Meeting Mathew Inman, you’d never guess that this shy, slightly built 27-year-old is the caustic genius behind The Oatmeal, one of the web’s most phenomenally successful humour sites. You’d expect someone brash, angry, and overweight (like his characters). But then he opens his mouth, and the audience quickly goes from chuckling to screaming with laughter.
Speaking at the interactive portion of the South by South West (SXSW) conference, Inman shared a few of his experiences in starting The Oatmeal, which in less than two years has generated a quarter of a billion views.
Inman opens with a confession: “Disappointingly I don’t have that many ‘secrets’ — so I will just share a bunch of examples of what worked for me.” And so begins an hilarious trip down memory lane.Read More
He arrives late, sidling awkwardly onto the stage. With his baby face and blond mop it’s easy to believe Christopher Poole is 24 years old. What’s harder to believe is that he founded 4chan — one of the web’s most creative, influential and infamously anarchic communities — when he was barely 15.
Speaking at this year’s South by South West festival, Poole outlined what 4chan has taught him about building online communities, and how he is applying that to his new project, a collaborative platform called Canvas.
“Most of you know 4Chan because of our “random” /b/ board — more than half our traffic goes to that board. I don’t recommend you go poke around on the site without knowing what you’re getting into,” he says, smiling wryly. The fact the whole of 4chan now has over 20 million visitors a month gives us some idea of the global popularity of /b/.
But it’s the creative fecundity of /b/ that has really made a name for the community. /b/ has acted as the spawning pool for hundreds of memes, many of which like lolcats, rickrolling, and “Chocolate Rain” have spilled out into the mainstream internet. The /b/ board is notorious for having no rules except those that prohibit illegal activities like posting child porn and soliciting hacking or denial of service attacks. Unlike the rest of the internet, 4Chan is anonymous and ephemeral with no archives — so ideas are a “survival of the fittest” affair.
In stark contrast to the current mainstream thinking on online identity, Poole values anonymity and very low barriers to entry. “Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) has equated anonymity as a lack of authenticity, as cowardice and I think that’s totally wrong,” he said, in an uncharacteristic swipe at the industry titan who was born just four years before him.
“There’s a loss of innocence on the internet, and much less room for anonymous failure,” mused Poole. “4chan is a place where people go to hang out — we’ve forgotten how important and cool that is.”
Poole emphasised the beauty of community as a shared experience rather than merely an output. “Topic generation is very interesting — not just the product of the meme — but the generation of that meme is fascinating to follow. Using 4Chan at 9pm on a Sunday — our busiest time — is what’s really special — experiencing something you’re never going to experience again, in a communal way.”
And yet, for all it’s creative power, 4chan was built using extremely limited and rudimentary technology.”We’re a very basic, bare bones website — message boards and image board essentially haven’t changed in 10 years.” This simplicity has some advantages, and is part of 4chan’s success, but, with Canvas, Poole is hoping to do more. He sees
the project as the distillation of 8 years of 4chan experience, but is quick to point out that it is not 4chan version 2.
One of the most intriguing features is an in-page photo remixer, built using HTML5′s canvas field. This remove the friction of having to use desktop software to participate in remixing, and also levels the playing field. As Poole says, “If no one is submitting perfect Photoshop creations, then the bar isn’t set too high.” Another idea aimed at lowering the barrier to participation is sets of virtual stickers which people can stick onto image macros.
“We wanted to design a product at the intersection of chat and commenting,” explains Poole, “something that works with shared presence when there are high numbers of users online, but works asynchronously when there are only one or two.” But they found that “scrolling back” through chat transcripts wasn’t very interesting, so they have reverted to a more comment-like model.
Poole has received some criticism for the fact that Canvas requires a Facebook Connect login in order to sign up and comment, but he dismisses this. He assures the audience that this is simply to keep an unwanted element from getting in and “mucking the system up”. Interactions will still be anonymous, but users are aware that Canvas knows who they are and so behave accordingly.
He explains the need to protect and nurture a new site. “We concentrate on building communities slowly and organically. You have to allow for a culture and identity to develop over time. At SxSW we often concentrate on scaling. Your challenge is not scaling — it’s nurturing a community that is worth scaling.”
And then, with a nervous little chuckle, and as abruptly as it began, Poole’s talk is over. He lingers on the stage for some questions, looking at any moment like he might bolt. But, like Zuckerberg, you’re aware that a mind like a quad-core processor lurks behind those clear blue eyes.Read More
Virtual surgery: training without pain
Surgery is one of the most difficult and dangerous professions to train for on the planet. Before you’re skilled at operating you can kill someone, but you can only really learn those skills by operating. Virtual surgery has long held the promise of allowing apprentice surgeons to learn from mistakes without killing patients, but until recent advances in technology, it hasn’t had much success. Now two different groups of researches are redefining the technology.
Speaking on a panel at this year’s South By SouthWest interactive festival, Professor Gregory Wiet of Ohio State University, as well as Frank Sculli and John Qualter of BioDigital Systems revealed some of their latest innovations in this fascinating field.Read More
Friending the constitution: a bill of rights for social media users
When does a technological revolution become a part of the fabric of society? If it’s just about pure numbers, then social media passed that marker some time towards the end of the last decade, when the combined audience of social media platforms breached the one billion user mark. But with ubiquity often comes regulation: if Facebook or Twitter are truly social “utilites” then do they need to be policed in the same way that electricity or water providers are?
One vital component missing from the wild west of the current social media landscape is any kind of universally accepted guidelines about how these networks should interact with their legions of users. Current laws are hopelessly inadequate to cope with many of the challenges these new kinds of interactions and relationships.Read More
I have mixed feeling about my first day at my very first SXSW event.
If you have no idea why I keep typing the same four letters that seem to have no relevance let me explain quickly: I am in Austin, Texas at a Music, Film and Interactive (Geek) conference called South By South West (SXSW). It’s my first time in Austin and I’ve just come from New York from a work trip. Things are crazy busy right now but that’s beside the point.
I am having a confusing experience at SXSW. I’m seeing some heroes of the web (Tim O’Reilly) and hearing some of the “hottest” startups in the world talk amongst themselves, or commonly known as panels at a conference.
I’ve had mixed feelings and at the moment my mental state is as follows: I need to listen and realise what NOT to do from these speakers.Read More