Guy Fawkes mask, associated with Anonymous, worn at a Wellington demo in solidarity with Palestine
For those who’ve been watching Internet culture for a while, it’s still a bit of a culture shock to see Anonymous being discussed in the mainstream media. As this article is being written, Anonymous has been credited with bringing down the website of a large private university in India whose boss had been censoring Internet articles criticising him. Also in the news, Anonymous claims to have hacked some 600,000 Israeli email accounts as part of an ongoing campaign.
The media generally describe Anonymous as a “hacktivist” group. But the most important thing to understand is that Anonymous is not a group of any sort, or an ideology. It’s an idea, and a culture.
The birthplace of Anonymous as we know it was the infamous webforum 4chan, whose “random” board (/b/) is known (among much less polite things) as “the cesspool of the internet”. Contributions to 4chan are all credited to “Anonymous”– there is no way to trace any image or message to any individual. Under the Anonymous moniker – except a permanent ban for anyone posting child pornography – posters to /b/ (known as “/b/tards”) are free to act out the darkest impulses of their psyche and of the cultural environment.
The board has become notorious as the place to go for the most sexist, racist, homophobic, gory and otherwise transgressive content imaginable. However, the no-limits creativity of this environment also has also given birth to so many of the Internet injokes we can now take for granted. “LOLcats”, for example, began as a 4chan custom known as “Caturday”. You can now buy T-shirts, calendars, badges and other items featuring images and concepts which had their origin on 4chan. Of course, the anonymous originators of this content don’t get a slice of the profits.
In this culture, harrassment and “trolling” are not only tolerated, but considered high entertainment. Those who get on Anonymous’ wrong side can expect to have their personal details broadcast, their websites and email addresses hacked, and to be harrassed with prank phone calls and bogus pizza deliveries – and worse.
But – perhaps surprisingly – the power of Anonymous began to be used for pro-social causes. One famous target of Anonymous was an American teenager who posted a YouTube video of himself abusing his pet cat. Another was neo-Nazi talk radio host Hal Turner, who was driven off air and unmasked as an FBI provocateur. Read the rest of this entry »