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. These actions are sometimes peaceful and legal, sometimes disruptive and illicit, often existing in a moral and legal gray area. Anonymous acts to advance political causes but also for sheer amusement.
The seemingly paradoxical nature of Anonymous has much to do with its origins on 4chan, which has become immensely popular, iconic, and opprobrious since it launched in 2003. 4chan is an image board composed of fifty-one topic-based forums ranging from anime to health and fitness and is widely perceived to be one of the most offensive quarters of the Internet. The “random” forum, /b/, teems with pornography, racial slurs, and humor derived from defilement. Participants communicate in a language that seems to have reduced English to a bevy of vicious epithets, sneers, and text-message abbreviations. This may be shocking to outsiders, but for insiders it is the normal state of affairs, and one of 4chan’s defining and most endearing qualities.1
Today Anonymous is associated with an irreverent, insurgent brand of activist politics. Before 2008, however, the moniker was used almost exclusively to stage pranks—to “troll,” in Internet parlance, targeting people and organizations, desecrating reputations, and revealing humiliating information. For instance, in 2009, Anonymous sought to “ruin” an eleven-year-old girl named Jessi Slaughter after her homemade video monologues, which had gained some notoriety on tween gossip site StickyDrama, were posted on 4chan. Anonymous was stirred to action by Slaughter’s brazen boasts—she claims in one video that she will “pop a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushie”—and published her phone number, address, and Twitter username, inundating her with hateful emails and threatening prank calls, circulating Photoshopped images of her and satiric remixes of her videos. When her father recorded his own rant, claiming to have “backtraced” Jessi’s tormenters and reported them to the “cyber police,” he also became an object of ridicule (and a meme). Because of such antics, Fox News had in 2007 dubbed 4chan the "Internet hate machine”—a barb embraced, if ironically, by Anonymous, which responded with a grim parodic video claiming to be “the face of chaos,” “harbingers of judgment” who “laugh at the face of tragedy.” But in the past few years Anonymous has adopted the strategy of trolling as part of somewhat straightforward protest campaigns. The question is: How and why has the anarchic “hate machine” been transformed into one of the most adroit and effective political operations of recent times?
Looking for insights into Anonymous’s surprising metamorphosis, I began an anthropological study of the group in 2008. That year Anonymous launched a trolling attack against the Church of Scientology, which within mere weeks came to include earnest street demonstrations organized using conventional activist strategies. Anonymous became even more widely known two years later as a result of Operation Payback, a distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) campaign that paralyzed the websites of financial institutions refusing to transfer funds from donors to WikiLeaks, in the name of free speech. But even then, Anonymous was still generally misunderstood, described by news reports alternately as “online activists,” “global cyberwarriors,” and “cyber vigilantes.”
The nature of this confusion is not hard to understand. Beyond a foundational commitment to anonymity and the free flow of information, Anonymous has no consistent philosophy or political program. Though Anonymous has increasingly devoted its energies to (and become known for) digital dissent and direct action around various “ops,” it has no definite trajectory. Sometimes coy and playful, sometimes macabre and sinister, often all at once, Anonymous is still animated by a collective will toward mischief—toward “lulz,” a plural bastardization of the portmanteau LOL (laugh out loud). Lulz represent an ethos as much as an objective. Even as Anonymous has distinguished itself from 4chan and from trolling for its own sake, the underlying character of the group—and the form of its politics—are still intimately connected to the raucous culture of online message boards. (For more on the culture of anonymity, see David Auerbach’s extensive essay “Anonymity as Culture,” also published in this issue of Triple Canopy.)
The spirit of lulz is not particular to Anonymous, the Internet, trolling, or our times. The Dadaists and Yippies shared a similarly rowdy disposition, as did the Situationists and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers; more recently, the Yes Men have tightly fused pranksterism and activism, in one instance presenting a three-foot-long golden penis (“employee visualization appendage”) at a WTO textile-industry conference as a means of controlling workers, to the applause of the management-class crowd. These transgressions serve many purposes, upending the conventions—and highlighting the absurdities—of a political system within which substantive change no longer seems possible, and generating the kind of spectacles that elicit coverage from the mainstream media. But the aforementioned groups were conceived as radical political enterprises, with a limited purview and a vanguardist composition. What sets Anonymous apart is its fluid membership and organic political evolution, along with its combination of feral tricksterism and expert online organizing.
Which is to say Anonymous follows a logic all its own. Partly because of its maverick image and lulzy antics, the group has attracted considerable attention—Anonymous was recently named Time’s number four person of the year in the magazine’s “people’s choice” poll—and a tremendous number of adherents, or Anons. Of course, the group’s organizing principle—anonymity—makes it impossible to tell how many people are involved. Participation is fluid, and Anonymous includes hard-core hackers as well as people who contribute by editing videos, penning manifestos, or publicizing actions. Then there are myriad sympathizers who may not spend hours in chat rooms but will heed commands to join DDoS attacks and repost messages sent by Anonymous Twitter accounts, acting as both mercenary army and street team. Anonymous has developed a loose structure, with technical resources such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) being run and controlled by a handful of elites, but these elites have erected no formal barriers to participation, such as initiation guidelines or screening processes, and ethical norms tend to be established consensually and enforced by all.
Political operations often come together haphazardly. Often lacking an overarching strategy, Anonymous operates tactically, along the lines proposed by the French Jesuit thinker Michel de Certeau. “Because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing,’” he writes in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980). “Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities.’ The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them.” This approach could easily devolve into unfocused operations that dissipate the group’s collective strength. But acting “on the wing” leverages Anonymous’s fluid structure, giving Anons an advantage, however temporary, over traditional institutions—corporations, states, political parties—that function according to unified plans. De Certeau pointedly distinguishes this as strategy, which “postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats … can be managed.” Anonymous is not bound to any such place, and therefore does not harbor what de Certeau calls “a Cartesian attitude.”
For example: One infamous attack against security firm HBGary gained steam only after hackers discovered, in the course of some retaliatory trolling, that multiple security companies were conspiring to undermine WikiLeaks and discredit its supporters. Because anyone can take the name—as many different, seemingly unrelated affiliations have done—operations can be intensified quickly after a weakness on the part of the target is discovered, or shut down immediately if trouble or internal controversy arises. And so Anonymous’s overall direction remains somewhat opaque even to those on the inside.
Nevertheless, Anonymous’s activities, however disparate and paradoxical on their surface, have tapped into a deep disenchantment with the political status quo, without positing a utopian vision—or any overarching agenda—in response. Anonymous acts in a way that is irreverent, often destructive, occasionally vindictive, and generally disdainful of the law, but it also offers an object lesson in what Frankfurt School philosopher Ernst Bloch calls “the principle of hope.” In his three-volume work Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1938-47), Bloch attends to a stunningly diverse number of signs, symbols, and artifacts from different historical eras, ranging from dreams to fairy tales, in order to remind us that the desire for a better world is always in our midst. Bloch works as a philosophical archaeologist, excavating forgotten messages in songs, poems, and rituals. They do not represent hope in the religious sense, or even utopia—there is no vision of transcending our institutions, much less history—but they do hold latent possibilities that in certain conditions can be activated and perhaps lead to new political realities. “The door that is at least half-open, when it appears to open onto pleasant objects, is marked hope,” Bloch writes.
The emergence of Anonymous from one of the seediest places on the Internet seems to me an enactment of Bloch’s principle of hope. What started as a network of trolls has become, much of the time, a force for good in the world; what started as a reaction to the Church of Scientology has come to encompass free-speech causes from Tunisia to Zuccotti Park. While Anonymous has not put forward any programmatic plan to topple institutions or change unjust laws, it has made evading them seem easy and desirable. To those donning the Guy Fawkes mask associated with Anonymous, this—and not the commercialized, “transparent” social networking of Facebook—is the promise of the Internet, and it entails trading individualism for collectivism.
If one term embodies the paradoxical and contradictory character of Anonymous—which is now serious in action and frivolous by design; made up of committed activists and agents of mischief—it is lulz. These four letters denote the pleasures attained from generating and sharing jokes and memes such as LOLcats and the cartoon pedophile mascot Pedobear. But they also suggest how easily and casually trolls can violently undermine the sense of security enjoyed by carefree denizens of the “real world” by, for instance, ordering scores of unpaid pizzas to be delivered to a single address, or publishing one’s phone number and private communications and credit-card numbers and hard-drive contents and any other information one might think to be “personal” or secure. Perhaps most important, lulz-oriented actions puncture the consensus around our politics and ethics, our social lives, our aesthetic sensibilities, the inviolability of the world as it is; trolls invalidate that world by gesturing toward the possibility for Internet geeks to destroy it—to pull the carpet from under us—whenever they feel the urge and without warning.
Nowhere is this sense of a world outside of, and formed in opposition to, the one most of us inhabit more palpable than on 4chan. Anonymity is essential to 4chan, too; one might call anonymity its ground rule, and the dominant aspect of the culture the board has created. While trolling has often been the purview of boastful, self-aggrandizing cliques—for instance, the Gay Niggers’ Association of America and its ex-president, Weev—on 4chan trolling is largely crowd-sourced, and participants are strongly discouraged from identifying themselves, instead focusing on the collective pursuit of “epic wins.”
Anonymous began trolling the Church of Scientology in January 2008 in pursuit of such an epic win, impelled by Scientology’s threats to sue websites that refused to take down the infamous internal recruitment video of Tom Cruise praising the church’s efforts to “create new and better realities.” Per the Barbra Streisand Effect (any attempt to censor information that has already been published only serves to draw more attention), the leaked video went viral. Though intended as serious and persuasive, legitimating Scientology through the power of Cruise’s celebrity, Internet geeks (and most others) viewed the video as a pathetic (not to mention hilarious) attempt to bestow credibility on pseudoscience. Once the church deployed its lawyers, one participant told me, Anonymous switched from mischief to “ultra-coordinated motherfuckary”: DDoS attacks to jam Scientology websites, ordering unpaid pizzas to churches across North America, sending images of nude body parts to church fax machines, and relentless phone pranking, especially of the Dianetics hotline.
Anonymous’s willingness to wreak havoc in pursuit of lulz, but also in defense of free speech and in opposition to the malfeasances and deceptions of Scientology, calls to mind the nineteenth-century European “social bandits” described by historian Eric Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels. These bandits are members of mafias, secret societies, religious sects, urban mobs, and outlaw gangs; they are ultimately thugs, but, according to Hobsbawn, they nurture a faintly revolutionary spirit: Often when they plunder they also redistribute goods to the poor, or offer them protection against other bandits. Hobsbawm defines the bandits as “pre-political” figures “who have not yet found, or only begun to find, a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world.” Anonymous has worked toward finding that language with remarkable celerity since it launched Project Chanology. Soon after the DDoS attacks and pranks, Anonymous shifted tactics, disseminating incriminating facts about Scientology and forging bonds with an older generation of dissidents, highlighting the church’s use of censorship and abuse of human rights. An extempore spout of trolling had thus given birth to an earnest activist endeavor. Anonymous had emerged from its online sanctuary and set to improve the world. According to Hobsbawm, this is a conventional path taken by bandits and revolutionaries alike. “The recognition that profound and fundamental changes take place in society does not depend on the belief that utopia is realizable,” he writes.
Ironically, Anonymous’s transformation coincided with the publication of a video lampooning Scientology: Message to Scientology, which calls for a “systematic” dismantling of the church for “our own enjoyment.” The video, one of many urging people to take action against the church, provoked a discussion among Anons in IRC rooms about whether they should protest in earnest or remain faithful to Anonymous’s madcap roots. One of the editors of Message to Scientology summarized:
And so on February 10, 2008, thousands of Anons and supporters hit the streets in cities around the world for a day of action against Scientology, with events straddling the line between serious political protest and carnivalesque shenanigans. Six months after being labeled “the Internet hate machine,” Anonymous had legions of followers in the real world—not just geeks and hackers hammering at their keyboards—who were seizing on the group’s name, on its ethic of anonymity and concomitant iconography. That evening, men in Guy Fawkes masks and black suits with signs announcing “We Are the Internet” could be seen on cable-news shows around the world. A common refrain at these protests, repeated to me by one demonstrator in Dublin: “At least our weirdness is free.”
For many Anons, the campaign validated work that had preceded Project Chanology: the organization of energies and antagonisms into a political form, through experimentation and practice. In the following weeks and months they continued to protest Scientology’s relentless legal and extralegal crackdown on its critics, especially those who dared to disclose or circulate internal documents (which the church refers to as “secret scriptures”). Other Anons simply returned to their corners of the Internet; many of them now contest Anonymous’s incipient political sensibility, deriding their peers as “moralfags” on 4chan, preferring to troll middle school girls and trade pornography.2 But the moralfags have not disavowed deviance—it is, after all, part of the fabric of their culture. In 2009, for instance, a group of anons executed Operation Slickpubes, in which a streaker slathered in Vaseline and pubic hair terrorized the New York City Scientology headquarters. Such hijinks contrast with the moral narrative implied by Hobsbawm, whereby bandits could only become viable political actors by giving up their menacing tactics and buying into the conventional forms of power. For Hobsbawm, the bandit is pitted against “the forces of the new society which he cannot understand. At most he can fight it and seek to destroy it.” This explains why “the bandit is often destructive and savage beyond the range of his myth.” Today’s digital bandits, however, understand the forces of the new society and are adept at harnessing them as means of creative destruction.
It is not hard to understand why Scientology is an ideal target among the many geeks and hackers who make up the ranks of Anonymous. Scientology is a proprietary and secretive religion of pseudoscience, complete with a cultish idiom and customs, in thrall of fake technology (most prominently the e-meter) and “advanced technology,” the church’s term for its spiritual teachings. Scientology exists almost as a fun-house-mirror inversion of the geek and hacker world, which is so heavily invested in the production and use of workable technology and the eradication of nonsense. Scientology is the evil doppelgänger of anonymous, geeky Internet culture. But would that desire to congregate under the same alias—what media theorist Marco Desiiris calls an “improper name”—be diminished by a less perfect enemy?
Apparently not—or, the perfect ally works just as well. Two years after Operation Chanology was launched, a different group of Anons initiated a second wave of Operation Payback, again without much foresight or planning. According to an Anonymous source, the enterprise was organized by AnonOps (a branch of Anonymous) on IRC, announced on a blog, publicized on 4chan and Twitter, and finally picked up by the mainstream media. Thanks to the political firestorm caused by the release of a cache of classified diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, AnonOps was able to command an infantry of thousands (assisted by botnets) to paralyze the websites of PayPal and Mastercard by running a program called Low Orbit Ion Cannon. “Someone in the media noticed,” recalled one Anonymous participant who took part in the attack.
By the end of 2010, a new Anonymous army seemed to have arisen, and in the ensuing months AnonOps worked to enable citizens to bypass government filtering in Malaysia and hacked the agricultural-biotech giant Monsanto in the name of environmental rights, among dozens of other campaigns. At the time, I had been logging on to IRC as part of my anthropological research, building relationships with people whom I knew only as handles, and often shepherding journalists to Anonymous’s #reporter channel. As the operations multiplied, I became shackled to my computer for nine months, spending hours and hours in various forums. I began giving public lectures on Anonymous; videos were posted online, eliciting ample commentary from Anons. (This is a salient feature of the work of ethnographers who study what anthropologist Chris Kelty has jokingly called, contra the subaltern, the “superaltern”: those highly educated geeks who not only speak for themselves but talk back loudly and critically to those who purport to speak for them.)
By the end of January, Anonymous seemed to be devoting itself entirely to activist campaigns, at the expense of mischief-making, and some Anons lamented the waning of the lulz. though many more were invigorated by their contributing to the historic toppling of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. Prompted by the Tunisian government's blocking WikiLeaks, Anonymous announced OpTunisia on January 2, 2011; soon after, AnonOps embarked on a series of so-called freedom operations to support the Arab Spring. Anonymous attacked government websites but soon began acting more like a human rights advocacy group, enabling citizens to circumvent censors and evade electronic surveillance and sending care packages with advice and security tools. Those packages included this urgent and humorless note clarifying the role of social media: “This is *your* revolution. It will neither be Twittered nor televised or IRC’ed. You *must* hit the streets or you *will* loose the fight.” Though many Anons were invigorated by contributing to the historic toppling of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, for others there could be no clearer evidence of the ascendance of moralfags.
Then came Operation HBGary. In February Aaron Barr, CEO of the HBGary security firm, claimed to have “pwned” Anonymous, discovering the real identities of top operatives. In response, Anons commandeered Barr’s Twitter account and used it to spew 140-character racial slurs while following the accounts of Justin Bieber, Gay Pride, and Hitler. They hacked HBGary servers and downloaded 70,000 emails and deleted files, wiped out Barr’s iPhone and iPad, then published the company’s data alongside Barr’s private communications for good measure. Most remarkably, Anonymous unearthed a document entitled “The WikiLeaks Threat,” which outlined how HBGary Federal (a subsidiary dealing with federal contracts) and other security companies might undermine WikiLeaks by submitting fake documents to the site. There was also evidence of plans to ruin the careers of WikiLeaks supporters, among them Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald.
A small crew of AnonOps hackers had started with retaliatory trolling and had ended up exposing what seemed to be a conspiracy so damning that members of Congress called for an investigative committee to be established. Given that these were private firms, the evidence obtained by AnonOps could never have been procured through legal channels such as a Freedom of Information Act request. Previously, Anonymous rarely hacked to expose security flaws and access politically sensitive information, preferring to deface and disable websites. The success of Operation HBGary launched new wings of Anonymous composed of smaller, more exclusive hacker crews dedicated to exposing security vulnerabilities and generating massive disclosures of emails and documents, further aligning the hackers with the goals of WikiLeaks. Some Anons took issue with the collateral damage wrought by Operation HBGary, especially the excessive leaking of personal information. The necessarily clandestine nature of such hacks was also criticized by those who saw it as counter to the ethos of transparency. At the time, however, most Anons were thrilled. One described the collective effervescence in a private message to me during the post-hack chat-room “celebration”:
The message to Anonymous participants and onlookers was clear: Anonymous had not become Human Rights Watch; the pursuit of a more “mature” agenda did not mean an end to lulz.
Upending the life of a security executive, publishing reams of personal information and corporate communications obtained illegally, and broadcasting the whole affair on Twitter may seem anathema to traditional activists, who might rather urge citizens to call their local representatives. But such acts of lulzmaking are magnetic on two levels, producing spectacular, shocking, and humorous events and images that attract media attention while simultaneously binding together the collective and rejuvenating its spirit. This runs counter to the reductive arguments about whether or not online organizing can breed the conditions necessary for serious, effective activism (see Clay Shirky in the affirmative, Malcolm Gladwell in the negative); the pursuit of lulz, and the shared technology used to do so, are means of creating a common, participatory culture. (Of course, the pursuit of lulz is also an end in and of itself.) Anonymous is sustained—and at times enlarged—not only by the effective use of communication technologies but by a culture that thrives on the tension between order and disorder, cool and hot, seriousness and lulz, anonymity and transparency.
Though Anonymous participants must cloak their identities and often conceal their actions, the group demands transparency from state and corporate actors. To Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg, transparency means sharing personal information constantly; he has gone so far as to declare the death of privacy.3 Anonymous offers a provocative antithesis to the logic of constant self-publication, the desire to attain recognition or fame. The ethos of Anonymous is in opposition to celebrity, with the group configured as e pluribus unum: one from many. It is difficult, if not impossible, to discern what or whom lies behind the mask. In a world where we post the majority of our personal data online, and states and corporations wield invasive tools to collect and market the rest, there is something profoundly hopeful in Anonymous’s effacement of the self (even if there is something deeply ironic and troubling about doxing and hacking in order to make that point). The domain of Anonymous enables participants to practice a kind of individuality beyond what anthropologist David Graeber, building on the the seminal work of C.B. Macpherson, identifies as “possessive individualism,” defined as “those deeply internalized habits of thinking and feeling” whereby we view “everything around [us] primarily as actual or potential commercial property.”
While anonymity often functions as an unspoken ethical imperative—a default mode of operation—Anons have also explicitly theorized the sublimation of identity. For instance, while preparing an op-ed for the Guardian last winter, dozens of Anons contributed to a document outlining the power and limits of anonymity. “It is the nameless collective and the procedures by which it is governed, which in the end prevail over the necessarily biased and single-minded individual,” one comment reads. “Yet, at the same time, the individual’s ability to contribute to this communal process of the production of knowledge has never been greater.”
These ideas are often tested in practice. In late January 2011, I shared an article about Anonymous from the Washington Post on one of the group’s IRC channels. After reading the piece, many participants were indignant: The featured Anon had revealed details about his personal life to the reporter, an infraction only made worse by the fact that he had contributed little to recent operations. One highly respected IRC operator assessed the situation: “Attempting to use all the work that so many have done for your personal promotion is something i will not tolerate.” A number of Anons then called this person into a different channel, asked him to justify his actions. Unsatisfied with his answers, they z-lined him, banning him from this particular server. (A3 is the offending Anon; A0 is the IRC operator.)
Yet even as Anons collectively enforce a prohibition against seeking personal fame, they do not suppress individuality. Anonymous is not a united front, but a hydra, a rhizome, comprising numerous different networks and working groups that are often at odds with one another. For instance, few of the Anons participating in Project Chanology were fans of the DDoS campaigns that were at first the main political weapon of AnonOps. Some, if not all, in the AnonOps network think the Project Chanology network is too small and narrowly focused to be effective. In recent weeks, these tensions have become more palpable thanks to actions organized by an offshoot called Antisec, which made donations to charities from stolen credit-card accounts in honor of "LulzXmas." One longtime Anon accused Antisec of being “destructive and malicious and serv[ing] no good purpose other than to bring heat on this [Anonops] network.” But even if Anons don’t always agree about what is being done under the auspices of Anonymous, they tend to respect the fact that anyone can assume the moniker. Of course, despite the lack of stable hierarchy some Anons are more active and influential than others. Anonymous abides by a particular strain of meritocratic populism, with highly motivated individuals or groups extending its networked architecture by contributing time, labor, and attention to existing enterprises or by starting their own as they see fit.
This has all left the news media quite puzzled, especially as worldwide coverage has ballooned in the wake of Project Chanology, Operation HBGary, and Operation BART, launched against San Francisco’s mass-transit agency this summer after it shut down cellular service in train tunnels to disrupt a planned protest against police violence. Anonymous has become a paradox of the age of twenty-four-hour infotainment: a cause célèbre in opposition to celebrity. Very few Anons have come forward to reveal details about themselves, despite the solicitude of the media. At the same time, Anonymous has succeeded in spreading its message as widely as possible, through every media channel at its disposal—in contrast to criminal groups that seek to remain hidden at all costs. Anonymous manages to achieve spectacular visibility and individual invisibility at once. Even after studying Anonymous for years and recently getting to know some of the more active participants (if mostly only virtually), my impression of the group is one of faint figures lurking in the shadows.
In June of last year, NATO published a report entitled “Information and Information Security,” which called for Anonymous to be infiltrated and dismantled. “Observers note that Anonymous is becoming more and more sophisticated and could potentially hack into sensitive government, military, and corporate files,” the report reads. “Today, the ad hoc international group of hackers and activists is said to have thousands of operatives and has no set rules or membership.” In July, Anonymous hackers infiltrated NATO, just days after sixteen alleged Anons were arrested in the US, fourteen of them in connection with Operation Payback. (Scores of alleged Anons had previously been arrested in the UK, Spain, and Turkey.)
The impossibility of forming any comprehensive, consistent picture of Anonymous is precisely what makes the group so unsettling to governments. Anonymous has, until last summer’s arrests, effectively evaded state power. But even while eluding surveillance, Anonymous has worked to expose the collection and mining of personal information by governments and corporations—and in doing so deflated the notion that such a thing as “private information” exists, as opposed to information in the public sphere. This distinction is one of the foundations of the neoliberal state, the very means by which individuality is constituted—and tracked. Anonymous has made it clear that there’s no difference between what we imagine to be our private and public selves—between singular individuals and fragmented "dividuals," in Gilles Deleuze’s terms; or, at least, Anonymous has revealed that the protection of information (which helps guarantee that difference) by a benevolent security apparatus is a myth. At the same time, Anonymous has put forward its own model—the practice of anonymity—for maintaining that very distinction, suggesting that citizens must be the guardians of their own individuality, or determine for themselves how and when it is reduced into data packets.
This message is inextricable from the platform Anonymous has established for thousands of individuals to collectively articulate dissent and to combat particular corporate and government actions, such as the passage of the controversial National Defense Authorization Act on New Year’s Eve. By unpredictably fusing conventional activism with transgression and tricksterism, Anonymous has captured the attention of an incredible variety of admirers and skeptics. And even while empowering individuals who take part in Anonymous campaigns, the network has steadfastly avoided any reformist agenda, always pointing to the disquieting fact that existing political channels so often are unlikely or unable to accommodate the demands and represent the needs of most people, no matter how clearly and correctly they are communicated.
Since last summer’s arrests Anonymous has dispersed, becoming even more decentralized, with participants relocating to obscure nodes and communicating through private IRC channels; even the AnonOps IRC network where I have spent so much time in the past year vanished for more than a month due to internal strife and a vigorous DDoS attack. But as Anons have burrowed deeper underground, the reach of their icons has increased, especially after Anonymous began acting as a crucial, though informal, public-relations wing for Occupy Wall Street in the fall, generating videos and images and circulating information supporting the movement’s aims. (Many Anons have since become involved in various Occupy groups as organizers or by providing technology support.)
One of Occupy Wall Street’s most powerful gestures has been to position its radically democratic decision-making process, represented by the agora of the General Assembly, against the reining corporate kleptocracy. Though this brand of horizontalism has a rich history with many roots, there is a particularly strong resonance in the relationship between the formal structure and the political aspirations of Anonymous. And Anonymous is organized not only around a radical democratic (at times chaotic and anarchic) structure but also around the very concept of anonymity, here constituted as collectivity. The accumulation of too much power—especially in a single point in (virtual) space—and prestige is not only taboo but functionally very difficult. The lasting effect of Anonymous may have as much to do with facilitating alternative practices of sociality—upending the ideological divide between individualism and collectivism—as with attacks on monolithic banks and sleazy security firms. This is the nature of the threat posed by Anonymous, and it is aptly symbolized by the Guy Fawkes mask: a caricature of the face of a sixteenth-century British failed regicide and the namesake of a holiday marked by bonfires celebrating the preservation of the monarchy; used by a dystopian comic book and then Hollywood film as the visage of anarchist terrorism and now turned into an icon of resistance—everything and nothing at once.