The members of online community 4chan recently hacked an online poll that asked where teen pop singer Justin Bieber should tour next, pushing North Korea to number one for a time. (Its effort eventually proved unsuccessful.)
Launched as an image-sharing site, 4chan - or more precisely the anonymous members on its /b/ random section - has taken credit for other recent online pranks. Some, such as skewing Time's 2009 World's Most Influential Person poll, might be seen as almost clever. Others, such as engaging in a nasty dispute with an 11-year-old girl that triggered cyber-bullying accusations, are more troubling.Why does it matter?
While 4chan is gaining some media attention, Susan Barnes, associate director of the Rochester Institute of Technology's Lab for Social Computing, says, "What it's doing has happened since the beginning of the Internet, which is trolling. Trolling was started by anarchists who were looking to disrupt discussions on the Internet. This is just a new variation."
4chan is often cited as an example of the Web's seamy side, though many members see themselves as playing almost a watchdog role. "Every now and then, when something objectionable happens online, 4chan steps in to make a point," says Jon Bellinger, VP of social media strategy at Ketchum.
4chan does have a large, loyal audience and even some ads, but Greg Brooks, principal with West Third Group, stresses this is not a communications opportunity. "They're not interested in playing nice in any sense of the word," he adds. "In a Web that's becoming increasingly corporate, this is one of the purest examples of the Wild West nature."
Barnes agrees, noting PR firms should not only be aware of 4chan and similar groups, but also have a crisis plan in place in case clients are ever the target of online mischief.Key facts
1 Christopher Poole (a.k.a Moot), who founded 4chan in 2003, recently received VC funding for a new startup, the online community Canvas Network
2 4chan attracts more than 8 million unique visitors who view more than 600 million pages each month
3 Gawker is currently one of the targets of 4chan's /b/members, who have hacked into Gawker staffers' e-mail accounts and Facebook pages