Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman tells how Anonymous changed from arseholes to activists

March 22, 2015
Gabriella Coleman's tome is "easily the best book on Anonymous", says Julian Assange.

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
Gabriella Coleman
464 pages
Published November 2014

In the early days of hacker collective Anonymous, political activism seemed to be the last thing on its members' minds.

Seeking only laughs, usually at the expense of others, members would dismiss anyone they disapproved of as "fags". They held particular disdain for anyone hinting at political activism, who they slammed as "moralfags".

Then almost at random, the collective took a "decisive left turn", as anthropologist Gabriella Coleman puts it in her latest book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.

The fuse was lit by a tongue-in-cheek video in which Anonymous grandly announced that it was going to "systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology".

The worldwide protests that followed were the detonator - and they began in Australia.

As a long-time member of Anonymous explains to Coleman: "Hearing [about] the first reports of east Australian protests on February 10, 2008 really set things in motion… Had those not materialised I figure the turn out elsewhere wouldn’t have been as important.”

Coleman writes: "While much of the Western world slumbered, in Australia an estimated 550 to 850 protesters poured into the streets, conveying their numbers in real time to others in video clips and photos, setting off a domino effect felt across much of the world. In London the crowd swelled to six hundred, and this success was matched in North America, where protesters hit the streets in small cities across the heartland and in major metropolitan centres like Los Angeles, where a whopping one thousand people turned out."

I remember the Australian protests well because I was there - but only by chance. I happened to be living a couple of doors down from Scientology's Sydney headquarters in a bed bug-infested hostel where I was stuck for eight months, having given up on trying to find a home in the city's overcrowded rental market. The rally stood out and drew people in because its protesters looked so like unlikely - strikingly young, falsetto-voiced, unusually stylish and mostly clad in black.

What followed was Anonymous's headlong hurtle into full-blown activism, consolidating around the Arab Spring and branching out into corporate shaming, vigilantism against unconvicted rapists and, most recently, the ridiculing of ISIS.

Video: Gabriella Coleman - Tracking Anonymous. Future Journalism Project Media Lab.

The effects of anonymity

It is not just Anonymous's unlikely metamorphosis into activists that fascinates Coleman. The anthropologist is also drawn to the effects of anonymity itself.

"Anonymous is not the white, middle class, American boys club of everyone’s default imagination," she writes. "Something about the pseudonymous environment likely helped engender this cosmopolitanism. Cloaking markers of the self like ethnicity, class, and age opens up all sorts of different possibilities. Studies confirm that we tend to seek those who are familiar to us, and fellowship via shared identity is nothing to scoff at, nor eliminate. Nevertheless, it is also important to create and experiment with spaces that mute markers of class, age, and background to help form connections that might not otherwise be made."

However, though Anonymous may have come a long way from baiting "moralfags", other prejudices remain.

Coleman writes: "While we can showcase surprising examples of diversity within Anonymous, this is not to say that heterogeneity is not notably lacking. Particularly when it comes to gender... Anonymous mirrors the structural inequities prevalent across the computer science world. While most of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields have narrowed the gender gap, computer science is not one of them. Indeed, peak equity in college enrollment occurred more than 20 years ago; 37 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees awarded in 1985 went to women. The number hovers around 20 percent today.... among law-breaking hackers, the only females I have met or heard about are those who have switched genders, which is actually — and perhaps, for many, surprisingly — more common than one might imagine... Being specific about diversity and gender dynamics allows for more interesting questions to be posed: Why, for instance, are gender benders, queer hackers and female trolls common and openly accepted categories, but female participation in technical circles remains low? Some identities become accepted while others continue to be viewed with scepticism."

Unfortunately, some readers may find themselves viewing Coleman's work with scepticism. The book is littered with typos, which are often confusing. When the author spells people's names three different ways, they may be left wondering whether any of the book is accurate. At one point Coleman refers to another book she had to finish as if it was a chore, which may also make readers wonder if she would say the same of writing this book, such is its apparently rushed nature. The author makes much of her anthropological qualifications in analysing Anonymous and her occasional insights from this angle are the book's highlights - but they are too few and far between. Patchy it may be, but it does come with one weighty endorsement. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has called the work "easily the best book on Anonymous".

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