[This is a guest post by Gabriella Coleman. Gabriella is an assistant professor in the Dept of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. Her work examines the politics of digital media.]
UPDATE: See Gabriella’s follow-up piece: Anonymous vs. The Guardian.
As an anthropologist of the digital I tend not to treat digital media as exceptional, except when it comes to the few exceptions that seem to rub up against our traditional categories and methodological tools. Anonymous, the online entity that has recently erupted full force engaging in wave after wave of protest following the Wikileaks drama, seems to be one such exception.
For those that know nothing about Anonymous it is a challenge to characterize in the course of a few sentences. But largely because of the recent distributed denial of service attacks, journalists have been on a spree to describe Anonymous, so far, largely telescoping on the DDoS and as one journalist put it, the “darkened” chat rooms many an anon are to be found. In the process, a number of them have correctly characterized the social dynamics that unfold on these chatrooms but they have also at times fallen prey to problematic descriptions and it is no surprise that I have highlighted “darkened chatrooms” to kick off the critique of the coverage of Anonymous that relies on outdated and inaccurate stereotypes of computer users. I will provide an alternative view focused on the aesthetic faces of Anonymous.
While it is partly accurate to describe some irc programs as “dark” in so far as some of the popular clients like irssi, have a black background, many do not. Here darkened functions rhetorically to conjure images of pimply basement dwellers who are raising havoc on IRC, an underground bunker (think dark, damp, and moldy) where great nefariousness is concocted, which in fact the TV show CSI once portrayed in exactly the same terms (though inaccurate, it is quite humorous).
Another Guardian piece, makes some good points but also makes a questionable statement that anonymous is “a loose collective mainly of teenagers.” This may true; it might be reasonable to suggest this as it is likely that many teenagers are involved but there is no way to state as fact, as it is quite hard to characterize things like the age, gender, and background of participants on IRC, especially when there are thousands of folks logged on, some of them also being journalists, researchers, bots, and lets’ not forget the FBI, which are the subject of some of the best humor on the chat channels.
But I do think it is safe to say that at least on IRC, Anonymous is composed of geeky types since they tend to know how to get on IRC whereas non-geeky types, have a bit of trouble doing so (for those that want to try, it is easy). But geeks come in all ages, not just tweens and teenagers. From my experience working with another face of Anonymous, there were a handful of teenagers, although the composition of Anonymous I was interacting with (which is not All of Anonymous) tended to span 20 to 30 year olds, with some older folks also intimately involved and more women than I see in some geek circles and I was only able to make this characterization once they moved to the streets.
But does should I use my experience working with Anonymous vs The Church of Scientology to make claims about this iteration of Anonymous?
Yes and no.
There are some commonalities across the difference faces of Anonymous; there is a common stock of cultural knowledge and aesthetic imperatives that helps shape tactics but what holds true for one iteration of Anonymous, does not hold true for all for Anonymous has a built in system for insatiability and change.
So with this in place I want to make some points more general points about the cultural dynamics of Anonymous:
- Anonymous is rooted fully in our digital present. And yet, the phenomenon of using a name to make political claims is by no means new, Ned Ludd and Luther Blissett are two of the most famous examples of what Marco Desirris has argued in his dissertation is a improper name: “The adoption of the same alias by organized collectives, affinity groups, and individual authors.”
- This is important because it is the condition of possibility for its generativity, democracy, and instability. Anyone can claim that x material (a video, a manifesto) has been produced by Anonymous. It also means that some objects made by Anonymous have been produced by one person, as is the case with some of the images, a small team as happened with this this very famous video, or in other instances, it could have been produced collectively by a larger number as I saw with the production of the MasterCard manifesto.
- Where is Anonymous? Lots of places: IRC channels, Pirate Pad, message boards, image boards, Facebook, other social networking sites, Skype and sometimes they eventually leave the Internet and hit the streets as they will soon. Perhaps Anonymous is even in your house (your father, mother, husband, wife, or that strange uncle of yours chipping in). By following Anonymous over the course of time, one can start to map the connections between these as I have done for the protests against Scientology.
- Is Anonymous composed of hackers? Well, there are certainly some hackers involved, others have some technical skills and perhaps might characterize themselves as geeks but not hackers, (Here is probably my favorite morsel of someone from Anonymous poking fun at themselves for not having mad hacker skillz). There are others who are not geeks nor hackers, but just got sucked into this group and some hackers have condemned the DDoS attacks. It is a multitude, although let’s face it, it is a multitude with some limits for not everyone is in the social circles where knowledge for how to participate is found (but Google can help). As I will get to, Anonymous also has folks with mad design and art skillz.
- Anonymity is not only tactical and practical but has a particular ethical valence when seen in light of our celebrity obsessed culture (this is what Mike Wesch has argued in a forthcoming chapter) and do so without simply celebrating Anonymous. It is good stuff.
- There may be no individual celebrity but there is certainly art. And this is perhaps one of the reasons I like to study Anonymous—and something that is rarely addressed—is that Anonymous is interesting for making great art, in the form of videos, images, manifestos. They are effective in grabbing attention for their masterful command of art, channeling the material under a shared aesthetics, spectaclish in orientation, and under the moniker Anonymous, all the while delivering constant news. It would be far weaker as a phenomenon without the masks, without their fantastic art work, without those videos. We can create a picture of Anonymous only as basement dwellers or we might also take a look at their own pictures and representations to form ours; Anonymous is a faceless phenomenon that is everywhere represented via their artistic output.
- Its aesthetics also helps ensure some coherence. While not everything produced by Anonymous follows its dominant aesthetics, much of it does. So while anyone can claim to be Anonymous, you will likely more more credible if you follow and play with established patterns and yet of course, there is always the danger of becoming hackneyed. I suspect we will see innovation within the shell of existing forms, which is so often how so much of art gets produced.
So in conclusion: I don’t think I have ever used a term that was enormously popular to describe the net in the 1990s–rhizomatic–but Anonymous does seem rhizomatic: yet there the rhizome exhibits some consistency, even as it morphs and spreads. Anonymous of the past set into a motion an aesthetic and set of tactics that help guide, even if they don’t determine, the shape and form that Anonymous will take in the future.
UPDATE: Some small changes at the request of the author.