4chan is facing collapse, but not for the reasons you think

By Caitlin Dewey

The site isn't expected to shut down - yet. Photo / 4chan
The site isn't expected to shut down - yet. Photo / 4chan

As far as business prospects go, 4chan has never been a particularly good one. The anonymous, anything-goes message board for provocative trolls has struggled to stay afloat almost since its inception.

But on Sunday night, the site's current owner, Japanese web entrepreneur Hiroyuki Nishimura, seemed to imply that the situation was no longer tenable. "We had tried to keep 4chan as is," he wrote on the site's /qa/ board. "But I failed. I am sincerely sorry ... Some changes will happen in the future."

Those changes will not be the total shutdown that critics hoped for - at least not yet. In emails to The Washington Post, Nishimura explained that 4chan's current operating expenses exceed the money it brings in from advertisements and sales of special memberships called "4chan passes."

To close the gap, he plans to reduce the size limit for uploaded images and, potentially, to begin accepting donations, as Wikipedia does.

"The problems are simple," he said. "Ads don't work well. Infrastructure costs go up ... We tried other ways, but it (was not) enough."

It's tempting to see 4chan's financial difficulties as a referendum on the site itself - certainly its image has grown only darker in recent months.

The message boards, never exactly havens of godliness, have become closely associated with the most racist and vitriolic extremes of the alt-right - even lending the movement their mascot, Pepe the Frog.

But Nishimura insists that he has not had any problems finding advertisers and that the site's current difficulties do not spring from its content. Instead, he says, display advertising is no longer profitable for 4chan because so many of its users have installed ad-blocking extensions.

In many ways, this is business as usual for 4chan, which has - over its 13-year history - only occasionally broke even. The site was famously founded, and run until September 2015, by a then-15-year-old kid named Christopher Poole, who considered it "a hobby and not a business."

For its first few years, Poole kept 4chan's servers online largely by the graces of an online anime retailer called J-List, which sponsored a few ads on the site's more savory boards. In 2005, Poole attempted a donation drive to raise the $20,000 he needed to keep the site running - and fell dramatically short.

Still, 4chan survived. By February 2009, server costs were running Poole $6,000 each month, and he was charging them to his personal credit card while living with his mother. In 2012, he attempted a new monetisation stream in the form of the $20-a-year 4chan pass program, which lets members skip the annoying captchas that are ubiquitous on the site. The year after, he set up a self-serve ad platform that let anyone run ads for as little as $20 - eliminating, at least in theory, the need to either beg donations or attract mainstream advertisers.

It's always been my desire to provide 4chan for free to as many people as possible, for as long as possible...
Christopher Poole, 4chan founder

"It's always been my desire to provide 4chan for free to as many people as possible, for as long as possible - something that gets harder and harder as the years go by and the site's traffic increases," Poole wrote at the time.

That challenge apparently has not disappeared under 4chan's new leadership, although Nishimura came with some experience in this realm: His first site, the Japanese message board on which 4chan was based, was making a reported $1 million in yearly profits at one point, despite similar image problems.

But Nishimura faces problems with 4chan that he never did with its older cousin.

J-List, one of 4chan's longest and most loyal advertisers, recently declined to renew its contract because of falling click-through rates - a sure sign of ad-blockers. On top of that, 4chan is reviled by mainstream US society in a way that even 2chan was not. Dwango, once one of Japan's major internet media companies, was a loyal advertiser on the site; it's hard to imagine a similar campaign coming from, say, YouTube or Amazon.

But ultimately, Nishimura's biggest problem might be his users themselves: the 27 million 18-to-34-year-old men who have made 4chan both a force and a terror. There are fail-proof ways he could cut down on bandwidth costs - closing some of the boards, for instance, or switching to slower, cheaper servers - but he fears they'd be rejected by the site's characteristically distrustful, disagreeable users. If they don't like his changes, after all, they have other options: 8chan, essentially a worse version of 4chan (yes, that's possible), was basically created as a haven for disgruntled 4chan users.

In any case, Nishimura is trying the upload limits: Although no details have been settled yet, he is currently "working on script and server settings," with changes to roll out in the near future. Even with those adjustments, 4chan's future is far from secure.

"Maybe, maybe not," he said about whether the upload limits will ultimately close the budget gap. "4chan users tend to react beyond (what) I imagine."

- Washington Post

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