{learning} The Lessons from the Anonymous


In the course ICM820 we screened the documentary on the hacker group The Anonymous:

This online community, often know for its pranks and anti-Scientology actions, but also for its more directly political actions such as Operation Ferguson and Operation HongKong. We used the Anonymous as a case study of online community-building (or creation, or spontaneous formation) because it is quite unlike many other protest movements and groups form the past. As Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who has researched the group for a long time, noted in an article few years ago:

ANONYMOUS, WHICH CAME INTO BEING on the online message board 4chan eight years ago, is by nature and intent difficult to define: a name employed by various groups of hackers, technologists, activists, human rights advocates, and geeks; a cluster of ideas and ideals adopted by these people and centered around the concept of anonymity; a banner for collective actions online and in the real world that have ranged from fearsome but trivial pranks to technological support for Arab revolutionaries. In recent months, Anonymous has announced audacious plans to take down the seemingly invincible Mexican drug cartels; instigated and promoted the nationwide Occupy movement; and shut down the website of the Florida Family Association, which is behind the campaign against the television show All-American Muslim, and leaked the names and credit card numbers of donors.

This diversity of actors and purposes, alone, is a significantly different premise than that of many non-digital groups/movements, allowed precisely by virtual communication and organizing. Yet, we found several other take-aways that the Anonymous can teach us:

The SPEED and FLUIDITY of online communities:

What we took away from the documentary is that these online communities, while relatively easy to build, can be used in various ways. It’s almost scary just how quickly this movement came to be.

This is very much related to the lack of defined leadership – ideas and Operations take on like viral memes (this is the critique also about humanitarian campaigns such as KONY2012 – a viral campaign that overshadowed everything else related and then died so quickly):

As one Anonymous member said, we are like a flock of birds flying, if one moves we all move in the same direction. Somewhat like a push and pull movement that extends over a large amount of emotional spectrums.

ACCOUNTABILITY as a capital for (future) online communities that want to make a difference:

While these individuals or groups act anonymously and randomly, who is there to take accountability for the actions, especially when it causes people’s lives to be ruined? Stan Lee once said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the fact that these hacktivists have an amazing talent and a great deal of potential but are not owning up to it takes away from their credibility.

The power of the INDIVIDUAL in digital activism (think of Ed Snowden, too):

In the World of anonymous if you’re keeping your plans for your business secret, that is wrong, and all of your private files will be exposed, whether they hurt someone or not. All it takes is one person from the community to feel offended and boom, anonymous is blowing up your emails and phone lines, and creating horrifically mean memes and protesting outside your organizations doors.

At the same time, often the question for the Anonymous is about OUR FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS, as embodied by Internet Freedom. However varied as a group, the Anonymous exemplifies that , there is a new battle over meaning regarding freedom of expression, privacy, and so on, that is shaping our digital lives, globally:

Anonymous proves that, at the same time they are actually, whether legal or not, they are going out there and attempting to preserve our constitutional rights and freedoms.

We see that the overarching theme is to have something in common, whether that be a location, an idea, a favorite TV show, or a passion for fitness. In this case (as was stated in an earlier post) it was a group of ‘misfits’ with similar views on censorship, information freedom, and government policies who realized the truth of the age-old adage, ‘there’s power in numbers.’

While a lot of Anonymous’ efforts have been childish and unimportant, their efforts in the Middle East, their attacks on the hypocrisy of PayPal, Mastercard and The Church of Tom Cruise as well as similar organizations like Wikileaks, show that they have an important voice in society; the people should not fear its government – the government should fear its people.

Online, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. You can find others who are interested in the same ideas, issues, products, etc. (think of Anderson’s Long Tail business model for the digital era, or Godin’s “We are all weird” slogan)…

In terms of what can this teach us about digital community building in general – is simply, it’s possible. If you have a group that feels strongly about something, truly believes something needs to be brought to justice, you can cause a blip in the system.

No matter who you are, what your cause is, and what you’re fighting for, on the internet you’re always bound to find someone who is willing to take up arms with you.

Or, as quoted by Gabriella Coleman:

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