For once, Stephen Colbert didn’t come close to winning.
The champion of TIME magazine’s online poll to pick the World's Most Influential Person is another figure with a fan base that loves a good Web prank: moot, a.k.a. Christopher Poole, the 21-year-old founder of 4chan.org.
The choice – almost certainly a product of a stuffed virtual ballot box – is oddly appropriate: 4chan, which bills itself as a “bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images,” has spawned its share of Internet in-jokes.
The site is credited with igniting the Lolcats craze, as well as “Rickrolling,” an all-purpose Internet goof based on singer Rick Astley’s annoyingly catchy 1987 “Never Gonna Give You Up” turning up unexpectedly.
The reclusive Poole received 16,794,368 votes, and notched an influence rating of 90 (the poll took the rating into account. Boxer Manny Pacquiao got the most votes -- 20,391,818 -- but scored a lower rating: 27). Some of the usual suspects finished well out of the running: President Obama placed 37th with 725,776 votes, far behind Tina Fey, Ron Paul and Lil' Wayne, to name just a few.
Colbert, whose fans recently flooded a NASA site with write-in votes in a bid to name an International Space Station module after him, campaigned on “The Colbert Report” for the TIME honor, targeting Korean pop star Rain (the 2006 TIME winner) in what he thought was a two-man battle. The comedian got about 5 million votes to Rain’s 12.7 million.
Unlike NASA, which ultimately named a Space Station treadmill after Colbert as a comic compromise, TIME knew what it was getting into from the start. "I would remind anyone who doubts the results that this is an Internet poll," TIME.com managing editor Josh Tyrangiel said in a story on the site. "Doubting the results is kind of the point."
The point, though, may be more about the power of the Web to bring people together, even for a silly exercise in upending traditional media expectations. Poole, a college student, started one of the Web’s largest bulletin boards. He may not have transformed the world, but he’s part of – and now a symbol of – an information and communications revolution, as well as a spirit of online irreverence.
So, as TIME joked, the winner is moot. But maybe the results show that the World's Most Influential Person really is the Internet user.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.