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How Anonymous United Around the Cult of Namelessness

Gabriella Coleman, the go-to expert for all things Anonymous, traces the group's history in an upcoming book.

Today, the Anonymous collective is largely associated with "hacktivism"—using electronic means to target people and organisations with a political motive. But at its origins, the group was often more interested in something much less grandiose: the art of pissing people off and enjoying thrills at their expense, or trolling.

In her upcoming book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University and the go-to expert for all things Anonymous, details the group's so-far short but rich history.

What we now call Anonymous originated on the messaging board 4chan—specifically the random /b/ section, a space notorious for its gore, sexism and extreme instances of trolling. Here, users typically post content without a name, or any form of persistent identity. Although this is exceptionally useful for trolls to avoid detection, it also helped fuel the transition of Anonymous from internet pranksters to the more activist role we see today.

According to Coleman, the first major milestone for users of 4chan (and another board, 711chan) dipping into activism was a series of actions against the Church of Scientology back in 2008. These included the tongue-in-cheek video that ushered in the phrase "We Are Anonymous." Coleman said that the street protests, pranks and DDoS attacks jestingly titled Project Chanology were a result of "a couple of things that came together to create the 'perfect storm' for activism." 

An Anonymous protest. Image: Paul Williams/Flickr

"[Scientology] is an organisation that represents everything that geeks and hackers are against," Coleman said. She added that, broadly speaking, on one side you have hackers who value experimentation, openness, and sharing ideas. On the other, you have the Church of Scientology spreading dogma. In short, it was a "tailor-made target." 

However, Coleman suggested that there may have been indications of political activity on 4chan before this. "It's interesting that prior to Scientology and the transformation to activism, a couple of the trolling campaigns had a sort-of political agenda," she said.

For example, the Habbo Hotel raid in 2006 saw hundreds of users simultaneously log into the social network and block entry to the area's swimming pool. On the face of it, it was simple trolling. But Coleman says that at least after the first such raid, a rumour spread that Habbo Hotel were banning avatars based on their skin colour. Whether or not that was true is largely irrelevant: it still hints at a slightly political drive. 

It appears the environment of 4chan acted as a sort of incubator for users' political views to develop. "4chan, for better, for worse, is an extreme free-speech zone," Coleman said. Naturally, "Many of the early operations, Scientology especially, were about questioning censorship." The thing that really kicked off the actions against the Church was the attempted censorship of an interview with Tom Cruise.

But it wasn't until Operation Payback years later that the banner of Anonymous became cemented with political activism. This operation saw attacks launched against various large organisations, including banks that refused service to WikiLeaks. "That was the game-changer to tilt it more towards the activism side, as opposed to Anonymous being used for both trolling and activism," Coleman said. "It was now indisputable that the name could be used for politics."

I DON'T THINK YOU'D HAVE SABU, JEREMY HAMMOND, TOPIARY AND TFLOW [COLLABORATING] IF THEY WEREN'T ANONYMOUS.

Although the switch from troll to activist has been quite dramatic, one thing has remained near-constant throughout the group's chronology, not just in name: anonymity.

On 4chan, where the movement originated, anonymity was so crucial that people who broke away from it, perhaps by using a real name ("namefags"), were often shunned by their technologically hidden peers. "They call out, scrutinise, and eventually many people are kicked out," Coleman said.

This trademark use of anonymity was carried over to the political actions, for more reasons than one. Obviously, one is that some political actions used by the group, such as DDoS attacks, are illegal. Anonymity also meant that attention could be focused on the message the group was trying to deliver, rather than the individuals conducting it (although, of course, the Anonymous brand has become a bit of a celebrity in its own right).

But beyond that, Coleman suggested that anonymity helped connect seemingly disparate people. "While most people in Anonymous are kind of geeky types, the geeky world is pretty diverse," she said. After a number of their identities have been revealed, we now know that the group includes a perhaps unlikely mix of teenage hackers, older political activists, and tech enthusiasts of varying abilities.

"I don't think you'd have Sabu, Jeremy Hammond, Topiary and Tflow [collaborating] if they weren't anonymous," said Coleman.

From its trollish origins to its hacktivist ethos, anonymity can be at least partly credited for both bringing the group together, and continuing to define its changing mission.