On Time magazine's website, anyone can vote for Time's Person of the Year 2012 until voting ends December 14. Leading the poll with a healthy 5,275,531 votes is North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un; the person with the second most votes is Jon Stewart with 2,067,766. Users can also vote "No Way" for the candidates, and Basher Assad handily wins that category.
Why the odd front runner? The answer is strange and amusing, funny and potentially disturbing. The Internet forum 4chan has been conspiring to make Jong-un the person of the year, and with its anonymous masses mobilized, it's succeeding. Though the editors at Time, which is owned by Time Warner (TWX), will make the final decision regarding whose face makes the cover, the winner of the online poll is considered the "World's Most Influential Person."
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The stunt is relatively unambitious but does illustrate the organizational power of 4chan and the Internet in general. We must reckon with the fact that members of one, albeit massive, online forum is capable of determining who should be considered the most influential person in the world. The question arises, should we treat this as a joke, as playful hacking, or as a sign of a big shift in the way democracy works? Extrapolating further, is this kind of hive mentality applicable to the world of finance, to businesses, to start-ups, especially now that the JOBS Act will allow for equity crowdfunding online? Could 4chan make or break businesses.
4chan, founded in 2003, is an online forum where people, generally behind the guise of the username "Anonymous," post pictures, memes, stories, solicitations, and really just anything (one can always find something bizarre, hilarious, or horrifying, with a dive into 4chan). The site has 10 million unique visitors and 705 million page views per month, and it boasts over 1.1 billion posts -- this, even though users can't even search the forum; all anyone can do is browse as hundreds of posts are uploaded per minute.
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The site has a history of influencing online polls. In 2009, it successfully moved its masses to vote 4chan cofounder "Moot" (whose real name is Christopher Poole) as Time's Most Influential Person of the Year. 4chan users even once manipulated an online poll that asked where Justin Bieber should start his next tour. Considering how many tweenage girls out there with Internet access are dying to see Bieber, this was no small feat. The winner of the poll was North Korea. Bieber never went, but just imagine if he had....
On the spectrum of big websites that influence people's behavior and have social momentum -- sites like Facebook (FB), LinkedIn (LNKD), Yelp (YELP), and Twitter -- 4chan is the only one that truly embraces the chaos of the Internet. Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook's mission is, "to make the world more open," and though this mission really does seem to be playing out with users all over the world connecting, it ignores the power of anonymity that 4chan honors. In an April 2011 interview with Vanity Fair, 4chan's Poole said of Zuckerburg, "He thinks that anonymity represents a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice." For Poole the anonymity and ephemerality of 4chan allows for the site to harbor original ideas that would otherwise be shunned or considered too offensive, "wacky, Wild West-type stuff." He thinks the zeitgeist of his forum has a lot to offer. And certainly it has served as a potent and simple means for organizing pranks, benign and harmful alike.
As Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes)." Viewed negatively, 4chan is the scourge of the Internet and has bred the organization Anonymous, which engages in highly illegal and harmful hacking activity. Viewed positively, the anonymity of 4chan allows for an open and wide-ranging flow of information and media that no one person could process, though certain trends and themes are traceable with enough investigation. It's like the stock market. It's chaos we have to work with, that can harm us or help us.
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The idea of crowdfunding, brought into the mainstream by websites like Kickstarter in 2009, allowed people to fund their pet projects, their feature films, their video games, their air projects. Now crowdfunding is being delivered into the realm of start-ups with the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, or the JOBS act, which was signed into law in April. Congress ordered the SEC to draft regulations for the bill with a deadline of January 2013 for issuing the regulations (Read more, from Forbes.) The law will increase the number of shareholders a company may have to 2,000 before it needs to register with the SEC as publicly reporting. Moreover, small public offerings (capped annually based on the the income of the donor) may qualify as exempt from being registered with the SEC. This is the measure by which the JOBS Act could allow the crowdfunding of start-ups. Business crowdfunding is born.
The role of social media in crowd funding start-ups could potentially be crucial. If this law serves as a precedent and crowd funding catches on, and if the potential number of donors is increased, then forum sites like 4chan could be crucial in mobilizing support for start-up companies.
Ultimately though, these regulations are likely to be strict, and for good reason. Antone Johnson of Bottom Line Law Group said back in March that he believed business crowdfunding, with its little protection for small-time, inexperienced investors, high potential for fraud (especially from hackers like those of Anonymous), and shift in funding, from a few accredited experts to a crowd, "would lead to disatrous consequences for minimal gain" (read more here). However, when considering the future of start-up businesses in America, it's interesting to consider the chaos of 4chan. Along with the organized openness of Facebook, the Internet, in its seemingly infinite variety of resources, is a crucial element to any business. The Internet's role in funding business will undoubtedly become even more important if the JOBS Act changes the culture of starting a business in America. If 4chan users can make Kim Jong-un the person of the year and vote to send Justin Bieber to the supreme leader's country, what could they do for a fledging start-up? Just like a trip through 4chan's pages, there is potential here for hilarity, horror, and if we're lucky, maybe something profound.