What Exactly Is 4Chan & How Does It Work?

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When hackers released private photos of Emma Watson and Amanda Seyfried this week, referring to it as "The Fappening 2," they called attention to 4chan, the site where the original Fappening, a massive leak of celebrity photos, occurred in 2014. But what exactly is 4chan and who are its users?
At first glance, 4chan seems relatively uncomplicated. It is, as it describes itself on the top of a minimal homepage, "a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images."
The site was founded in 2003 by Christopher Poole. Like many other successful tech entrepreneurs before him, Poole was young — just 15 — when he started 4chan. He based it off of a Japanese anime site known as 2chan, or Futaba Channel, which is why 4chan has an entire board dedicated to Japanese culture, with topics including cosplay and manga.
The site has become a place where memes are born, but also where pornography is rampant. Why? Unlike other sites with open message boards, 4chan users are completely anonymous. You cannot even register for a username. If you do want to "identify" yourself — that is, make sure others know it is the same person posting something on one part of the site as another — you can create a "tripcode" or "secure tripod" which is randomly generated by the site's server. Only that server has the IP address that can trace a post back to a particular user. Users, who can only start a new thread by posting an image (further emphasizing the site's focus on photos and drawings), are completely masked to the outside world, making it harder to apprehend them even after posts are taken down by 4chan's administrator.
When you enter one of 4chan's boards, you are required to agree to a disclaimer that essentially clears 4chan of any responsibility for what gets posted: "You agree not to hold 4chan responsible for any damages from your use of the website, and you understand that the content posted is not owned or generated by 4chan, but rather by 4chan's users."
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Even though leaking photos of celebs and other public individuals is not legal, that statement of terms may help 4chan stay safe in the eyes of the law. "The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides a safe harbor for internet sites maintaining forums where people post possibly infringing content," says Phillip Hallam-Baker, a VP and principal scientist at global cybersecurity company Comodo. "The site is usually in the clear if they have a defined takedown policy that meets certain criteria and they stick to it."
These takedowns have occurred on message board on the site, known as /b/ or "random," that 4chan's users have taken to disturbing extremes. It's here that "shock posts," what The Washington Post described as "graphic scenes of violence or sex" are profuse. This "random" board is where hackers first shared nude photos of celebrities — including Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, and Gabrielle Union — before spreading to Reddit in 2014.
A Rolling Stone profile on Poole — who maintained sole authority of the site until 2015, without any employees, before handing over the reigns to a new administrator — explains how out of control the boards became. 4chan's users see it as their place to run free on the web. To many, especially those in /b/, it is a place to troll others and share illegally obtained information, without retribution. Many of the biggest internet controversies of the last decade have been linked to 4chan, from the celebrity photo hack to Gamergate.