ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Moot I Know —

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As time goes on I do more and more interactions with the press, and by press I mean “people who interview me or engage me on subjects for later recounting”. Some are professionals, some are children, and some are people who just like to get a little background on things. Many of my interactions go well. Some do not. I wanted to talk about one that didn’t, just to understand how these things happen.

Last April, attending ROFLcon, I was introduced to a wide range of people who had been only concepts, words or dim figures in my head. While I could fill your day describing all of them, among them was this shy fellow talking with a few friends, a slouching soft-eyed figure who I found out was in fact moot, the administrator of 4chan. Luck let me introduce myself to him, and to my delight he knew my name.

We’ve become buddies, the two of us, and like a number of people in my life we chat occasionally, share stories, discuss subjects of interest to us both. It’s a good time. He’s a good guy. He is running, after all, a BBS and he’s a BBS Sysop so far removed from the world I’ve chronicled as to be in the realm of science fiction. We have a lot in common, for all of my being nearly twice his age.

Being called by press about various subjects I’m involved in, be it textfiles.com or my documentary or even just general background on computer/web history is not a new thing, and sometimes it has gone quite well and other times it has not. But a special set of rules come into place if I am being asked to speak, or go on the record, about another person. It’s one thing to be asked “Do you find inspiration in any of the new crop of websites” and another entirely to be asked “What is your opinion of your friend?” It’s a whole different world.

Now, I will not pretend to be the speaker of all things moot, because I’m not. I’ve known him less than a year, we’ve not hung out more than probably a few days in total, and we chat online and I (at least) enjoy these chats and it’s a good solid beginning of a friendship, one that may build and grow as friendships do. I am not an expert in everything that’s happened with 4chan over the years and while I’m a fan of the site for various aspects and reasons (I download every flash animation uploaded to the site, for example) I could probably be quizzed on the top 50 “things” about 4chan and maybe get a few really correct.

Moot threw my name at a reporter who was composing a story about him, and his current situation. More on that in a moment. He did this because he trusted me, knew I had a long history to pull from with regards to people who have run sites like his, who have been system operators and moderators and worked to pull what some people call a “commuity” together enough to keep them sane but not so close that nothing ever happens. This reporter, Monica Hesse, has written a number of stories for the Washington Post, and was looking to do one on moot. When she contacted me, my first impulse, one I acted on, was to get moot’s permission to even talk about him to a member of the press. I wasn’t 100% sure he’d given my name or if we’d been linked some other way, and I wanted his input. Later in the weekend, he gave his permission and told me that he’d in fact given my name to Hesse.

The interview was conducted by phone and lasted, by my recollection, roughly 30-40 minutes, during which I was driving between two cities. We talked about a lot of things.

Talking to me in an interview is an exercise. I go in a lot of directions, utilize a lot of metaphors and strange references, and don’t always answer the question you were seeking. When talking to a reporter, I listen for one of the following things:

  • The sound of writing or typing
  • The reporter’s breathing
  • Being cut off or being asked the same questions again and again

These tell you a bit about the person interviewing you. I prefer the ones that record me, but very few do that; most take notes, and I unfortunately can sometimes give rather difficult answers that don’t parse down to a taken note. It’s up to the skill of the reporter to deal with that, and it’s also up to the approach of the reporter.

In other words, if a reporter asks me a question, and I hear typing, and then I talk for two minutes and hear no typing, I know exactly what is going on, and I mostly take that time to work out my own thoughts; nothing of what I am saying is going anywhere useful and it’s certainly not going in the final story.

Let me give two examples of articles in which someone interviewed me via phone and I thought the results were excellent:

In one case, the article is about me. In the other, I am quoted once. In both cases, stuff I said was used in a way that may or may not lead to people agreeing with me, but I look at these articles and I am glad my name appears in them. Poulsen’s interview was fun, raucous, and resulted in a really fun look at this hobby of mine. Schiff’s article was incisive, interesting, and she used things we discussed in my interview to do more research in those directions, which I was very pleased by. I look like I did nothing else but that one pull quote and that’s fine with me because the resultant article is so strong.

So I’ve seen it’s possible to do this well, and I’ve been pleased with some results of interviews. I’ve also had sour experiences as well: one podcast forgot to shut off the mic of the sound guy and I got to hear his unhappy opinions about my personality and approach to things during one segment. Live mic, dude! The other interviewers were very friendly, of course, hence you’re not hearing the name of the podcast. And in the case of my weblog entries about that documentary I didn’t like, people wrote entries and articles in which they quoted me from the writing without bothering to write to me personally to ask for clarifications as needed. Sometimes I got used properly, other times improperly, but the point was that it was sort of a crapshoot. For some reason the comments on this entry always makes me start fuming, probably because of the cynicism about the narrative form of film.

In other words, I’ve seen the pros and the cons of this. Usually the pros: your name gets out there, you get connected to people (old friends and new ones have come out of the woodwork when I get published) and on the whole, I’m for it. Let me be called self-aggrandizing and ego-centric in the process: it’s generally worked out for me.

A 30 minute conversation with me is many thousands of words. I don’t expect them to be reprinted verbatim and I don’t expect every subtle point I make to appear in an article, especially if it’s a few paragraphs long.  But I do expect that if I am obviously being interviewed as a source on a person, that what comes out the other end will be somewhat in the realm of positive, or at least honest, about the person.

That didn’t happen in this case.

So about moot’s problems.

Like a lot of people in this economic downturn, moot got into financial issues with his site. He was dependent on a number of vectors for income and over time he let some sources of income fade and being a teenager in charge of a site of many hundreds of thousands of users, he has hardly had time to go beat the bush to find more funding.  He also has ideas about his user experience, ideas that I happen to agree with, which can be summarized as: don’t rape your fucking users. Sure, he could slam as much interstital bullshit as could be handled, charge for everything, force everyone to click on page 5 and then write in the word on the page to be able to continue, but that would, well, ruin things.

Perhaps it’s a surprise to hear that the margins of 4chan are not making the kid millions. But maybe if you go there and browse around and see how much happens in the way of being made to pay or register (none), it might start to make sense. Advertising can help, and advertising happens, but the bandwidth bill and the maintenance, plus occasionally hiring people to do coding for the site, can lead to things being a lot tighter than you expect.

A number of other aspects, including what advertisers will willingly advertise on a site that has unregulated adult content and which payment services will accept payment from sites like 4chan, lead to the usual financial concerns, exacerbated by the fact that a lot of loose and easy money dried up in the past few years. I only mention all this because it is real and not a hoax or some trick to get you to feel sorry for someone who is getting rich on the whole endeavor. This is not the case.

Moot is at a crossroads in his life, at the age of 21, a set of choices most people would not experience until a much later juncture. He’s been doing this site for almost all his life, certainly for the majority of the years most people would pay attention to with regards to accomplishment. Where does he step to next?

He’s got a high GPA at the college he’s been at but wants to see what his other possibilities are. Go back to college and get a degree in something more close to his 4chan work? Or maybe go into the job market itself. Both possibilities are interesting.

My opinion is that moot stuck in some back office doing photocopying is a travesty. He has the skills, the abilities to run a community without it collapsing into the ground in a spasm of destriction and drama. A place that thinks it needs a community manager to keep things smooth and help make things happen would be well served to consider hiring moot.  He’d move anywhere, try something new for a few years, find a place to shine. He’s got a magic ability about him to work with people and make a place happen. You could point to 4chan’s worst aspects and point to moot, but the fact is that moot’s abilities and skills are why those worst aspects haven’t taken the site down in a blaze of hatred and implosion.

I tried to explain this as best I could in my phone interview, this situation where he is now looking at what the next part of his life will contain. This is different than a “regular” 21 year old trying to find the next steps, because other 21 year olds don’t generally have a near-decade winning track record of a millions-strong audience they have been working with and catering to.

I’d hoped maybe his story would come through in this article and maybe inspire people to consider contacting him about employment, giving him the chance to fund 4chan’s costs and keep him out of what may become crushing debt. 

No such luck.

Hesse’s article is a mush-ball of insinuations, side-of-mouth insults and dimissive gestures. If you didn’t like something about 4chan, you’ll find plenty to take home with this article. “They come to 4chan when they should be doing calc homework. Now — in debt, out of work, another example of the Internet’s intangibility — Poole just needs to figure out how to make that matter.” This approach, “ha ha these weirdos are losers” is the sort of thing I used to read in the 1980s when everyone was wondering why in the hell you would make a computer “portable” and cell phones came at the requirement of never leaving your car and attaching a weird antenna to your back window. How strange, these articles would say, you are so much better a person for not having known this world except through this article. I detest this approach. It doesn’t inform; it insults and invites you to take a handful of dirt as well. And nobody comes to know moot better in any way for it.

But obviously, it all comes home to me when Hesse decided this would be the closer:

For his recent birthday, Poole’s acquaintance Jason Scott offered to help him write a résumé.

Scott, a somewhat well-known Internet historian, explains the difficulty of the endeavor this way: “It’s like going to someone and saying, I need you to write a résumé to be hired to be you,” says Scott. “Like, ‘In one page, what do you do that makes you yourself?’ Chris has been running this site almost all of his functioning life. . . . Sitting down and producing the words for what that means is just too hard. Him on résumé is a failure.”

God, did I not say that. I didn’t say that at all. My statements, which I can recognize pieces of in this paragraph as one recognizes pieces of actual chicken in the slices of a chicken deli package, centered around his skill he had, and how that skill was a hard one for moot to himself enunciate. That’s why I offered to help him with writing a resume for his birthday; because it’s nice to have someone who’s studied a culture and has some perspective on things to help you see ways to describe what you do best. 

Does that come across in that paragraph? Or do you see the words “is a failure” and think you’ve gotten it?

Oh, Hesse can point to copywriters and editors and the moon and the stars and the temperature of the sun, but that’s the name on the top and that’s what’s on the paper. This is everywhere and she’s onto the next subject to write about, the next thing to describe and move onto. That’s how it is when you’re a combine ripping through the observed world: the next thing is the next thing and there never was a previous thing. That’s yesterday’s news and that’s what lines birdcages.

But these words will now haunt moot for some time. And beyond that, he’s burned. Really burned. The kind of burned where maybe he won’t believe in himself, won’t think he’s as talented as he obviously is, and maybe he’ll take the easy way out and not try to find a place that amplifies his abilities instead of supressing them. That’s what worries me, and that’s what makes me angry.

An interview that does him justice, or at least presents moot without judgement and insinuation, was done by Rex Sorgatz and contains much more in the way of reasoned observation, statements in moot’s own words, and the chance to hear his side of operating 4chan and what he thinks of the whole endeavor.  Sorgatz is there, asking questions and driving the conversation, but he is not there: moot is the dominant speaker. If you come to a judgement about him, you do so because of moot’s positions, not an errant judgemental set of sidewise snickering over his words. You may like or not like him, but the article doesn’t push you into one bucket or another.

Before the WaPost article came out, there was another article by the Wall Street Journal published last July that was able to quote from moot and a variety of other sources without blowing his character out to the wind, so even if the Q&A format of Sorgatz’ article isn’t your cup of tea and you like the smooshed-from-many-places approach of much of professional journalism, there’s better examples, ranging back months ago, done better, done at least with competency. No excuses.

Why have I written all this? Because all I have are my own words, and my own words are this: moot is not a failure. Moot is a miracle. I hope someone will come to recognize that and give this kid a shot. Amazing things will happen.


Categorised as: jason his own self

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12 Comments

  1. Andy says:

    For what it’s worth, I completely got the gist of what you were saying the first time I read the quote. I didn’t even see any other interpretation, but I think that’s because I’ve been reading your writing for so long.

    There’s one paragraph where the author gets a bit sincere, but even then, she’s compelled to temper it with snark in the last sentence:

    “How to explain what Christopher Poole actually does? He’s not a programmer. He doesn’t know code. His site doesn’t offer a specific service, like Google. What he does is foster community. He makes millions of people feel that they have a safe space for creative — sometimes vitriolic — discussion, deciding how far things should be pushed, tamping down upsurges when they get too unruly. Or something like that.”

  2. Teaspoon says:

    I think the point comes across, I got it first time. But I remember thinking it was a very awkward quotation, like the author was pulling together bits and piece to make a point less subtle than what you were trying to say.

  3. disambiguated says:

    I wrote Monica email asking about this issue. If she replies, I’ll post here.

  4. Rabscuttle says:

    Fostering community alone is an increasingly important skill these days, and it’s NOT as easy as it sounds.

    Sounds like he’d be a phenomenal community manager for an MMO, if that sort of thing interested him. Many game development companies are starting to recognize (monetarily) how important a role that is. I don’t know that I’d advocate it as a career, but he’d certainly be good at it, and it only requires minimal time at the copy machine.

    I suppose if she writes for the Washington Post and is a traditional journalist, that might explain her bitter snarky attitude in the face of a web full of bloggers and decentralized news. She’s becoming obsolete and clearly doesn’t like you, 4chan, OR social media for it. IMHO.

    I can only strive and hope to one day be “somewhat well-known.”

  5. Shii says:

    Hah. I actually wrote moot in response to that article and told him to do some fundraising and stop running up credit cards. He replied back with more like a grunt than an actual resposne.

  6. Matthew says:

    I agree with Rabs. I’ve never visited 4chan, but after reading this entry, I would say that moot would likely make a phenomenal IT manager or community manager. Go into politics, apply at Microsoft, Google, or IBM, and continue inspiring people. That level of charisma and flexibility is very hard to find and high in demand, and with something like 4chan to point at, I don’t think moot would have any problem getting in at most tech companies that know what they’re doing.

    As a sidenote/example, I have read articles (somewhere in the misty past) of people referencing their World of Warcraft guilds or Eve-Online corporations as examples of their leadership and management skills and that being an important and deciding factor in their hiring. If you are the CEO of Band of Brothers on EVE-Online, then apply for a management position at a company, you can translate that experience into a powerful argument for why they should hire you.

  7. jas says:

    “MatthewNo Gravatar wrote:

    I agree with Rabs. I’ve never visited 4chan, but after reading this entry, I would say that moot would likely make a phenomenal IT manager or community manager. Go into politics, apply at Microsoft, Google, or IBM, and continue inspiring people. That level of charisma and flexibility is very hard to find and high in demand, and with something like 4chan to point at, I don’t think moot would have any problem getting in at most tech companies that know what they’re doing.”

    HAH!!!!!!!

    wtf!!!

    have you SEEN 4chan?? well you said you didn’t, so i suggest you do just that. your opinion would be swayed.

    it’s a website that’s an image board, consisting of funny pictures and pornography.

    the regulars are truly the bottom of the barrel of the internet community.

  8. jan says:

    >it’s a website that’s an image board, consisting of funny pictures and pornography.

    put some of both into the next windows and I’m buying it.

  9. John says:

    >>the regulars are truly the bottom of the barrel of the internet community.

    Truer words were never spoken. Most 4chan comments make youtube commentators look like Faulkner by comparison.

  10. jas says:

    boy, jason it really surprises me that you are actually a FAN of 4chan. that site is pure garbage.

    maybe you didn’t really take a decent look at it.
    it consists of people posting funny pictures, childporn, porn, and retarded comments from people that are poorly developed mentally.

    PERIOD.

  11. Stormgren says:

    Jason,

    I’d read the article, and your quote. I thought that didn’t sound at all like you.

    Thankfully, in our recent times, it is far, far easier to speak out when you’ve been misquoted. Thanks for taking the time to do that, and set the story straight.

  12. Jason Scott says:

    Oh, on the contrary, my ever-commenting biggest fan. I would think that from that viewpoint of my actions and outlook on life, it would show a logical, comforting consistency in what and who I admire. Also I didn’t goatse my viewers. I goatse’d myspace users utilizing a third-party theme system that directly linked to one of my images. And I still do, dozens of times a day.