seemed excited to meet me. They were like kids in the cafeteria on the first day of school, eagerly recounting the crazy stuff they did over the summer. They talked about memes, pranks, video games, 4chan's bad rep (not completely unearned, most seemed to agree). A musician named JP explained the sense of release.
"Normally I'm very careful not to tell a lot of people that I go on 4chan," he told me. "I don't want them to go on there, see some child porn or something, and be like, 'What the hell is this guy into?'"
Still, they were definitely 4channers: At one point Alex, a disheveled pharmacy student in a grey hoodie and steel-framed glasses, pointed at me and said, "You know who you look like? Brian Peppers." Brian Peppers is a meme popular on 4chan. Brian Peppers looks like this:
People slowly accreted around the table, and there were maybe 30 or 40 by the time 4chan's 22-year-old founder, Chris "Moot" Poole, showed up. Moot lives in Manhattan, where he's currently working on a new start-up called Canvas Networks. He was instantly swamped by fans. A Filipino guy next to me freaked out: "In all of my 23 years, this is the first time I've ever met a celebrity!" He had come all the way from Connecticut, where he works at Dunkin' Donuts.
Moot was also very nice. In the past, he's kept an extraordinarily low profile, but it seems recently he's been increasing his visibility, making his presence felt more on the site. He gamely took pictures with every fan who asked, and when I introduced myself he joked, "When's the blog post going up? '4chan Users Finally Crawl Out of Their Basement?'" I asked him what prompted him to organize the meet-up, which he had done by posting a small message at the top of every message board just 24 hours earlier. He said he was inspired by the vibrant "in real life" communities of other websites, like the geek culture blog Laughing Squid.
In a Q&A with 4chan users a few months ago, Moot lamented that, "sometimes I wish I could interact with the community in a more normal way." Watching Moot effortlessly navigate the crowd of twenty-something dudes in a bar in Brooklyn, "normal" was definitely a word that came to mind.
[Image of 4chan founder Christopher Poole (right) and fan at last night's meet-up via 4chan]