When I first began studying Anonymous, I used to alias it. In the first talk I gave after Anonymous became so prominent and widely covered in the popular press that there was no point in aliasing the group anymore, someone said, “What possible alias can you give something that is already called ’Anonymous?’”
Good question. I had originally planned on calling the galaxy of boards known as Anonymous the “d’jinn” after the creatures from Islamic mythology. The d’jinn are creatures made of fire and air who have their own societies and interests and exist parallel to human life. Sometimes the d’jinn interfere in human existence, usually for their own purposes. They can be good, bad, or neutral. I still like the metaphor quite a bit and am still looking for a home for it.
But why was I bothering to alias Anonymous, whose effective use of spectacle tends to further its political agendas? I began researching 4chan.org, the birthplace of Anonymous, as part of my dissertation research. I was engaged in observational research on 4chan, as well as some “archival” work, exploring other sites that 4chan users occupied, such as other chans and the (original) infamous Encyclopedia Dramatica. I was studying 4chan because of its massive cultural power online. At the time, it had been the fountain point of more major internet memes than any other single place (and, continues to be very influential). I was watching the community because I was researching political behavior in social spaces online, and I had chosen my cases because of their prominence.
At the time, as far as I know, researchers were not paying attention to 4chan. This is not to say that people who now research the site and the broader online community weren’t aware of it, but there just wasn’t much academic interest–particularly, academic interest looking at the political behavior of the communities that had sprung from 4chan.
In those days, the users on 4chan were very unhappy about the “cancer killing” the site. Many of the other chans had appeared as havens for long time community members attempting to flee the waves of newcomers who appeared in increasing numbers as the site’s prominence grew. My aliasing of the group(s) was out of respect for the community itself. I did not want to do anything to contribute to what the community perceived to be the cancer.
In late 2007, as I began my research, I was essentially making a gamble. I thought there was important stuff going on in social spaces online, and I was going to record it. I was fortunate to have a very supportive committee behind me, because, even as I began my work I was told by a well known scholar that I had no evidence that the conversations I was seeing in online social spaces mattered at all to offline politics (a fair critique).
I literally could not believe what I was seeing, and, in many respects, I was ill-equipped to record what unfolded. It was my first serious case and my first experience with research serendipity. Suddenly, I could say, “Look! It has to matter; they are protesting in the streets.” I stopped sleeping, and I followed the mobilizers out of 4chan (where they were not allowed to organize) onto another chan that included an /i/nsurgency board. I watched the group swell so much that it was given its own board. I watched the group debate whether they should stay on that site, a site that included a “loli” board, among other boards that could taint outside perception of the anti-Scientology mobilization. I watched the framing of the mobilization harmonize—with the language becoming increasingly normative. I watched them begin to protest in the streets. And, I watched Anonymous split into three major groups: a group that thought that Anonymous should not use illegal tactics such as DDoS to protest, a group that thought that Anonymous should be using “traditional” Anonymous tactics such as DDoS, and a group that felt that any political mobilization was antithetical to what Anonymous should be. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It felt like the most important thing I’d ever seen online.
When I began researching Anonymous, according to some, it didn’t exist. But, I was there in 2007, and I know that the community was calling itself Anonymous already. In 2007, as I began studying 4chan, an e-buddy from another site who had spent a lot of time on 4chan said to me: “Basically Anonymous (how the users all singularly personify themselves) are very much ‘the face of the internet.’ There’s so much cultural imperialism going on from that place, with so much of internet culture being exported from it.”
I also cannot argue strenuously enough, that as Anonymous mobilized, it used the same tactics that it had used in the past, such as its war with eBaum’s World and the multitude of times it engaged in “doxing” an unsuspecting victim/target. In its mobilization against Scientology was the same playfulness, the same capability, and some of the same banal cruelty that Anonymous had already honed in past group activities.
I never loved my time on 4chan, or my time among the community there (although I can’t seem to stop from returning over and over). By the time I arrived there, although a latecomer to 4chan, I had been fairly desensitized to online content. For example, I’d seen my share of scat porn—the favored trolling material of a dear online friend. But, I always struggled with the nature of the community—the no-holds-barred speech and imagery—while I simultaneously admired the fierce creativity, shocking intelligence, and humor of some of the content.
Perhaps because of my initial response to Anonymous, I have become frustrated with people who say that Anonymous appeared only when it mobilized against the Church of Scientology and that, the “apolitical” Anonymous of the years before that, were not Anonymous—even if that is the name that the community used for itself. I know that there are those among Anonymous itself who make this very claim. I find it even more inaccurate when people now tell the story of Anonymous only focusing on the good—the collective efforts to identify animal abusers or track down a pedophile and turn him in—and leave out all of the other history of Anonymous–the MySpace hacking, the bad language, the sometimes horrific imagery, the lack of limits, the nihilistic angst and glory…
From my reckoning, without the whole history of 4chan and the entirety of Anonymous—we don’t actually understand the group or what happened. Present action is an evolution of Anonymous and Anonymous certainly has different participants these days. But, not only is it not fair to Anonymous to not tell its whole history, there is absolutely no way we can understand the miraculous mobilization of the group without everything—even the “bad.”
I now believe wholeheartedly that only an environment that permits the offensive and shocking could produce the normative political movement that is pursued by the bulk of Anonymous activists. In my academic work I have argued that without the extreme anonymity of 4chan, the no-holds-barred climate, and the nihilistic rage of the community there would be no political Anons. The present mobilization uses community templates for action, lessons learned from the past, and still is culturally recognizable as the Anonymous hanging out on 4chan (and other places) before 2008.
I sometimes tell students who are having trouble critiquing an academic source that they really like that they shouldn’t feel bad about identifying weaknesses in the text because love is only true when we understand everything that is good and bad about our partner. 4chan and Anonymous challenge our very ideas of what can produce culture changing ideas and art. The challenge should not be greater than the admiration for the change and vice versa.
With that plea, let me address the catalyst for this post—being asked again for sources about Anonymous. Where there was once nothing written, there is now so much excellent work.
There is, of course, my own work—much of which is in various stages of publication—which I am happy to provide to any reader.
Gabriella Coleman, known for her excellent work on hackers, is studying Anonymous—and promises her legions of fans (such as myself) that she is writing a book. In the meantime, she has written some amazing pieces (and done some great talks) about Anonymous that are all on her website.
Andrés Monroy Hernández, along with some other researchers, wrote a wonderful article online ephemerality and anonymity using the /b/ board on 4chan as their case. I often use a word cloud made of five million posts that was created from their data to illustrate what speech is like on 4chan and still among a wide swath of Anonymous.
I have been asked to review an increasing number of articles about Anonymous for various academic journals. Most are descriptive, but they promise to increase the quantity of our materials on Anon significantly in the next few years.
In the popular press, Adrian Chen at Gawker has long been writing some of the best coverage of Anonymous out there. (Since posting this on 7/8/12, Adrian Chen wrote an interesting piece about the decline of 4chan’s online power.)
BoingBoing has also been covering Anonymous for a long time.
Parmy Olsen just released a book about Anonymous and Lulzsec. She was on the Daily Show talking about her work. I’ve not yet had time to read her book, but Quinn Norton wrote a great review of her book that brings up some fascinating questions about the nature of research.
I’ve just come across this great piece by Josh Corman and Brian Martin.
If you want to go wade around yourself, you might start by following some of the Anonymous accounts on Twitter. Following Gabriella Coleman or Quinn Norton is also a good place to start—then see who they are following.
You might also check out Why We Protest. This is the group in Anonymous that stopped using illegal tactics in its work against the Church of Scientology. It’s also the group in Anonymous that worked with The Pirate Bay to support Iranian protesters in the wake of the 2009 presidential election—one of the first coordinated actions by Anonymous to further democracy in the Middle East. This group has really nicely written definitions of concepts such as “freedom of information” and “Anonymous” on its site, although it is important to note that while this group is Anonymous, the group does not speak for all of Anonymous.
But, you could check out AnonNews, which sometimes has information about what Anonymous is doing. The Anonymous Wikipedia page is also being edited frequently enough to give you something of an overview (although somewhat incomplete). And then, if you want to really venture into the deep, there are all of the IRC channels—but that is a different conversation for a different time :]
(I’m having trouble figuring out who to attribute the featured image to – please drop me an email if you know.)