Quinn Norton reports: "The conversation about Anonymous points to this trickster nature, veering between praise and fear, with the media at a loss for even how to describe them. We've tried hacker group, notorious hacker group, hacktivists, the Internet Hate Machine, pimply-faced, basement-dwelling teenagers, an activist organization, a movement, a collective, a vigilante group, online terrorists, and any number of other fantastical and colorful terms. None of them have ever really fit. Anonymous has constantly forced us to reach for the thesaurus - revealing that as a whole, we in the media have no idea what Anonymous really is or what it means."
Anonymous activists wear masks during a demonstration against the Church of Scientology in Berlin, 08/14/08. (photo: Michael Gottschalk/AFP/Getty Images)
Anonymous 101: Introduction to the Lulz
09 November 11
Wired Editor's Note: Any decent coverage of Anonymous is going to verge on some NSFW material at points. There will be questionable language and strange imagery.
ast week the net and the media were ablaze with the news that Anonymous might be taking on the Zeta drug cartel in Mexico, a story that has morphed into a wider drug corruption story, and led to one American law enforcement official in North Carolina being named as a gang conspirator.
Also this year, Anons released documents on, or d0xed, several police organizations and one prominent police vendor in retaliation for heavy-handed law enforcement reaction to occupations associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. They've fought with child pornographers, hacked Sony repeatedly, and even tried to release compromising pictures to blackmail Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesman Linton Johnson into resigning. (Johnson claimed to have authored and then defended BART's controversial decision to shut off mobile phone service in BART stations to pre-empt an anti-police brutality protest.)
They've created law enforcement excitement that's verged on panic, given net and media pundits hyperbolic logorrhea about "cyber terrorism" and "cyber freedom", and happily skipped between damn funny, deeply disturbing, and self-aggrandizing, depending on the mood of the hive mind at the moment.
But what is Anonymous?
In this in-depth series "Anonymous: Beyond the Mask," we're going to do our best to answer that.
NYU Professor and Anonymous researcher Biella Coleman compares Anonymous to the trickster god archetype.
"The trickster does exist across America, across Europe, really across the world and it is not in myth but in embodied in group and living practice: in that of the prankster, hacker, the phreaker, the troller (all of whom, have their own unique elements of course, but so does each trickster)," she wrote in Social Text.
The trickster isn't the good guy or the bad guy, it's the character that exposes contradictions, initiates change and moves the plot forward. One minute, the loving and heroic trickster is saving civilization. A few minutes later the same trickster is cruel, kicking your ass and eating babies as a snack.
The conversation about Anonymous points to this trickster nature, veering between praise and fear, with the media at a loss for even how to describe them.
We've tried hacker group, notorious hacker group, hacktivists, the Internet Hate Machine, pimply-faced, basement-dwelling teenagers, an activist organization, a movement, a collective, a vigilante group, online terrorists, and any number of other fantastical and colorful terms. None of them have ever really fit. Anonymous has constantly forced us to reach for the thesaurus - revealing that as a whole, we in the media have no idea what Anonymous really is or what it means.
It's a culture.
It takes cultures to have albums, idioms, and iconography, and I was swimming in these and more. Anonymous is a nascent and small culture, but one with its own aesthetics and values, art and literature, social norms and ways of production, and even its own dialectic language.
It is no wonder we in the media and the wider culture are often confused. Any study of Anonymous must be anthropological, taking into account the way people exist in different societies. The media has just been looking for an organization with a leader who could explain why Anonymous seems to do weird things. Not only that, but Anonymous seems to be built around doing weird things, and even has a term for it: the lulz.
The lulz (a corruption of LOL, online shorthand for laugh out loud) is the most important and abstract thing to understand about Anonymous, and perhaps the internet itself. The lulz is laughing instead of screaming. It's a laughter of embarrassment and separation. It's schadenfreude. It's not the anesthetic humor that makes days go by easier, it's humor that heightens contradictions. The lulz is laughter with pain in it. It forces you to consider injustice and hypocrisy, whichever side of it you are on in that moment.
In the culture of Anonymous, the lulz is the reason for doing. Anonymous wasn't made for easy times; the trickster sleeps when all is well.
Cultures don't emerge from vacuums, and Anonymous is no exception. The birthplace of Anonymous is a website called 4chan founded in 2003, that developed an "anything goes" random section known as the /b/ board. 4chan itself comes from a Japanese-language predecessor called 2chan, founded in 2001. Before that, the lulz and hacker pranking was alive and well in old-school IRC chat rooms, EFnet, and the 1990s hacker scene.
But if you're going back that far, add as influences Mondo 2000, and publications like RE/Search, and a billion shitty zines that were dead by 1996. But those all came from something, too.
Hacker culture, and almost all of computer culture back in the day is shot through with the Discordian edge of 1960/1970s counter-culture and Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus. So from there it's the yippies, Andy Kaufmann, and the Situationists we need to first comprehend. Or do we head back to early 20th century absurdists of Dada? Or maybe we venture all the way to that olde booke of epic trolling lulze, Tristram Shandy?
We're all the way to 1759 now.
Perhaps this means the 1960s Discordians are right, and there's a Ha Ha Only Serious giggle that is cosmic in nature. That there is a part of reality, a force of physics, that is actually a Fundamental Sense of Humor. But the gravity we deal with can only be explained to an even larger amount of Dark Humor, woven into the fabric of the universe.
The point is Anonymous, despite the false shock of contemporary news reporting, isn't sui generis. It's not a surprise, and it didn't spring fully formed from the forehead of Ceiling Cat.
In this place and time, with the exhaustion of political discourse, the overwhelming pressures of modern life, and rise of the internet, the stochastic network organism of Anonymous was inevitable.
I will confess up front that I love Anonymous, but not because I think they're the heroes.
Like Alan Moore's character V who inspired Anonymous to adopt the Guy Fawkes mask as an icon and fashion item, you're never quite sure if Anonymous is the hero or antihero. The trickster is attracted to change and the need for change, and that's where Anonymous goes. But they are not your personal army - that's Rule 44 - yes, there are rules. And when they do something, it never goes quite as planned. The internet has no neat endings.
The trickster as myth proved so compelling that the network made it real. Anonymous, the net's trickster, emerged like supernatural movie monster out of the misty realm of ideas and into the real world.
But to be historical, let's start with 4chan.org, a wildly popular board for sharing images and talking about them, and in particular, 4chan's /b/ board (Really, really, NSFW). /b/ is a web forum where posts have no author names and there are no archives and it's explicitly about anything at all. This technological format meeting with the internet in the early 21st Century gave birth to Anonymous, and it remains the mother's teat from which Anonymous sucks. (Rule 22)
Once you pull your hands away from your face and start looking, /b/ is hard to look away from.
/b/ is the id of the internet, the collective unconscious's version of the place from which the base drives arise. There is no sophistication in the slurs, sexuality, and destruction in the savage landscape of /b/ - it is the natural state of networked man.
In this, it has a kind of innocence and purity. Terms like 'nigger' and 'faggot' are common, but not there because of racism and bigotry - though racism and bigotry are easily found there. Their use is there to keep you out. These words are heads on pikes warning you that further in it gets much worse, and it does.
Nearly any human appetite is acceptable, nearly any flaw exploited, and probably photographed with a time stamp. But /b/ reminds us that the id is the seat of creative energy. Much of it, hell even most of it, is harmless or even sweet. People reach out for help on /b/, and they find encouragement and advice. The id and /b/ are the foxholes of those who feel powerless and disenfranchised.
That's what you'll find in /b/, the unspoken. '/b/tards', as denizens of the board are called and call themselves, create incest porn, fantasize about beating women, look for dataviz examples or coding tips. They are grown men that really want to talk about "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." Maybe it's ironic, maybe it's not. (I'm told by one such brony that the show is just a lot better than you'd expect.)
At some moment lost in its unrecorded history, /b/ and Anonymous reached an inflection point, and the id spilled into the rest of the net in the form of "ultra-coordinated motherfuckery," as one anon described it to Coleman. This was the ability to use the technological tools of social coordination so quickly and well that anons working together could collectively attack targets for any perceived slight, or just for fun, without those targets ever having a chance to see it coming or defend themselves.
These came to be called "raids."
Over time raids took many forms, eventually moving into the regular world. They could look like protests, massively coordinated pranks, distributed-denial-of-service attacks (DDOS) or straight-up hacking attacks. D0xing, ordering unpaid pizzas, signing people up for embarrassing junk mail were all common raids. There's a raid that you know for sure. It's likely you've even participated, and even more likely you've been a victim of it; the rickroll. The rickroll began as a tool of the /b/tard/Anonymous raid, before spreading so far into the culture that the Oregon legislature and even the US Speaker of the House were rickrolling the world.
Anonymous spat out other memes like lolcats and pedobear that spread far enough for their origins to be lost to many, but with little profound effect on the rest of the world.
Even then, Anonymous had a vigilante streak, and it could be downright mean. They'd d0x someone who abused a cat. In particular they went after abusers of cats, because Anonymous loves cats and pictures of cats. They blocked the pool at the online kid's game Habbo Hotel with black, generously fro'd avatars declaring "Pool is closed due to AIDS" as a protest to perceived racism on the part of Habbo's admins.
But Anonymous was never particularly focused. Raids could be devastating or funny, but either way they came and went quickly, the net's own little tornado system. Anonymous was never anyone's personal army, and never stayed on any one topic for very long.
It took Tom Cruise to change all that and give Anonymous a political consciousness. Specifically, Tom Cruise as cringe-worthy Scientologist.
Birth of the 'Moralfags'
A video of a disturbingly manic Cruise leaked out of Scientology in January 2008, and the notably litigious church tried to force hosting services and Gawker to take it down with legal nastygrams.
But the video contained some truly epic lulz, and Anonymous wouldn't let it die. The church's effort to kill it off so enraged Anons they decided to destroy the church itself. By enraged, I mean a pissy kind of laughing and spitting at once. For Anonymous being mad meant wanting to troll the church very hard, but it was never to get serious, because getting serious for Anons meant losing.
To accomplish this op (short for operation), Anons created Project Chanology, which arguably marked both the birth of political consciousness for Anonymous, and the development of its methods of taking mass action.
Destroying the church was going to be aggro funny, as well as require a lot of dancing. Many have wondered since then, were they serious about destroying the church, or was it all a joke?
The answer is yes, and understanding that is vital to understanding Anonymous.
There's no proof that the people that started Project Chanology had any personal beefs against the Church of Scientology beyond their secondhand annoyance at the Church's litigious history and attempted suppression of speech. But probably most importantly, the Church was rampantly guilty of feeding the trolls. (Rule 14)
But Project Chanology was the perfect way for the people who did have a history with Scientology to jump under the wing of the haughty and lulzy collective. Scientology had pursued its detractors with mean spirited ruthlessness, delving into critic's personal lives, following them with investigators and ruining their reputations.
Anonymous didn't care. Call them rapists, and they'd laughingly tell you they were child rapists. Accuse them of any crime, and they could point to worse on /b/. Anonymity and the 'words will never hurt me' ethic that arose out of the aesthetic of extremes on 4chan made them immune to the Church's arsenal.
But some existing Anons, and the ones that came in from the community of Scientology detractors, really cared about winning this one. They wanted to be the good guys and Scientology to play the bad guys. The Church, they reasoned, hurt people, took their money, and lied to them under the guise of being caretakers and teachers.
Anonymous claimed to do all those bad things too, but didn't really, and would never promise to take care of you and teach you, but sometimes did anyway.
As Coleman put it in her study, they were the perfect nemeses. But Anons caring about doing the right thing is about morality, and morality, at least straight morality, is not the lulz. Many veterans saw this as a corruption of the purity of Anonymous - the cancer that was killing /b/.
On February 10, 2008, the "moralfags" took the whole thing to a new level. They set up meeting times and places in cities around the world, bought masks and made signs.
Anons left the internet by the thousands and showed up in front of church locations and Scientology centers around the world, many wearing their new Guy Fawkes masks, V for Vendetta movie merchandise sold by Warner Brothers, to obscure their identities.
They played music and walked around with signs that both accused Scientology of crimes and referenced obscure internet memes. They met each other in meat space for the first time. They partied with their own in front of aghast Scientologists in more than 90 cities.
For the first time, the internet had shown up on the real street, en masse.
And yes, they brought Long Cat.
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