I think that there’s a bit of a problem with the public’s understanding of Anonymous. It’s not that the understanding is wrong, rather it’s so incomplete that it creates misunderstandings. It misleads people as to who and why Anonymous is. The myth is that Anonymous began to come into existence in 2003 and that its lineage can be traced directly and solely back to 4chan.
I’m not writing to tell you what you know is wrong, but rather to say what I think many do not know. My purpose isn’t to tell you what Anonymous isn’t; Anonymous is as diverse as human culture itself. When presented with a general description of some of the people that can be found in Anonymous, the wise person (in my experience) will say “yes, this also.” The “no true Scotsman” fallacy is perhaps even less valid with Anonymous than it is with any group or organization in meatspace, and it’s not my intent to engage in such assertions. Nor is it my intent to criticize the coverage of Anonymous, but rather to fill in the blanks where I’m able.
Years ago, I was a hacker. I was not notorious, I wasn’t even known outside of a few message boards and the people I shared a computer lab with. I showed promise and had some talent, but I didn’t have the temperament to deal with the unforgiving syntactical precision required. This doomed me in the computer sciences and in hacking, but by then I’d immersed myself in the seas of hacker culture. Much of it, like human culture, remains unexplored by me; but I never lost touch with the hacker community and it became a part of my personal culture. This, and my strange journey through High Weirdness and a number of communities, allows me to recognize some of the roots of Anonymous.
I feel this letter is necessary not only because it might improve the public understanding, but because it’s never wise to misdefine a group. Incorrectly saying Anonymous is interested primarily in lolz or as being entirely the descendants of 4chan has a negative effect on the growth and evolution of Anonymous. We’ve seen this before, where similar mischaracterizations were leveled against the hippie community and the free love movement. Various slurs were used to describe the community, such as saying they were all dirty, until it attracted people who fit that description and eventually became what some people thought was expected of them in the community. With groups like Anonymous, this risk can be even more real. Hippies had a visible presence in meatspace, and being a hippie was generally part of their public identity rather than the entirety of it. Unless unmasked, this isn’t the case with Anons: by stripping themselves of their personal identity and ego they may find unity in intersectionality, but it also makes them much less resistant to mischaracterizations.
Even if one accepts the 2003 story as the sole genesis point, the Anonymous collective was subsequently joined by increasing numbers of hackers and hacktivists with a preexisting presence in the hacker community. Some of them went as far as to maintain three identities, their presence in meatspace, their existing presence in the hacker community, and a new “identity” as an Anon.
All the internet's a stage,
All the users merely players;
With their logouts and their logins,
And one hacker in their time plays many parts
— Michael Best (@NatSecGeek) April 10, 2017
Anonymous’ roots run deep, and its lineage can be traced back much further than 4chan. Every part of what has become part of Anonymous’ collective identity had existed for quite sometime, with the exception of the Fawkes iconography which was repurposed from his infamous role in the Gunpowder Plot as a result of the film (loosely) based on V For Vendetta. Even that exception has deep roots in the culture and community of both hackers and activists, with the only new twist being the choice of a mask bearing the likeness of Guy Fawkes. The cultural roots of Anonymous and of the hacker community trace back to, among other cultural genesises, the post-free love hippie community at the time of the advent of the personal computer.
Not only do Anonymous’ cultural roots run deep, they run to unexpected places. Much of the ethos of Anonymous can be found in the likes of Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. While this might appear to be a coincidental parallel between two unconnected communities, it is not. Or as RAW would say, it’s a “coincidance.” Leary and RAW were both early advocates for computing, the internet and cybernetics. They shared a vision of a cybernetic utopia, a new egalitarian society where information and experiences could be freely and quickly shared. While neither of them were hackers or even technically skilled, they were a peripheral part of the hacker community in its earliest days. Few today would consider them hackers, but the classic definitions of the term, the ones embraced by the community, were more forgiving and inclusive.
RAW had even played a role in creating a community very similar to Anonymous in that it was distributed, and it was more than willing to disrupt or shake things up. Many English-speaking hackers are familiar with The Illumatus Trilogy and Discordianism, a mostly fictional religion created by RAW and others. Discordianism, in fact, had a strong impact on the hacker community in its early days. It wasn’t just an unrelated non-technical predecessor of Anonymous, it was one of the seeds that Anonymous grew from. Like Anonymous, Discordianism is truly leaderless… or rather, it is leader-ful. Every member is a leader of equal authority, and every reader of this letter is hereby made a Pope in the Church of Discordia. Similarly, before Anons there were Bobs – also within the hacker community. All three of these groups mixed irreverence with good intentions and bouts of activism.
Other elements of Discordianism are strikingly similar to the ethos and methodology of Anonymous. It’s hard to read about what’s known as Operation Mindfxck (OM) and not think about the kind of “lulz” that Anonymous is associated with. The interest in “lulz” also isn’t new to Anonymous – the core idea of “lulz” was a part of the hacker community since its earliest days. Nor is it hard to find classic examples of hackers engaging in the sort of guerrilla ontology OM is known for by prankingly but radically challenging That Which Is Known, such as the magic/more magic switch. The excessive focus on it is unsurprising, “lulz” are meant to grab attention and capture the imagination. They are equally celebrated and feared, a perfect combination for the news media.
What we know as Anonymous has many younger members, true, but the older members and many of the more enduring ones grew up on the old networks. They were phreakers before they became hackers as well; they played and communicated on the BBS before image boards existed; they gathered on IRC since the late 1980s. They even made jokes and references about users known as “guest” and “anonymous” and “admin” long before Anonymous. These, of course, are only the examples where I have enough personal experience to recognize the connections.
So what changed in 2003? For the community that became Anonymous, not much. The jokes on 4chan were simply the latest version of a very old one. The things that truly changed were the technology available and how widespread access to that technology was. 2003 saw some of the earliest days of an increasingly interactive internet, which began to become known as Web 2.0 around 2004. 2003 was also still very early in the modern era of social media; Facebook didn’t yet exist in its present form. It was also the first year where more than 60% of American households had a computer and nearly 55% had internet access. The internet and its various communities, including the hacker community, were less restricted on the basis of class and financial status. As the internet became less kitschy and its user-base grew, so did the potential for an organization like Anonymous to endure.
I believe that a quote from Charles Fort is enlightening when it comes to the roots and growth of Anonymous.
Nevertheless, though I know of no standards by which to judge anything, I conceive—or accept the idea—of something that is The Standard, if I can think of our existence as an Organism. If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time.
For whatever is supposed to be meant by progress, there is no need in human minds for standards of their own: this is in the sense that no part of a growing plant needs guidance of its own devising, nor special knowledge of its own as to how to become a leaf or a root. It needs no base of its own, because the relative wholeness of the plant is relative baseness to its parts.
Anonymous didn’t emerge in its recognizable form and endure earlier than it did because society hadn’t developed to a point that could support something like Anonymous. As the technological access increased and communication became easier, Anonymous slowly grew. In that growth, it began to find collective purposes.
Since then, the cultural growth of Anonymous has been both divergent as well as convergent. The “membership” is in constant flux, with people leaving and rejoining at will. It is an ad hoc conspiracy, operating independently for shared goals. It is alternatively diplomatic and comparable to the Black Bloc. It is whatever it needs to be, whatever the world forces it to be.
Anonymous is varied and diverse. The stories told by the media are based largely off a few high profile cases and individuals, because those are the stories that are available and that are easy to tell. Anonymous has existed since before the words were first spoken, and it will exist after the last Fawkes mask is lost to time. It is not an entity that can be destroyed in a way that means anything; destroying Anonymous is like putting out a fire – it does not destroy fire itself anymore than starting a fire creates fire. It simply comes into existence when the conditions are right. So it was with Anonymous, and so it will be again. Focusing on the symbols or the “We Are Legion” words of Anonymous as key to its identity or existence is to misunderstand Anonymous.
To think that the butterfly begins when it emerges from the chrysalis is absurd, and ignores the lifetime it spent as a caterpillar. So it is with Anonymous and the myth of Anonymous ex nihilo, it mistakes a point of change and transformation for a point of genesis. Anonymous may be what you have heard and seen, and Anonymous may even be what you’ve been told… but Anonymous is also much more than that.