The Internet receives a remarkable amount of credit for contemporary political developments. This is true of both revolutionary and mainstream movements, from the Arab Spring to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. At the same time, widespread commentary on the Internet’s mobilizing capacity has generated numerous and ranging assertions about the effects of online organizing. Does it foster extremist ideologies? Is it inherently democratic? Do its effects vary by generation?
Gabriella Coleman enters this debate by tracing the emergence of the online collective Anonymous. The group’s practice of trolling the Internet was initially animated by mischief, with the aim of pulling off message board–coordinated pranks that generate “LOLs” (laugh out louds in digital parlance). Out of this freewheeling “spirit of lulz,” participants adapted their collective aims and coordinated tactics to take on a range of activist causes and campaigns. Galvanized by the refusal of MasterCard and PayPal to process donations to Wiki – Leaks, by state repression during Arab Spring revolutions across the Middle East, and by various acts of corporate online cen sorship, the collective has increasingly been challenging major political, religious, and economic institutions. With the attention generating success of these operations, Anonymous politics has come to resemble a digital form of “social banditry,” and its hacking operations increasingly work in tandem with other forms of political mobilization such as street protest.
Amid these changes, Coleman suggests that the group’s activism has maintained a collective approach and, as its name suggests, a deep ethic of anonymity. Though its initiatives continue to arise out of the ad hoc “spirit of lulz,” Anonymous operations depend heavily on coordinated action for their success, and thrive from decentralized decision-making. And although hackers push for transparency as a check to institutional power, the group insists on its own opacity, collectively enforcing the non-identity of its members and even going so far as to “z-line” individuals who take individual credit for group actions by banning them from certain servers.
Because the Internet is a highly contested infrastructure, hackers have the capacity to wield significant power thanks to “their closeness to the machine” (512). Working against the depiction of these practices as part of a misfit subculture, Coleman’s online ethnography provides a great deal of insight into a politics that, through its anonymous collective action, may represent the most promising aspect of the Internet and its role in contemporary social and political life.
Gabriella Coleman. 2011. “Hacker Politics and Publics.” Public Culture 23(3) and 65 (November): 511–516. Gabriella Coleman. 2012.
“Our Weirdness Is Free.” Triple Canopy 15 (January 13). http:// canopycanopycanopy.org/15/our_weirdness_is_ free.
This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.
In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.