The Rise and Fall of Torchan

Torchan was founded in December of 2011 by ‘cerulean’ (an alias I used from then on in the Tor hidden service community). For those old enough to remember it, this article will not deal with Misery’s original Torchan, but rather the recent Torchan incarnation run by OnionWare. Growth was rapid as established Torizens flocked to a nostalgic icon of hidden service history. Post quality was painfully low, but certainly better than the abandoned Anonchan, whose operator had not been seen for some time. But with high spirits intellectual discussion was encouraged and the community grew very conscious; to the point of actively propagating on clearnet. We began writing our own tools from scratch, including a search engine, pastebin, and a tool to check if other hidden services were down. Despite the inevitable rush of 4chan users quality continued to rise and post frequency went up and up.

Minor catastrophes struck in the form of pornographic spam and technical issues but we always got things working again, and each disaster fortified the server with lessons learned (regular backups, detecting malicious posting patterns, etc). Security practices were abysmal but no one had experience running a large hidden service, so we learned as we went. Communication on best practices between operators of hidden services is nearly non-existent, but even that can hardly excuse our behavior. Admins added each other on Facebook, sent each other letters, discussed highly personal identifying matters, some even met in real life. The moderation and userbase was strong enough that I would go months at a time without visiting the site only to find it had doubled in size and the staff had been diligently maintaining the boards. Fancycakes, our first additional staff member, put in so much effort that for a long period most people thought he was the sole owner of the site.

But nothing in the site’s history shook the foundation of the community so strongly as the arrival of Alan Zeni – Cheerilee. I was working as a developer in Tulsa when he started posting, and the memory is vivid. I came home and Steph noted “The entire site is filled with ponies”. I giggled, but the communal reaction was one of desperation and melodrama. We deleted his posts – he didn’t care. We appealed to him rationally – he didn’t care. Use of the site plummeted as Cheerilee dove further and further into amphetamine induced mania. He couldn’t stop. In the depths of obsession I doubt he had the psychological capacity to draw himself away from the keyboard.

But draw himself away he certainly did. His pills ran out, and so began three weeks of his agonizing withdrawal. For us it was a brief window during which a containment strategy could be devised. My personal life was also experiencing some turbelance. My work in Tulsa had reached the edge of what it could teach me, so new work was found in Manhattan, where I quickly moved. Then I did something crazy. Not just “oh wow what a wacky adventure” crazy, but something completely insane. I made a thread saying I needed a place to stay and Cheerilee offered me one. He told me where to come, so I got on a train to his house in West Virginia without even a vague idea of what to expect.

The secret of my residency with Cheerilee slowly trickled out until it was finally admitted via a series of pictures posted to the site that we had taken. By that time we had given up any pretenses of anonymity, so sharing the pictures didn’t feel inappropriate. The community was oddly receptive and the site began to explode. It is always hard to tell how many people use Tor hidden services and operators tend to be apprehensive about giving out server statistics. Since our server is dead and gone along with the code, community, and everything else, I have no qualms about sharing information. At last count via Apache’s access_log the site was generating an average of 150k hits daily, with our highest peak being 300k. I had not analyzed traffic at all until the site was very close to it’s death, although none of us knew it was going to die, so I was shocked when I saw that. Torchan was very likely the most popular non-pedo, non-commercial hidden service in existence.

The sudden fever which plunged the site into it’s death throes came abruptly. A cracker or group of crackers calling themselves PonySquad demanded that if cerulean (that is me) is not restored as admin, they will crack into the server. This made no sense at all since I had been the admin for over a year. I explained this in the thread and there was no response. The next day I checked on the site and every post is deleted but one: another demand from PonySquad that cerulean be restored as admin, claiming that Nekro (an administrator of Torchan) and Fancycakes had seized control of the site. Kusaba X’s code had not been updated by the developers in several months and we were on the latest version. It was compromised and there was nothing to be done about it. I went on IRC and offered a backup of the server to whoever wanted to run the site for themselves and told everyone goodbye.

On my VPS administration panel I sat for a bit staring at the server stats, hovering above the button to turn the server off. A bright green “Online” buzzed above the hostname. I clicked the mouse, the server prepared to shut down, and the bright green buzz faded into a calm red “Offline”.

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