Photo by Simon Law
Gabriella Coleman moves between a lot of different worlds. She's an assistant professor on media, culture and communication at NYU, a writer on digital culture, and an anthropologist by training. Her work, specifically on the (in)famous collection of hacktivists known as Anonymous, combines an admirable skill for tackling new trends while bringing the best traits of an academic background to bear, better placing the cutting edge in a larger context.
In this interview, she discusses the multifaceted beast that is Anonymous, and how digital culture and political activism collide.
How did you first become interested in Anonymous and hacktivism?
I've been working on computer hackers and software informally since 1998, more seriously since about 2001.
How I started to work on Anonymous was really accidental. I started to do research on free software, and during that time period people would raise the question of Scientology quite a bit. It always intrigued me, but I sort of didn't know what to do with it. People had mentioned that they would protest the church or were on some BBS critical of the church . Then I went to the University of Alberta for a year as a post-doc, and there's the largest Scientology archives in the world. Now I understood why they protest the Church of Scientology, it's kind of a perfect nemesis.
When Anonymous in 2008 began to protest the Church of Scientology, I followed them there, because it was in that lineage of geek and hacker protest against the Church of Scientology.
You originally come from an anthropological training and background, how do you think that helps you undersand the evolution of digital culture?
I think it helps quite a bit. While there's technical forms of organization and power — those with technical knowledge often have more authority — when you have a grouping like Anonymous that is really premised on this anti-leader, anti-celebrity ethic, certain cultural and behavioral norms are the ways in which you can find consistent order. If you don't have an eye towards that, you might miss some of those dynamics at play.
Driven by norms instead of leaders; it almost sounds like a tribe
No, not really. In academia we're also driven by norms, and certain types of ethics and so it's kind of implicit in so-called modern forms of life that are not tribal, we just choose not to think about those elements in modern society because there's such a commitment to individualism that we tend to not focus in on them, but they exist. They exist in the workplace, they exist in religious organizations, they exist in unions, they exist in many places.
I don't like the language of "tribal" because it makes it seem like it's lower on the totem pole, and makes it seem like so-called modern society doesn't have some of those elements as well.
In your perception, what's the biggest misconception the general public has about Anonymous?
The biggest misconception is that they're kind of angst-ridden pre-teens who are socially isolated who are working out their anger, born through their isolation, through forms of juvenile politics.
There was a Vanity Fair piece that came out recently, and parts of it were good, but the author still played up the angsted teenagehood. I see a very different picture.
What is the more accurate picture?
The more accurate picture is that while it's not just open to everyone, because if you tend to move in geek circles, you're more likely to fall into Anonymous than if you don't fall into geek circles. But from what I could tell, so far, and there's limits to certain things I know, there are PhD students, there's technologists, there's people who don't use technology at work, there's people are teenagers, there's people in their mid-to-late 30s. There are people who are seasoned leftist activists, in a hardcore way, there's others who this is their first entree into activism.
Yes, they're geeks, they tend to know how to use Internet Relay Chat, they follow geeky currents and news. But aside from that, there is a considerable diversity in terms of skills and backgrounds and political orientations.
Now, you don't have “patriotic” hackers, you don't have conservative, right-wing hackers, but you do have ones that are more libertarian and others who are more leftist involved in Anonymous.
That brings up an interesting point. You've mentioned before that Anonymous is as much a name, kind of like Ned Ludd was used back in the day, as much as a particular organization, but that there is a kind of logic to it. What is that logic?
The logic is in part aesthetic. The artwork that's created, the propaganda, tends to follow a certain order. Another part is the focus: when there's an issue of censorship and information freedom, Anonymous tends to pop up a little more than, let's say, an anti-capitalist action. It's not that it can't happen, because anyone can take the name, but pretty consistently it's about fighting censorship, information freedom. Then, of course, the Tunisia and Egypt protests changed things a little bit, where they became focused on dictators. But dictators often work by severely curtailing press freedom and these sorts of things.
The logic. Part of it, anyway.
Another element — and this is sometimes incorrectly portrayed in the media — is that Anonymous is not 4chan. These are different phenomenon, but there is the fact that Anonymous was born from 4chan, and there's a continued conversation between the two that's extremely complicated. But some of the cultural currents of 4chan — the lulz, the grotesque humor — is definitely present to some degree in Anonymous. It's toned down and you don't have to embrace that language and tradition to participate. But nonetheless, some people do.
Anonymous began with this lulz approach, it seemed more focused on entertainment, individual targets. While an aspect of that is certainly still there in the aesthetic and the humor, it seems like starting in 2008 with the Scientology efforts, they began to take a more serious turn and that's only increased with Tunisia, Egypt and Wikileaks. Why did that change occur?
That's a good question. It's something I've struggled with quite a bit, and I don't think I have a great answer. Part of it's contingency: the Scientology protests were really almost accidental. It's important to note that the arm that protests the church is different from the arm that protests about Wikileaks; they're on different IRC channels.
With the Scientology arm, once you hit the streets, protest transforms you. So the contingency of getting to the streets changes things.
Anonymous taking to the streets in 2008
In the case of the other arm, there's a way in which, once you get media attention for something and you feel like you're having some effect, it's difficult to turn back.
Then the final element is, I think there's something about geeks and how they view the internet that seems to shuttle them into politics more in these interesting and unexpected ways. There's so many different domains of geekdom that enter into politics — free software is one, those who deal with privacy another example — and I think there's a way in which geeks and hackers imagine the internet as a certain kind of space of freedom, of having certain values. When those are threatened, they use the very tools they are so attached to start engaging in politics.
That's the one I haven't articulated really that well yet, but I think there's something really important there.
Going onto hacktivism generally, you mentioned that in addition to geeks, there were seasoned leftist activists, there were libertarians. What pre-existing ideals and subcultures are Anonymous and some of these other hacktivists dawing off of? What are their roots?
There's a couple. There's been small groups before them like the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and the Critical Art Ensemble who have definitely used DDoSing as political protest. So that's been in the air.
I don't know — and this is something I'll have to ask them — if they were influenced by these pre-existing examples of DDoS as protest. But even if they weren't directly influenced, once this thing becomes known, other people can draw on it.
I think one of the interesting thing is that the forms of trolling that emerged out of 4chan, drawing on Hobsbawn, I would call pre-political. Eric Hobsbawn has this book, Primitive Rebels, where he looked at social bandits and how social banditry had a pre-political element to it that never really flourished into full politics.
I think there were some elements that came out of 4chan, when they were saving a cat, for example, where there were these pre-political moments were I think they saw the power of what they can do through this very distributed, crowdsourced form of vigilantism that had these pre-political elements. That became an important precursor to what came later.
Back when lulz were made of bullets
Then, of course, there's all sort of really interesting example of geek activism, like IndyMedia, that it's clear people who could congregate online and actually coordinate political actions and protest. IndyMedia's quite different from Anonymous, but it was an important example of leaderless, decentralized, ordered network to perform politics. Those are just some of the different forms of influence that definitely feed into Anonymous.
It's interesting you mention the leaderless role, because one element many of these hacktivist subcultures, Anonymous especially, seem to share is this deep aversion to central leadership and organization. Where does that come from and, in your observation, is it more a detriment or help?
In IndyMedia, that sentiment came from a more anarchist tradition and here I'm not using “anarchist” in its everyday usage like “those anarchists who just bombed whatever” I mean it in the tradition of thinking about non-hierarchical forms of organization and putting in place mutual aid. I'm thinking here of the Spanish Civil War, of Bakunin, of the revitalization of anarchism in the WTO protests.
What's interesting is that Anonymous doesn't have that lineage of anarchism, it doesn't have that kind of ideology of mutual aid or anything like that, yet there is that impulse against centralization. That's common among hacker circles: they don't like centralized power.
In some ways it's a little bit unique. I think it emerged out of the culture of the Anonymous image board. There was a political sensibility which Anonymous takes hold of, it's got a very long history in the liberal tradition, which is anonymity as a form of political speech.
There's a really interesting Supreme Court case from 1995 about anonymous pampheleteering in elections, where basically the Supreme Court's statement about anonymity is exactly Anonymous' views of anonymity.
But that's political, that's not the ethical part of why having no leaders and anti-celebrity is important. That seems to me really a product of the image board culture in relationship to the hyper, hyper-visibility of social media. It's kind of a pushback against that at some that; it's the antithesis of Facebook.
To shift gears a little bit, there's this somewhat infamous Malcolm Gladwell piece that drew this very stark line between networks and these more traditional, more hierarchical political organizations. By contrast, what are some ways that you observe that these newer, hacktivist methods are working together with older methods such as strikes and street protests?
Yeah, that was a frustrating piece, because I think Gladwell is totally right that there are a lot of forms of slacktivism that are not very deep, “Oh, let's sign this petition on Facebook.” But I think IndyMedia's a really good example of a robust from of technological activism that was built on a social movement, this type of social movement Gladwell really likes.
Of course, he doesn't mention that in his piece because it would have punched a big hole in his argument that digital media's not good for this. Hello! There's an enormous plurality when it comes to digital media. He was just being selective.
When it comes to Anonymous, it's not just slacktivism. It's really far more cohesive in terms of the core, they really identify as Anonymous. When you sign something on Facebook, you're not a “Facebook petitioner,” you just signed something, whereas with Anonymous you really identify as part of a movement once you participate to certain degree.
One of the weaknesses of Anonymous is that anyone can take its name and at one simultaneous time, there will be many operations, and that does kind of weaken it a little bit sometimes, I think that's a central problem.
Some of these operations seem almost contradictory sometimes. For example, after Wikileaks broke, there was one attack on PayPal, there were some people saying “no, do Paperstorm” and it seemed like some were saying they wanted to go a different route or that some of these ops were damaging. It seemed like, for a moment, there was this schizophrenia going on.
Yeah. Definitely, there was a diffusion after the PayPal/Mastercard attacks and then they got refocused because of Tunisia and Egypt. But their refocus came from outside of the organization at some level. It didn't reorganize because of Anonymous, it's that this world event was so dramatic that helped to determine the course of Anonymous.
You mentioned this ability for anyone to take its name, what are some of the other limitations of hacktivism, not just Anonymous, but other methods as well?
This is something that's not just related to hackers and geeks, it's a broader problem, which is that the amount of group formation has made it very fragmented, there's extreme competition for members and attention.
I think this isn't inherently a problem, because you can build coalitions and federations among these mushrooming groups, but that's definitely where we are and that's how I would characterize the weakness of digital protest, not how Gladwell described it, but more in terms of “wow, everyone can form groups.” Some groups require deep dedication, and yet there's so much out there that everyone's attention is everywhere and nowhere.
What are the most intertesting intersections, in your opinion, between digital culture and political activism right now. What's on the horizon?
I think a lot of things are being spotted. I think Telecomix is another hacker organization that's pretty interesting that's not received a lot of attention.
But I think that's one of the things: it's hard to predict what's next, because there's so many moving balls right now. That's why Anonymous is so interesting, it's managed to capture media attention for three months straight, which is kind of unheard of these days.