Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Anonymous and its evolution

I'm going to firmly wedge my tongue in my cheek for the next couple of sentences, before getting to the meat of this evening's symposium.

The trouble with Anons is that they're a bunch of greasy 15 year old script kiddies sitting in their parent's basements spewing filth on the internet. But the problem with that statement is that's what people have been saying for many years now, pretty much since Anonymous (or indeed youth culture on the internet, going back to the BBSes of yesteryear). What that means in practice is that I, a 27 year old market research guy with a background in politics and communications, can happily say that I'm an Anon and have been for years.

This is the trouble with youth subcultures, the members tend to grow up and a lot of what they learned along the way sticks with them. Just as the hippy generation grew up, so lots of those who were early Anons are now educated and out there in the world. Pretty much everyone I know either is an Anon in some fashion, and those that aren't are aware of the culture, even if they don't know what it is they're referring to (I include pretty much anyone who has seen a lolcat in that context, see associated image, you have now seen Anon Culture)

Probably the best article there has ever been on Anonymous came out this week. That is not hyperbole, it is literally the best thing any credible person has ever written about Anonymous, at least that I've read. Quinn Norton successfully deconstructs the movement with seeming ease and identifies aspects of it which are rarely explored. Here's some of it, but if you do one thing today, stop reading this, and go read the whole article:
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.

This is probably the crux of the issue, Anonymous ruins lives and saves cats, reveals paedophiles and crushes companies.

If I was going to pick up one thing to define Anonymous, it would be this, a short script which has long been at the core of the movement:
We are Anonymous
We do not Forgive
We do not Forget
We are Legion
Its worth noting that Legion is not just a randomly picked word for a group of people, its the name of another supernatural entity, a collective of demons who were driven out by Jesus.

It wasn’t until I downloaded and listened to Lulz: A corruption of LOL’s second album, Corruption, that I grasped what Anonymous really is.

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.

And there it is, the simple realisation which lifts this article out of the mire and up to a level which isnt usually explored. Anonymous is a culture. The thing which separates Anonymous from other subcultures, is that it is geographically unlimited, and in the end it exists entirely separate to day to day society. You can be an Anon and anything else you like, the two can co-exist, no one at work needs to know you're an Anon unless you tell them. The internet means everyone can contribute in any way they like and from those contributions can come meaningful results.

I don't want to quote any more of the article, because it deserves to be read in full, but here is what I alluded to at the start and I think is worth bearing in mind. Anonymous is growing up, and growing bigger. Those who founded the movement on /b/ are now in their 20's and 30's or older. Script kiddies are now full blown crackers, and intelligent well meaning members now have jobs and lives.

Personally I think this has resulted in offshoots of Anonymous like LulzSec, which is still as active as it ever was, cracking corporate security and stealing data like there's no tomorrow. It's also resulted in a greater Anonymous presence IRL (in real life). Its almost impossible to attend a protest now without seeing Anons. They tend to stand a little apart, be-suited, masked, watching and occasionally acting. The Occupy protests would be substantially less well organised but for the efforts of AnonOps and other similar services.

The question which no one is asking is what happens when those who grew up with Anonymous as a major part of their self identity are the ones running companies and getting elected.

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