Announcing Club P., an anonymous discussion board

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. —Oscar Wilde

For fun over the past few weeks I’ve been working on a little project that I’m launching today. It’s called Club P. and it’s an anonymous and ephemeral discussion board like 4chan, but membership-based. So why did I make this?

Like many people, I’m increasingly frustrated with social media. Speech policing and growing pressure to conformity are leading me and many others to retreat to what Venkatesh Rao calls the cozyweb:

Unlike the main public internet, which runs on the (human) protocol of “users” clicking on links on public pages/apps maintained by “publishers”, the cozyweb works on the (human) protocol of everybody cutting-and-pasting bits of text, images, URLs, and screenshots across live streams. Much of this content is poorly addressable, poorly searchable, and very vulnerable to bitrot. It lives in a high-gatekeeping slum-like space comprising slacks, messaging apps, private groups, storage services like dropbox, and of course, email.

Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler talks about a “dark forest theory of the internet”:

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

This very piece is an example of this. This theory was first shared on a private channel sent to 500 people who I know or who have explicitly chosen to receive it. This is the online environment in which I feel most secure. Where I can be my most “real self.”

Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.

Why the reaction? There are many reasons, but here’s what I think about.

On social media platforms like Twitter, users have a persistent identity (even if, rarely, it is a pseudonym). This fosters completely natural incentives for status competition, but those incentives are unnaturally exacerbated by the gamification inherent in likes, retweets, and follower counts. Additionally, your view on the world is limited by the set of people you have chosen to follow, as well as how a platform’s algorithm has chosen to present their messages. The result is conversation that is often performative and susceptible to groupthink and tribalism.

An interesting alternative mode of online conversation that is still public, and not cloistered, is that of anonymous “imageboards” made (in)famous by 4chan. They are web discussion forums with no user registration and no identities tied to posts. Postings are also ephemeral and are erased after a short time. Thanks to this architecture, imageboards foster a very different kind of conversation. Because there are no usernames, no follower counts, and no likes or retweets, there is no ego or status-seeking tied to users’ expressions. Because user content is presented chronologically, and neither you nor an algorithm curate what you see, you’re exposed to a greater set of expressions. Without identity everyone’s expression is on equal footing and can be judged on its own merits regardless of its authorship.

Such a peculiar arrangement can engender unreserved contributions to group creativity, which is why the origins of so much of what we take for granted as “internet culture” today—from lolcats to rickrolling—can be traced back to 4chan. As Hao Li has put it,

Anonymity frees individuals from the burden of the ego, which is afraid of judgment, wants recognition, and acts defensively towards disagreements from others. In a collaborative environment, it blocks creativity and distorts incentives. When the ego is removed, unfiltered and raw truth comes out. … Once the ego is gone, anonymous individuals identify with an amorphous entity that transcends individuality. It’s not that online anonymity leads to groupthink; it actually encourages creativity and non-conformity. Instead, anonymity brings individuals closer through cutting the personal prejudices and allegiances that divide them apart in real life.

Of course, as 4chan itself shows, anonymity can have a very dark side. Without identity there is no accountability, and without account registration there is no way to screen out trolls and troublemakers. So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we might be able to get the good of an anonymous discussion forum without so much of the bad. What I’ve come up with is Club P. and I’m launching it today.

Club P. is essentially an anonymous discussion forum but with important differences compared to traditional imageboards. Most significantly, you have to be a member to post, and membership costs $2 per month. That’s a modest amount that after hosting and service fees should leave me no profit, but it will be a barrier to entry that I hope will screen in earnest folks. Membership means that, unlike completely anonymous forums, users do have to create an account, which will help with moderation. No identifying information will ever be presented on the site—no username, nor email address, nothing. On the backend, however, users are assigned a unique alphanumeric ID (like 5f20bwcd1f516020410b8e9) and their posts are associated with that ID so that, if I had to do it, I could ban the author of a particular post without ever knowing their name.

The functionality of the site is very simple. On the homepage is a listing of all threads posted in the last 48 hours. After 48 hours threads are deleted, so all conversations are ephemeral. (I would like to eventually bring that down to 24 hours or less.) Anyone can read the threads, but only logged-in members can start new threads and post replies to existing threads. Search engines are directed not to index the site, so posts should not show up in search results.

The design of the site is heavily influenced by Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood’s thinking on forum architecture. Threads are flat rather than presented in a tree structure. If a link to a thread is blue on the homepage, then either you haven’t visited it or there is a new reply post you haven’t seen. Once you’re logged in, posting new threads and replying to existing ones is effortless. Messages (both initial posts and replies) are limited to 2,020 characters in honor of this exceptional year.

I also plan to crib from Spolsky’s moderating philosophy, which means I don’t have to post a list of content rules because we all have a good sense of what’s clearly in-bounds and what’s not. As Spolsky says, “posting rules is just a way to insult the majority of the law-abiding citizens and it doesn’t deter the morons who think their own poo smells delicious and nothing they post could possibly be against the rules.” Things will get deleted when they have to be and users will be kicked out when necessary, but I hope we can avoid that, and I think the fact we’ll all be members of a club will help.

One frequent question from beta testers was, “How is this anonymous if you have my email and credit card info?” The answer is that it’s not. It’s an anonymous discussion forum in the sense that users posting in the forum will be anonymous to everyone reading those posts. But yes, unlike 4chan, you do have to create an account with personal info to use the site, so in that way it’s not completely anonymous … which is kinda the point! In the end, though, I will have no more info about you than Jack does if you have a pseudonymous Twitter account. In fact, I will have less info because I do not collect your name, only the email address you use at sign-up (feel free to use a throwaway), and your credit card info stays with Stripe and I never see it.

Finally, let me say this is just an experiment to see if we can get the benefits of anonymous forums with less of the downsides. It’s a fun hobby project for me and that’s it. I reserve the right to change the variables described above and to shut the whole thing down if it doesn’t work out, but I hope it does. And I welcome you to join me in this experiment. Sign up now.