[Book] Anthropologist explores the many faces of Anonymous

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
by Gabriella Coleman
Verso Publishers
November 2014
Hardback, 464 pages


Half a dozen years ago, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman set out to study the rise of this global phenomenon just as some of its members were turning to political protest and dangerous disruption (before Anonymous shot to fame as a key player in the battles over WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street). She ended up becoming so closely connected to Anonymous that the tricky story of her inside-outside status as Anon confidante, interpreter, and erstwhile mouthpiece forms one of the themes of this witty and entirely engrossing book.

The narrative brims with details unearthed from within a notoriously mysterious subculture, whose semi-legendary tricksters – such as Topiary, tflow, Anachaos, and Sabu – emerge as complex, diverse, politically and culturally sophisticated people. Propelled by years of chats and encounters with a multitude of hackers, including imprisoned activist Jeremy Hammond and the double agent who helped put him away, Hector Monsegur, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is filled with insights into the meaning of digital activism and little understood facets of culture in the Internet age, including the history of “trolling,” the ethics and metaphysics of hacking, and the origins and manifold meanings of “the lulz.”

Canadian writes and editor Hans Rollman wrote a lengthy review on the book in PopMatters, an international magazine of cultural criticism and analysis, which is worth a read. It quotes from an interview with the author and explores the methodological challenges. An excerpt:

A vibrant and perceptive work of ethnography, her study offers a rewarding balance of historical context, broad social movement analysis, and more narrowly focused examinations of key individuals, groups and moments in Anonymous’ relatively brief existence. But it also reads with the narrative pace of a thriller: as Anonymous shifts form and tactics in response to – and to engagement with – the often sensationalistic media coverage of its activities, the response of corporate and political regimes frequently frames those activities as illegal. Coleman’s research participants are at constant risk of persecution and arrest by legal authorities in many of the countries in which they operate.

But more than anything, what her book conveys is a sense of the cultural richness of a world that is growing and changing in rapid and dramatic ways.

> See also this 2012 Fast Company story (as reported on this blog)