With all the debate on the legalization of marijuana these days you probably know that drug culture is embedded in American culture from every head shop to Phish concert and if you’re hip you might have also noticed that everything from Lolcat’s to the use of words like “epic win” and “fail” are starting to make the leap from the web and into real life. But, in the underbelly of the internet unbeknownst to most, drug culture is beginning to merge with internet culture and a lot of it is happening on one of the premier image boards: 420chan.
If you don’t know what an image board is, it’s basically the same as a forum but with images as the primary focus and words being secondary. They operate faster, like a cross between a normal forum and a chatroom and they’ve been gaining a lot of popularity and attention. You may have heard of 4chan, whose members have had a hand in everything from inventing Rickrolling to staging worldwide protests against the Church of Scientology. It’s founder, Moot, has even had an interview with Time magazine. 4chan is now the 593rd most visited website on the internet according to Alexa.com, a traffic ranking service. This immense popularity, and in some cases power, has created an army of knockoffs (though 4chan was originally a copy of a Japanese site itself). Out of these copies only a few have managed to gain a following anywhere near that of their predecessor and one of these is the aforementioned 420chan.
These days the creation of imageboards is fairly easy. There is even an “Imageboard for Free” service available to host low bandwidth vanity chans. What makes an imageboard popular however has much less to do with the structure of the site and more with the culture that comes with it. 4chan’s popularity came from a combination of anime and japan related topics as well as its beginning on famous internet troll forum and comedy site somethingawful.com. Other boards have to find way to differentiate themselves and prove themselves worthwhile. For example: 711chan became popular when it hosted a board dedicated to assaulting websites its users deemed stupid. This lead to a tiny internet army known as the /i/nsurgency. 7chan on the other hand made its way through oddities such as boards dedicated to bees, zombies, and a “wine tasting” board filled with pictures of users sticking their genitals in glasses of wine.
Located at 420chan.org, 420chan’s main feature is an array of drug related boards including stimulants, opiates, cannabis, dissociatives, and a miscellaneous drug board. These boards are unique to 420chan and have brought it an audience that ties it for second place behind 4chan with a few others. 420chan, while transparently helmed by drug aficionados, states that its purpose is to provide a safe place for drug users to talk to each other with the goal of self-education. This harm-prevention stance is held by many drug related publications and groups and goes a long way to prove that 420chan is not a dangerous den of career criminals. 420chan has more to offer than that though. It has boards dedicated to nerdier topics such as anime, dinosaurs, comics, and Pokémon as well as many more general and accessible boards with topics like fitness, food, television, literature, and technology. The site may be rooted in internet geek culture, but the boards that differentiate it bring in a new crowd not often seen on the internet. Here a strange combination takes place, where drug culture starts melding with internet culture. Somewhere between hippies and hackers we find pot smoking Pikachu’s and ketamine inspired MSpaint comics. 420chan has not only provided a starting point for a focused drug culture on the internet, it has violently smashed it into the pre-existing culture to produce an extremely bizarre mashup.
420chan started as a joke, a surprisingly common way for these unlikely behemoths. Many of the chans are made for their creators to have fun in and end up finding themselves the target of huge amounts of traffic when 4chan goes down. From there they grow their own userbase and eventually find themselves with a solid foundation. In the original F.A.Q. provided by the website’s founder, he states:
“Well one day I was sitting around and I noticed that my new hosting package allowed for a single free domain name registration. I was with Tinal [an ex-mod and friend of his] at the time and he came up with "420chan", a stupid combination of 4chan and drugs. I decide to use this suggestion, and register it as a joke domain many many moons ago. I didn't actually intend on having 420chan be a serious thing until another site (420chan.ath.cx) run by a handful of wtfux guys decided to have a shitstorm over the fact that I was using the same name. So to be a dick, I decided to actually set up boards on the thing. Since then 420chan has grown into a gigantic horrible place and I love it.”
Kirtaner, real name Aubrey Cottle, may have started the website for fun but today has turned it into one of the most progressive image boards on the net. Despite not being paid at all and even taking money out of his pocket to support the site he has worked to update the site with new features such as a wiki, a board with a built in chatbot, a store, and a developers blog. Recently, however, the site has managed to stay afloat entirely off of user donations with some posters anonymously donating as much as $250. This supplements money gained from advertising. Kirtaner isn’t the only one keeping the site going though, he is helped by a small group of about 18 moderators (or mods) who make sure they keeps the posters in check. These moderators are all volunteers who started off as users of the site and eventually asked or were approached by a mod to help out with the running of the website. The site’s staff comes from all over the world: Kirtaner is from Canada while others are from over the U.S. and Europe. In a recent interview with LickTheShade, a female mod from Britain, she said
“The cool thing about working on a project online is that having people from all over the world makes it feel bigger. It’s not like I’m communicating any less with them than I would in real life and I went over to the U.S. recently and hung out with some of the others”.
Despite the enthusiasm of those involved, the site faces an uphill battle until it manages to strike a balance between bandwidth use and financial gain. Obtaining advertising can be difficult. On top of a focus on illegal activity, the difficulty of monitoring such speedy user interaction leads to penty of undesirable content being displayed before the mods have a chance to clean it up. As a result, 420chan’s main advertisers are drug paraphernalia sites such as bouncingbearbotanicals.com. Another mod, Fallen, stated his worries that the site was always in danger. He considered the recent strength of user donations to be miraculous and explained that a site like 420chan is always inches away from being in the red.
“I see the site heading into some trouble. Our userbase tripled in October. Our boards Harddrives are actually filling occasionally. Either one of two things is going to happen in the next few months: Kirtaner is going to have to collect money for this board fast or he’s going to probably not be able to run it himself. He works really hard for this community that has actually gotten him into trouble in the past. It’s eaten his pocketbook and his time. Or the other thing is something bad might happen, with chans… you never know” says Fallen.
Struggling to pay the bills is common to most chans. If they receive a lot of traffic they rarely have enough users interested in supporting the site despite using its services. 4chan itself goes under frequently when going over its bandwidth limit, this leads to a flood of “refugees” going to the other chans. These waves are one of the main ways fledgling chans manage to get any popularity in the first place. 7chan only exists today because 4chan was down for most of a week and it became the main place for internet hungry channers to go.
All this worrying may seem paranoid, but Kirtaner has run into serious trouble because of 420chan before. One user, slighted for reasons never stated, started a personal war against Kirtaner by spamming the website and attempting to flood the servers. It culminated in a call to the local police that had them believing there was a hostage situation inside of Kirtaner’s home. SWAT teams were called in and eventually the whole mess was sorted out with the police looking into a possible suspect from Australia.
“I got out of bed, I open up my bedroom door, walked over to the front door and had an automatic combat shotgun in my face. When you're getting woken up at 4:30 in the morning by a whole bunch of cops with automatic weapons and then finding out that they've blocked off the entire street outside - pretty unsettling.”-Kirtaner
The perpetrator was actually a Massachusetts resident and serial cyber-criminal whose name was not released as he was 17 at the time of the arrest. He was given eleven months of juvenile detention last year for crimes such as hacking into corporate databases, credit card fraud, and a series of bomb threats and faked 911 calls.Despite all this, 420chan soldiers on. Kirtainer has no plans to shut down the site and has stated that he wished to take out business loans in order to expand the site and attempt to make it more profitable. One would hope 420chan continues to exist because it provides fertile ground for one of the more interesting groups of people to call the internet their home. So if this curious mélange of nerd and narcotics has piqued your interest or if you think there’s something useful you could take away from the most laid back of cha