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89 5 Anonymous, Anonymity, and the End(s) of Identity and Groups Online Lessons from the “First Internet-Based Superconsciousness” Michael Wesch and the Digital Ethnography Class of Spring 2009 Fox 11 News in Los Angeles calls the “group” Anonymous “hackers on steroids .” The Economist calls them “Internet activists.” They call themselves “the first Internet-based superconsciousness” with a meta-laugh, laughing at all attempts to describe them, including their own. They interact with one another primarily on imageboards like 4chan but spread to other web domains as needed, strategically leveraging the tools and structure of the Internet to accomplish their goals. They interact almost entirely anonymously, rarely if ever sharing any details of their offline identities. They continuously work to shed their collective identity as well, sometimes declaring themselves as harbingers of the end of identity and groups as we know them, while offering a critical commentary on the ends of identity and groups in our contemporary society and popular culture. The phenomenon of Anonymous presents a scathing critique of the postmodern cult of celebrity, individualism, and identity while presenting itself as the inverted alternative—a “group” made up entirely of unidentified and unidentifiable “members” whose presence and membership is fleeting and ephemeral. DOI: 10.5876/9781607321705.c05 90 Michael Wesch and the Digital Ethnography Class of Spring 2009 Most of those who know of Anonymous have heard about them because of their “hacktivist” activities, starting with their attacks on the Church of Scientology in 2008. Such hacktivism has ranged widely from the reckless e-debauchery of YouTube porn day, in which they disguised thousands of porn videos as children’s videos, to the much more serious and important efforts they have made to support the Arab Spring by training local activists on maintaining anonymity, releasing names and e-mail addresses of governmental officials, and attacking and successfully blocking government websites. But Anonymous has not always been a loose band of hacktivists, and many purists believe such activities are not in the true spirit of the original Anonymous, which was born on 4chan in 2003.1 A modest no-frills imageboard , 4chan was created by Christopher Poole, a kid who was then just fifteen years old and living in New York City. For years most people only knew Poole by his 4chan name “moot” (as in, “of little or no practical value or meaning ”), a name that could perhaps serve as an omen for the “Anonymous” community that would soon take root on the site. The site is now one of the largest online communities on the web, recording approximately 700,000 posts per day from about 7 million unique visitors (Poole 2010). Although many recently launched social websites have extensive features such as profile and privacy management, multiple modes of communication, and multiple forms of media-sharing, 4chan is remarkably simple. Based on the popular Japanese site “2chan,” this website has no sign-on or identityverification process. The user is greeted with a simple submit button next to six empty field boxes: name, e-mail, subject, comment, file, and password. Anybody can post under any name, but most posters forgo the name field altogether. When the name field is not filled in, the post appears with the username field filled in as “Anonymous.” Anonymity creates the foundation for a remarkably chaotic and creative space. As noted by psychologist John Suler (2004), anonymity, invisibility, minimization of authority, and other characteristics of certain online spaces can create an “online disinhibition effect.” On /b/, 4chan’s random image board, anonymity shields participants from any long-lasting social shame. Although a poster on /b/ may feel a sting of shame when their post is ridiculed, they can quickly move on since it does not affect their long-term standing in the community. With no persistent identity, there is no real “standing” or hierarchy on /b/. The environment not only allows participants to push beyond social norms and the status quo, but it also actively encourages such behavior because the only way to get any reaction on the site is to post something that stands out and compels others to respond. Beyond /b/, the people participating as Anonymous are active and highly networked across the web and highly skilled and knowledgeable about how to spread their creations across the web using multiple platforms, technolo- 91 Anonymous, Anonymity, and the End(s) of Identity and Groups Online gies, and hacks. Their collective actions on image boards, message boards, chat channels, and websites like Digg...


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