Recently Anonymous, a decentralised collective of hackers and activists, has been everywhere – getting headlines for crashing the websites of governments and corporations alike – but also nowhere. Like an insouciant wart on the foot of institutional power, Anonymous can be irritating, occasionally painful and primed for repeat visits.
Their origins are similarly dubious. But we know that Anonymous is a loose coalition of members spawned from the swamps of 4chan (www.4chan.org): a cluster of bulletin boards where images are regularly uploaded, edited and re-edited by users, all of whom are anonymous. It is the Freudian Id on crack. It’s the place where memes – ideas in the form of a photo, video website, hashtag or phrase that evolve over time and are disseminated via the internet – are made, social mores are transgressed and brains are broken for the ‘lulz’. A corruption of LOL, lulz is the pure, unadulterated joy that comes from knowing that someone somewhere will be mortified by what you’ve uploaded. A hilarious post will unleash a torrent of replies, each one a show of brinkmanship. This is not unexpected: what is the point of social networking if not to constantly establish and re-establish one’s rank?
It was from this morass that Anonymous was spawned: an online community with no defined geographic centre and no formal command structure, although there are less than a handful of members who comprise the decision-making cabal. While Anonymous shares some similarities with 4chan – namely its focus on providing irreverent entertainment – it is increasingly associated with involvement in political and social movements. I wonder what is more astonishing: the fact that this army of trolls has transformed into a demimonde hacktivist movement, or that the movement has the capacity to redefine conventional models of activism.
As Anonymous does the majority of its protesting online, it’s assumed the majority of Anonymous supporters are teenagers and IT professionals with a lot of leisure time. Given the illegal nature of hacktivism, even my close Anon friends are unwilling to reveal too much. The reality is that anybody can count themselves among Anonymous’ rank-and-file, as long as you are in agreement with the objectives determined by the group’s hive mind.
I’ve found this hive mind mentality fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. In 4chan, it can generate fleeting cultural phenomena – Rickrolling, cat pictures, for example – and reveal a lot about human behaviour (casual perpetuations of homophobia and misogyny are rife). But in Anonymous, the group mentality mirrors that of real-life activist groups: it is politically idealistic but capable of being focused; its livelihood under siege from constant infighting. But there are some significant differences. For instance, hacktivism requires scant physical effort or genuine political engagement. It’s a bit like tweeting about Q&A.
That said, what intrigues me the most about Anonymous is how quickly the mood vacillates between anarchy and order. Enter the Anonymous internet relay chat channel and you can witness – in real time – the capacity of the hive mind to coalesce fruitfully. This tends to happen when Anons are planning a massive-scale DDoS attack distributed denial-of-service attacks. Often, there’s a lot of juvenile name-calling – but there have also been coups and counter-coups by Anons disenfranchised by the decision-making process. When disorder threatens to derail operations, members are reminded of the two unifying concepts that give Anonymous its potency: unwavering belief in the freedom of expression and the freedom to exchange information. In a world where decisions are routinely made on the basis of information and misinformation, where moral hazard cordons off the truly powerful from the rest of us saps, information is king.But online, everyone in theory can be a commentator; no one is quite who they say they are and the rules are constantly in flux. It’s a virtual free-for-all for information. And that’s exactly how Anonymous wants it to stay. It’s as simple as wanting to ensure the freedoms we enjoy online are replicated in the real world.
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