At the internet culture conference ROFLCON in May, the assembled geek digerati were asked during one panel if they were readers of 4chan, the legendary butthole of the internet. A bare smattering of hands went up in the MIT lecture hall.
Then they were asked if they read Reddit, 4chan's cleaner, newsier cousin. Practically the whole room raised their hand. When I heard about this, I took it as another sign of 4chan's decline.
But it turns out 4chan, which will turn nine years old in October, is bigger than ever, at least numbers-wise. Traffic to 4chan has more than doubled in the past two years. 4chan had 22.2 million unique visitors in the last month, according to a rare recent update by Christopher "Moot" Poole, who founded 4chan as an Anime fan message board when he was 15 years old. That's up from 8.2 million visitors a month in 2010. The sheer numbers have forced Moot to cut down on popular plug-ins that let users refresh 4chan rapidly, so they don't "slaughter" their servers.
Still, 4chan is on the wane as a cultural force. 4chan and its raucous "/b/" board was once the internet's supreme boogeyman. Merely mentioning it in a blog post would bring comments warning about impending hacker doom. By last year, the Anonymous hacker collective that began on 4chan had become such a phenomenon—hacking the FBI and Sony during a spectacular summer spree—it was mentioned (by deluded geeks, at least) in the same breath as the Arab Spring and Wikileaks.
Now, Anonymous has been near-fatally crippled by defections and arrests, reduced to hacking heating equipment company websites instead of repressive governments. And 4chan is just a gross website. As an exciting internet thing it's been overshadowed by Reddit, which harnesses furious hives in 4chan-like-fashion, but towards charitable and political ends instead. Canv.as, Moot's 4chan-like start-up, has failed to catch fire. And where 4chan's hordes voted Moot to the top of TIME's "most influential person of the year" poll in 2009, he was nowhere to be seen this time around. Instead it was Reddit General Manager Erik Martin who was nominated by TIME to make it seem like they're in touch with what the kids are into these days.
Like so many once-dominant trends, 4chan was made irrelevant by its own success. A few years ago, 4chan's hyperactive remix culture made it a unique cauldron where bits of internet detritus could come together and give birth to new memes, Lolcats, Rick-rolling and Nyan Cat, are all 4chan classics. As memes became the language of the web—and grew to be increasingly lucrative—aggregators like BuzzFeed professionalized the process, repackaging the best stuff from darker corners of the web with cold efficiency. Why wade through the porn and gore on 4chan to find the next internet thing when a slick BuzzFeed listicle comes complete with a half-dozen share buttons to easily show all your friends?
Similarly, the hive mind that once made 4chan so frightening has become the default model for online social action. Twitter in particular has made it easier than ever for disparate groups to come together instantly to mob something or someone, just as Photoshopped posters on 4chan once rallied "/b/-tards" to raid some unsuspecting YouTube user. Even Anonymous eventually abandoned its home 4chan for the superior organizational and promotional capabilities of Twitter and IRC chatrooms.
While traffic numbers show plenty of people are still attracted to the morbid parade of curiosities 4chan still hosts, 4chan is now boring to the rest of the internet. And in the ceaselessly churning online culture it helped create, that's the worst thing to be.