By now the phenomenon of Anonymous, an unspecified and unorganized mass of computer pranksters and social activists (popularly known as... ugh... ‘hacktivists’) is a part of the common imagination. Everyone has at least seen images of protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks (referencing not just the 17th century English anti-parliament terrorist but also the technique of mass identification with a social movement or anti-establishment attitude via obscuring one's individual identity as shown in the 2006 film V For Vendetta) or heard stories about members of anonymous hacking such and such institution or organization or declaring war via internet against a repressive regime. Less known (but still pretty well known) is that Anonymous, as a social movement, emerged from a specific online location, 4chan.org.
4chan.org was started in 2002 by a kid who calls himself m00t, real name Christopher Poole, who wanted to emulate Japanese anime discussion boards (specifically one called matsubara or 2chan). The site is interesting, in part, because it does not save any of the content that users contribute to it (some of the effects of which have been observed by an MIT research team) and therefore everything has to be constantly renewed. The repetition and variation on the forms that appear on 4chan have led to site users (who post under the name ‘anonymous’ and are not required to enter a username to contribute) to develop a large number of different graphic memes that have transcended the site, some of the more popular forms, like the LOLcats, have become mainstream pop culture phenomena. 4chan.org is the opposite of Facebook and as a contemporary internet phenomena, is far more interesting (Facebook itself is not interesting at all but the discourse surrounding the service is.) While Facebook is a global data-mining operation posing as a good-vibes world funfest where people can post their opinions and expect only agreement in return, 4chan is a carnival of all of the most transgressive subjects and images including discussions about gore, pornography, drugs, etc.
Cole Stryker is a freelance journalist who appears to focus on trends in network communication technology and its cultural uses. In Epic Win for Anonymous he gives a fairly detailed history of 4chan and a survey of its uses. Stryker’s text is not heavy on analysis, cultural or otherwise, but it still helps a lot in forming an understanding of the phenomena of Anonymous, their origins in hacking and online trolling/flame wars, as well as predecessors to 4chan site that fostered the kind of transgressive (verging on nihilistic attitude) that appears to dominate. Epic Win for Anonymous is a descriptive history of 4chan, its origins, and the actual social movements that have emerged out of it.
What interests me about Anonymous is that it’s never really clear what it is, because it isn’t something in particular. At its surface level it appears as a protest tactic, similar to the Black Bloc in its core emphasis on the intersection of mass protest and the protection of personal identity. On another level though, it is a form of mediated mass protest that appears to permit its participants to engage with their social causes to the extent that their individual technical abilities allow. If a target for direct action is selected (by whom, I’m not sure) then some Anons might proceed by breaking the target’s network security and obtaining documents, others make up mocking graphics with their photoshop skills, others might pile onto a denial of service attack, and some will don their Fawkes mask and attend the street protest.
Anonymous was, for example, instrumental in ensuring justice during the recent Steubenville rape trial, with Anons obtaining and disseminating the videos and images that served as evidence at trial, and also picketing the town through online action and street demos. Interestingly, this murky group that has grown out of an underground website largely devoted to exploring transgression had established a stable moral position with regards to that crime while much of mainstream America were perfectly willing to blame the victim for what happened to her, and to falter over what constitutes rape in their country.
The other level at which Anonymous is interesting, which Stryker discusses in his book, was the collective problem solving potential of the group. Anonymous is geographically dispersed yet they are localized (ugh...) virtually to 4chan. Occasionally a problem is brought to the group, sometimes in the nature of an image of an animal or child abuser, for example. The users of 4chan will use their collective knowledge to try to identify features of that image which can be used in identifying the abuser to authorities. This aspect of Anonymous reveals how much greater potential 4chan has at motivating people to action than the major social network websites. Facebook may be orders of magnitude more popular than 4chan, but 4chan’s impact on the culture has been immensely more meaningful than Facebook’s.