Increasingly, the majority of people are content to experience the online world through the warm, blue-white glow of Facebook. But beyond the closed ecosystems of giant tech companies, the open web remains populous, anonymous, strange and sometimes, very unpleasant.
Take 4chan, which launched in the mid-2000s describing itself as "a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously." The site's sparse moderation and almost-anything-goes policy attracted disaffected teens, video game lovers, internet pranksters, hackers, and a sizable number of virulent racists. Best known as an incubator of memes—think Pepe the Frog or Rickrolling—it came onto the radar of the national media when members of the hacking group Anonymous started gathering there to plan pranks. By 2009 Fox News was (absurdly) referring to 4chan as the home of "the most powerful people on the Internet."
But a couple of years ago, when 4chan decided to ban Gamergate threads because they were being used to post personal information and plan attacks, some of those "powerful people" started leaving. They moved on to 8chan, a site with even looser moderation policies. It became the new digital home for some of the most offensive people on the internet, people who really believe in white-supremacy and the inferiority of women.
You may not have heard of 8chan, but you've almost definitely been exposed to their actions. When something horrifying happens online that leads people to say, "the internet is a terrible place," they are often talking about something that was planned on 8chan. This is the group that made Microsoft's teen-loving bot Tay turn racist and start praising Hitler. It got a hashtag trending that suggested boycotting Star Wars because it had black and female lead actors. It was delisted from Google's search results after users posted child pornography. It has a board called /baph/ dedicated to doxing people and attacking other websites. (Disclosure: earlier this year someone tried to sic /baph/ on me for writing about 8chan.)
It's a cesspool that helps make the rest of the internet a scary place. Almost no one posting on 8chan would hand over their credit card and let their identity be known. Posters thrive on anonymity and the things it enables them to say, endorse, and do. Because it doesn't have paying users, it would have collapsed under its own weight and died out years ago if it wasn't bankrolled by a man named Jim Watkins, a 52-year old U.S. Army veteran who has a pig farm in the Philippines.
Jim Watkins first heard about 8chan from his 28-year old son, who had watched a short Al Jazeera America documentary about its founder, Fredrick Brennan. Brennan had been a 4chan user for years and says he came up with the idea for 8chan while on mushrooms. The documentary followed Brennan for a few days and focused on how he deals with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition that's characterized by brittle, deformed bones.
"They showed up at his house in the morning, and he was still in his pajamas, and now he's famous for his Super Mario Pajamas," Watkins says of the segment. "[It was] a little bit rude. They made him a little more pathetic than he is."
Brennan, who uses the moniker 'hotwheels' online, started 8chan in October 2013—but it didn't really take off until Gamergate, an online war over sexism and progressivism in the video game industry.
In September 2014, 4chan founder Christopher Poole (a.k.a. "moot") banned Gamergate threads on 4chan because users kept doxing prominent women in the video game community, posting their personal information, from addresses to social security numbers, and encouraging people to use it to harass them. Brennan started advertising 8chan as a "Free Speech Friendly 4chan Alternative." Brennan, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, previously told Ars Technica that the site "went from around 100 posts per hour to over 4,000 posts per hour" that month.
Brennan started working full-time on 8chan, setting up a Patreon site for donations. Nearly 150 patrons signed up, donating over $1000 a month, but it wasn't enough to cover his time and server costs. And within three months, Patreon kicked 8chan off its service for violating community guidelines.
8chan kept going offline because it exceeded bandwidth limits or, because of its offensive content, got kicked off various ISPs. Brennan needed stable financial support and a reliable hosting service to keep it alive.
That was when Jim Watkins got involved.
Watkins contacted Brennan, who was then living in New York City, to offer assistance. Despite a roughly 30-year age difference, the two hit it off immediately. Watkins describes Brennan as "a good guy [and] a brave man." At the end of October 2014, Brennan went with Gamergaters to a strip club in Queens to celebrate 8chan's first birthday as well as his decision to move to the Philippines to work with Watkins.
According to Tom Riedel, the former president and current secretary of Watkin's company, N.T. Technology, Brennan and Watkins formed a business partnership.
"N.T. Tech provided the domain name and hardware, [Brennan] is responsible for software and growing the community," said Riedel by email. "Right now it doesn't make enough to pay for itself, but hopefully someday it will."
8chan was created by Brennan, is run by Brennan, but is now owned by Watkins.
Watkins is an American in his 50s who picked up computer skills while in the military. He described himself in his first email to me as "a very boring person." He wears glasses and a greying beard, though his hair remains brown. He doesn't have a large online presence, but does maintain a blog on 8chan, where he sporadically posts photos of his family and his animals.
If photos and video of him online are any indicator, he almost always wears shorts and a graphic tee. He splits his time between Manila and the pig farm he owns outside the city. But his main business is web hosting and advertising.
Watkins told me on the phone that he wanted to protect 8chan because he's seen "all these other sites that have big potential and then they go away." As for concern about or responsibility for the actions of his digital tenants, he argues that it's all just free speech.
"As long as they are not making imminent threats of harm against someone, their speech is protected political speech," he told me. "No different than Trump or Clinton or Mr. Smith or or anyone else."
Watkins isn’t the first message board owner to strike this stance. Reddit’s founders famously held a strong free speech position initially as did 4chan's Poole. But they all backed off over time. Reddit now bans revenge porn and hate speech. Poole eventually told Rolling Stone that 4chan never had free speech “in the absolutely sense.”
The only free speech Watkins rejects concerns copyright violations, which would result in large fines for the site thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. Over all, Watkins holds a hodgepodge of expediently adopted political ideals in service to one very clear motivation: extracting cash from the internet.
8chan is far from the only online community of bad actors that are underwritten by people like Watkins. Financial backers usually remain insulated from any attention or consequences for owning the sites they do. It's no secret that Watkins owns 8chan, but much of the reporting on the site has, understandably, focused on its users or Brennan. However, Watkins is the site's foundation, and has been since late 2014, and I wanted to know why he plays the role he does.
Jim Watkins was raised on a family farm in Mukilteo, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle. His mother worked for Boeing and his father worked for the local phone company. He has one sibling and several half-siblings. Karen Sansaver, his elder sister, has kept the books for N.T. Tech since 2001.
Watkins says that he joined the U.S. Army when he was 18, first serving as a helicopter mechanic and then a recruiter. He emphasized to me, unprompted, that he didn't work for the CIA though he's "noticed some people guessing that."
In 1987, the U.S. Army set Watkins on his path to becoming a financial backer of the web's underbelly by sending him to computing school in Virginia. After that, in the mid-90s, while still serving in the military, increasingly working with computers, he co-founded a porn site called "The Asian Bikini Bar" and formed a company called N.T. Technology Inc. (He insists that the "N.T." doesn't stand for anything.) He says he told the Army he was starting an online business but didn't tell them it was erotica.
"He really came in on the ground floor of the porn industry," said Sansaver.
The company made money by selling advertising and eventually expanded to web hosting services. In particular, it helped skirt regulation, hosting Japanese adult sites that couldn't be hosted in Japan because of the country's anti-obscenity laws which were quite strict in the late 90s.
"They figured out a loophole in Japanese censorship rules," Riedel explained in an email. "Adult material in Japan has to be censored, but…Japanese people could access content that resides outside of Japan. Bingo. The work we did in the following years was really just marketing uncensored Japanese content to users in Japan."
Riedel has been an employee since the early days of N.T. Tech. He met Watkins in 1997 at age 19, while he was an art student living in Pittsburgh.
"One day in the summer of 1997, my roommates ran in and told me they met the 'king of porn’ in the park, walking his poodle," said Riedel. Watkins was looking for artists to design banner ads, and gave Riedel and his roommate some freelance work. "After that I started working full time, and the next summer I drove with him and his family across country to Seattle where we set up an office."
They moved when Watkins left the army in 1998, after 16 years. He was only a few years shy of being eligible for a pension, but he wanted to focus on his web business. The tech world was booming, with dot-coms attracting massive funding and IPOs. "It was an adult website," said Watkins. "Probably the army was happy to see me go."
In 2004, after the tech boom turned bust, Watkins moved to the Philippines, a place to which he and his family had vacationed.
Watkins is blasé about those who are concerned about the type of content and behavior that 8chan encourages, but he insists he doesn't hold the racist views espoused there. He explained this to me by way of a bizarre comparison between the lives of black Americans in the 20th century and his living situation in the Philippines.
"I am obviously not a white supremacist. I go for days without seeing another white face," he told me. "I put up with racial problems similar to that of colored people in the 1960s, the black people of the 1970s, the African Americans of the 1980s, the people of color of the 1990s, and I am not sure what the politically correct term in the 21st century is…. I have lived here in the same place longer than anywhere else in my adult life. I love my home. As I am sure those people did in the 1960s. I don’t have a problem with white supremacists talking on 8chan. They have reasons for their beliefs. I don’t need to justify their reasons."
8chan is not the only anonymous, messaging board owned by N.T. Tech. In 2000, it added a client to its hosting roster that would turn out to be one of its most profitable as well as its most tumultuous: 2channel.
Created in 1999 by Hiroyuki Nishimura, 2channel (also called 2ch) was a text-only web board that became a hub of Japanese web culture by allowing users to express themselves anonymously, candidly and sometimes rudely with little fear of consequence. In 2008, Wired said the "ugly, lo-res site [got] about 500 million pageviews a month."
It sounds familiar because 2channel is the forebear of all the other "chan" sites. It inspired a similarly-named imageboard called 2chan, that in turn inspired a 15-year old Poole to create 4chan in 2003. And then 4chan gave birth to 8chan. Such is the way of the internet: easily copied ideas and constant, but shallow, innovation.
Nishimura was said to be making a million dollars a year off of 2channel in 2008, both from ads and from members who subscribed to the site's premium service, which let them browse its archives. "The only person who gets money from 2channel is me," Nishimura told Wired. "Well, I guess I pay for the servers."
Those servers were N.T. Tech's.
Things have since gone sour. In 2013, the site had a data breach that exposed the credit cards of more than 30,000 otherwise anonymous users. In 2014, N.T. Tech, which was already hosting 2channel on its servers, took control of the site and the domain, because, according to Riedel, the 2013 data breach meant that the revenue that paid for 2channel's hosting was gone. Regardless of the breach, 2channel remains popular: In September of last year Watkins said it received "between 15 and 16 million unique visitors a day."
Nishimura is now suing Watkins and N.T. Tech, alleging they stole the site from him. He, unsurprisingly, had nothing positive to say about Watkins. "All his businesses have failed," Nishimura told me by email. "Even his hosting service was not good."
Nishimura remains in the message board business: when Christopher Poole, who is now at Google, sold 4chan late last year, the buyer was Nishimura.
The world of irreverent, anonymous message boards is an incestuous one.
You might expect some procedural difficulties to result from owning free-wheeling sites like 2channel and 8chan: Law enforcement requests, DMCAs, annoyed posters, and so on. But when I asked Watkins about the major difficulties he's faced as the owner of 8chan his first complaint was about so-called Social Justice Warriors.
"They call them SJWs… they troll me by email," he said. "They try to embarrass you into turning off the channel. It's like 'oh there's a horrible post here.' Well great, report the post and we'll delete it…Then they send it to ICANN, and the FBI, and all of these people. And it's like, come on."
Watkins, of course, is the owner of a site whose members regularly engage in swatting (using false reports to send SWAT teams after victims) and other forms of law enforcement-involved harassment. If the irony of his complaining about fruitless emails to the FBI occurred to him, he didn't show it.
He also suggested that those who complain to him are creating the posts they're upset about. There's no evidence of this sort of sock-puppet account creation, though it is a tactic used by 8chan and 4chan's right-wing groups.
I asked whether he feels any obligation to victims of harassment campaigns organized in part on 8chan.
"I am not sure what this is," he responded. "If we have a DMCA request we comply."
Watkins lives an ocean away from many of 8chan's users and their targets, and it seems he doesn't fully understand the effects it has on them. Or, even worse, he's fully aware of what the hordes on his site are up to, and simply doesn't care as long as it doesn't violate the DMCA.
A note on the site admits that 8chan has yet to make a profit, but it's clear that Watkins hopes it will. That hope and his friendship with Brennan are keeping the site alive.
Watkins is still hopeful and eager that 8chan's advertising business will take off. As we got off the phone, he half-jokingly tried to sell me on buying ads there, in order to boost Fusion's profile.
"Buy some advertising on 8chan. It's only 5 dollars" he said, briefly adopting a mock accent and pronouncing his Ls as Rs: "Five dollar! five dollar!"
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at email@example.com