In professorial-type circles, one sure-fire way to heat up a room is to discuss the merits of publishing with a popular press. Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous shows how a topic sensationalized by the press can benefit from the framework and structure of an academic discipline, while still appealing to a popular audience. After observing the inner workings of the Anonymous collective, Coleman dives beneath the Guy Fawkes masks and prettily packaged news bites. She instead tells the story of the Anonymous collective through a lens of transition: from the self-proclaimed Internet Hate Machine to the front lines of geo-political hactivism.
For casual observers of internet culture Anonymous appeared in 2008, springing from the ether, fully-formed, primed and ready to take on the Church of Scientology.
But Anonymous has a longer history. One well known to the darker parts of the internet, in random memes on 4Chan, trolling, and general lulz driven mania. They simply stepped into the spotlight when they turned their attention away from trolling teenagers and began focusing their collective ire on larger targets. This lens of transition allows the reader to reconcile the best and the worst of Anonymous activities in a way that few other narratives have been able to do, as those have often simply cherry picked the anecdotes to explain the group in stark black and white terms. Coleman avoids this pitfall, arguing that the collective is driven by the pursuit of lulz, even throughout its most serious operations.
Coleman’s sprawling narrative covers the highlights and the low points of Anonymous’ transition. She skillfully weaves the stories of some of the best known participants into the tale, illustrating the root of their motivation and disaffection, without ever letting us forget the collective and decentralized nature of the movement. Yet, the element of the book that is most interesting was the least developed. Debate over the morality, and legality, of the actions of Anonymous are only ever hinted at – and usually only through the eyes of the collective itself.
One particular analogy is very compelling: the comparison of Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS) to a sit in – an act of civil disobedience. But, in a physical sit in, participants must all be devoted to the cause. In a DDoS, the sheer numbers needed to overwhelm a server require the use of slave computers acting in concert. Most of those participating are totally unaware of the cause their machines are being directed to fight. Like civil disobedience, DDoS attacks are illegal, but should the punishment for an act of political protest be the same as that for the theft of information for monetary gain? This question is perhaps out of the purview of Coleman’s anthropological examination of the collective, but in an age where we are spending an increasing amount of time in the virtual world of the internet, it seems that it is the kind of question that we should be exploring.
tl;dr – Read Coleman’s book, it is a fascinating glimpse into the best and worst of Anonymous