By Aubrey Slaughter
To read Tom Boellstorff’s introduction to this book reviews series, head over to The Book Review as Conversation.
Gabriella Coleman’s latest ethnographic offering, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, further cements her reputation as one of the foremost researchers on the subject of hacktivist collectives. Coleman, a professor in cultural anthropology at McGill University, has previously turned her facility in depicting life-worlds towards the open source movement to good effect. She now applies this same generous yet skeptical approach to the infamously wily and notoriously disruptive hacktivist collective known as Anonymous, and traces the fractious, mischievous, and infectiously exciting community from its roots in “the cesspool of 4chan…into one of the most politically active, morally fascinating, and subversively salient activist groups operating today” (51). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is a multifaceted text. Part ethnography, part commentary, and part post-pulp adventure, this text serves a number of purposes, but perhaps the most critical of these is captured in Coleman’s marked aversion towards monolithic depictions of Anonymous in particular, and hacktivists in general. Coleman’s warm and personal depictions of individual members of Anonymous smashes the uniformity of anonymity while still fostering the titillating air of masked mystery that pervades her account. Ultimately Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is an invaluable and indelibly authentic text which, at time of writing, constitutes our best and most comprehensive look at the dissembling figure of Anonymous.
The text opens with an overview of Anonymous’s actions, a brief description of some of the attributes that define the group, and a few vignettes to illustrate the unique demands of researching Anonymous. After effectively contextualizing her subject of study, Coleman’s portrayal of Anonymous progresses chronologically through her engagement with the group, beginning in 2008 with her examination of Anonymous’s “war against Scientology” and proceeding apace through the group’s sinuously erratic and variably audacious route towards transnational activism. The narrative segues from virtual to physical spaces and back again, allowing the author to virtually witness events from Chicago to Tunisia and encounter a strikingly diverse cast of characters. In the course of her research, Coleman grapples with and analyses the labyrinthine and covert micro-politics of nested leadership cabals on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels, a process which in turn allowed her both access to and interviews with highly-active members of Anonymous who could provide insights into the fractious inner workings and internecine struggles of a community that has, in popular media, often defied categorization. Of the members interviewed, the story of Hector Monsegur, a.k.a. Sabu, is perhaps the most interesting. Sabu was closely affiliated with both Anonymous and two of its more radical offshoots, Lulzec and Antisec. Coleman chats with Mr. Monsegur several times during her research, and it is only after a rapid series of arrests that Mr. Mosegur’s role as an FBI informant is revealed. It is a story akin to “following a dark and twisty path strewn with rumors, lies, secrets, and the ghoulish realities of spies and informants,” (8) yet it is only through just such a path that Coleman’s analytical insights can be contextualized.
“Anonymous is Not Unanimous”
Anonymous is often depicted as a singular entity in popular media, a sort of nebulous network of hackers who act as a sort of “hive-mind.” This view is often encouraged by affiliates of Anonymous in the bombastic rhetoric that has become the hallmark of Anonymous’s public persona. Coleman both questions and complicates this media narrative through her self-consciously sympathetic yet morally conflicted approach to the various members of Anonymous with whom she had contact. Throughout her work on the subject, she has persistently reiterated to academics, reporters, and the public at large that Anonymous is not some sort of unitary hierarchical organization; rather, Anonymous’s internal politics are altogether more cellular, with multiple levels of occasionally nominal leadership and nested cabals. As most members of Anonymous are, at the very least, pseudo-anonymous, there results a sort of socio-technical uniformity in the lack of identification. Coleman deconstructs the uniformity of anonymity by extensively characterizing the various figures and collaborators in her research, giving us both context for their actions and insight into their motivations. From the “fiery political activist” Jeremy Hammond to the talented propagandist Topiary, Coleman takes care to draw out precisely what it is that makes these individuals, and by dint Anonymous, such a dynamic and generative activist bloc. (p. 277) That said, Coleman is neither naive nor blasé about some of the less savory activities attributed to the group, and freely admits that “Anonymous has engaged in some morally dubious – and sometimes downright awful – endeavors” (393). Though she refrains from extolling Anonymous’s every move, her avowed mission to “dispel many of the misconceptions about Anonymous” (392) is greatly aided by her close, careful, and (perhaps most critically) sympathetic attempt to understand and characterize the various colorful characters, political activists, and disruptive hackers that make up the dynamic collective of Anonymous.
On The Use of Lulz
If Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy’s primary aim is to accurately characterize Anonymous and its members, it does not strive to explain away the enticing “aura of mystery and magic” (394) that makes Anonymous such a fascinating topic of study. While this book could have easily been a thorough yet dry account of hacktivistic methods and micropolitics, Coleman’s narration and analysis nicely reflect the pervasive atmosphere of enchantment and excitement that is endemic to any burgeoning political movement. This is by no means a mere literary conceit; rather, Coleman’s attention to and discussion of the roots and fruits of these politically-inflected creative gestures contribute to some of her more critical and insightful explorations into the culture of Anonymous. This attention to rhetoric and poetics in computer-mediated cultural exchange is a hallmark of Coleman’s previous work, most notably demonstrated in her first book on the free software movement, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2002). The influence of her earlier meditations on the poetics of code can be seen in her thorough-going and contextually situated explanation of “lulz.”
“Lulz” is a complex concept that, like the community from which it originates, is not particularly amenable to analysis by the uninitiated. Derived from the abbreviation “LOL,” or “Laugh Out Loud,” lulz can be described as humor inflected with a sort of gleeful schadenfreude, a “laughter at the expense or misfortune of others” (31). While this cursory definition is sufficient to understand what, broadly speaking, lulz consist of, Coleman’s analysis looks deeply into what social functions lulz performs and what sort of cultural elements these usages reflect. Her examination of lulz explains that the concept can work as argot, or “specialized and esoteric terminology used by a subcultural group…[which]…functions to enact secrecy, or, at minimum, enact some very stiff social boundaries” (31). The function is co-occurrent with lulz’s use as “an epistemic object, stabilizing a set of experiences and making them available for reflection” (31). While Coleman clearly indicates the import of lulz in both Anonymous’s formative and contemporary iterations, she is equally clarion that the desire to accrue lulz is no longer the primary concern of the more politically astute, activistic Anonymous that the movement has matured into, even though “this irreverent spirit still guided social interactions and underwrote strategies” (392). This incisive, transgressive form of humor is as endemic to Anonymous as it is to the denizens of its communal homeland of 4chan, but it would be a grave disservice to assume or assert that this sort of jocular mischief is entirely without historical precedent. Instead, Coleman applies a mythic frame to the phenomena of lulz, and through this perspective draws lulz and its effects into a context that places lulz within a historical continuum, to be considered and analyzed with reference to a Nietzschean attitude toward the sacred and Dionysian ideals rather than as a one-off phenomena of a fringe group of hackers and malcontents.
The Mythic Trickster
Coleman accomplishes this feat through the recasting of Anonymous into the archetypal role of the mythological trickster character. Variably invoking the names of Loki, Coyote, and Eshu, Coleman ties the irreverent and disruptive spirit of Anonymous to a historical lineage of those who have, in times and places both near and far, acted to “dismantle convention” by “edifying us with liberating or terrifying perspectives, symptomatic of underlying problems that deserve scrutiny, functioning as a positive force towards renewal, or as distorting or confusing shadows” (34). These liminal and chimerical characters were, like Anonymous, never strictly noble or completely malicious, wholly honest or totally untruthful, perfectly sincere or entirely joking. Aligning Anonymous with the mythical figure of the trickster also encourages the reader to remain alert for signs of socio-cultural critique or open dissatisfaction amidst the ribald chaos of Anonymous’s rhetoric; while tricksters are often capricious in their targets, they are seldom random. Coleman returns to the theme of the mythic trickster throughout the text, but never in an attempt to rationalize or excuse Anonymous’s actions. Rather, she uses and parallels the trickster motif in order to reject contemporary accounts of Anonymous that position the group as either something entirely novel or merely the latest iteration of sociality and instead to expand our perspective and view Anonymous as following a tradition as old as myth.
In an effort to appropriately characterize Anonymous while still maintaining an air of mystery, Coleman is attempting to “balance the Apollonian forces of empiricism and logic with the Dionysian forces of enchantment,” a feat which is greatly facilitated by her move to “invite the trickster along for the ride” (394-395). In addition to giving us a sympathetic frame from which we can examine Anonymous, the character of the trickster also works as a bridge from the wryly anarchic sensibilities of Anonymous to the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. While Coleman’s discussion of “the Enlightenment’s trickster” as it applies to Anonymous is brief and perforce cursory, she draws clear parallels between their similar antipathy for the sacred and a “secret desire to cast off – at least momentarily – the shackles of normativity and attain greatness – the will to power set to collectivistic and altruistic goals rather than self-interested and individualistic desires” (273, 275). Even if we are repelled or offended by the profane stance or puckish mayhem that often accompanies Anonymous’s actions, it is impossible to deny that there is something about the group that fascinates and intrigues beyond the usual bombastic appeal of the spectacular. We have to ask, as Coleman does, what it is that Anonymous offers or allows that makes it so emotionally appealing, so fervently enticing, and so excitingly relevant.
Coleman’s denouement is her own to disclose, but speaking as one familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Anonymous, I can state that her conclusions, though necessarily incomplete, nonetheless have a ring of truth about them. It appears as though this text may be somewhat a victim of the richness of its own subject matter; even keeping to a roughly diachronic account from primarily Coleman’s own perspective still entails covering a vast swathe of politically loaded, culturally inflected, and occasionally contradictory social encounters. As such, the majority of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is given over to a close, authentic, and thoroughly exciting narrative of both Coleman and Anonymous’s attempts to discern and define the direction of the movement. Delightful and illuminating forays into critical or anthropological analysis are sprinkled throughout the text to good effect, but these dollops of discussion often left this reviewer wanting more. Similarly, Coleman does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the “politics of enchantment” (394) with her mythic framing and irrepressibly engaged writing style, but I cannot help but wish that she had expounded her thoughts on the subject at greater length. That said, Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy forms our best and most comprehensive look at the birth and development of a hacktivist collective. The activist Anonymous of today is not the same as the lulz-laden, troll-ridden Anonymous of yesteryear, but it is important, perhaps even essential, that we understand where this group originated and how it underwent such a dramatic and frankly surprising metamorphosis. The comprehensive yet individually attentive character of Coleman’s account of Anonymous’s transformation into a transnational political actor will likely make the text a cornerstone of future research on the subject.
Aubrey is a Ph.D. student in Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. His Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago performed an analysis of the rhetorical style of manifestos within Anonymous. Aubrey’s current work centers around crowd dynamics and public shaming on-line, with a sideline in the study of standards in science. When not researching, Aubrey enjoys tinkering with his brain-stimulating devices and discussing video game mechanics. He is currently looking for collaborators for a project on hactivistic action in Libya during the 2011 Arab Spring. You can contact Aubrey any time firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coleman, Gabriella (2012). Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Coleman, Gabriella (2014). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York: Verso.
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