Gabriella Coleman started studying hackers before it was cool -- in 1999, to be precise, after being introduced to the open source movement by a programmer friend. She got a preemptive whiff of the hacker collective Anonymous in 2001 while working on a project about the early '90s strife between the hacker and Scientologist communities. In 2008, when Anonymous entered the scene to take on the Church of Scientology, Coleman was prepared. "I was like, look at this -- geeks going after the Church again," she said.
Coleman's studies of Anonymous expanded as the collective grew in size. Today, she's an expert on Anonymous, is currently working on a book about the collective, and is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Coleman shared her thoughts on the diversity in Anonymous, the ethics of "trolling" and on bringing members of the collective into her classroom.
Who is Anonymous? How many members are there?
One of the fascinating things about Anonymous is that unlike the open-source world, which I studied for so long, you don’t need technological skills and capacities to participate. It’s like -- I just want to join. I’m anonymous; let me start a Twitter account; let me find people on Internet-related chat and find a group who are working together; let me put up a website. In that sense, it’s much more open and attracted a lot more people, and it’s one of the reasons you have these nodes popping up in India, Romania and the Philippines. It really has this propensity to spread.
The other thing is that through my ethnographic work, I think the anonymity means that different kinds of people can get involved. While there’s not tons of women, I have been pretty surprised at the diversity. There’s a big queer community, there's people living in trailer parks, there's others who are part of the 1 percent ... The anonymity is such that it allows very different types of people to get involved. So there’s an underlying diversity to Anonymous that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Besides the connection to Scientology, what interests you about Anonymous?
Well, one relates to that conversion tradition, that metamorphoses from Internet trolling … to activism. It’s like this magical transformation. I started to look at them when they were trolling the Church [of Scientology], but I was there to stay when that transformation happened.
And then the second element has to do with the concept of anonymity. It’s so present in their day-to-day interactions and it’s a world that really calls people out if they’re seeking public recognition or fame or money -- it’s really taboo. And as an anthropologist, I'm really fascinated by that, especially because there’s a lot of anthropological literature on small scale societies where people’s aspirations and egos are kept in check.
How did you start studying Anonymous when you found it?
IRC [Internet Relay Chat]. I joined a channel when they were just protesting the Church of Scientology, and that network wasn’t as secretive because they very quickly just started protesting the Church using very legal channels -- they were very offensive and irreverent, but legal. So I went to their protest and met people there and I was on the IRC channels.
What’s fascinating is when new nodes [of Anonymous] started to pop up which were much more illegal or [where] more illegal action was happening, I would just lurk a little and I got called out. Like, "who are you?" and I’d say, "I'm Gabrielle Coleman and I look at this sort of stuff" and they’d say, "Oh yeah, we’ve watched your videos" -- because I had given talks about the earlier stuff. And they said they really liked them and that became an opening.
And then I was put in an interesting position where I became a kind of broker between the media and Anonymous, especially initially, and I would help reporters find them and I would do translation and I would do media reports.
Wait, so you told them that you were an academic and they welcomed you anyway?
Yeah. The pressure not to become public means, who speaks for Anonymous? … The thing about me is that I’m structurally outside and yet I know what’s going on, and so I became a handy broker.
You were a broker to the outside world, so did Anonymous try to manipulate what you saw within the community?
I’m publishing this article about the massive contentions within Anonymous, and that was a story that I couldn’t really tell early on because they didn’t fully exist and it took a while for me to fully understand what was going on. I think that there’s a way in which some of the hackers were doing everything to try to make sure I would toe the party line. But then I started to find out things like, for example, a lot of times Anonymous will claim a hack, but they’re not the source. They didn’t necessarily do the work; they got it from elsewhere.
Anonymous is known for being pretty sexist sometimes, and you're a woman. How does that work out for you?
There’s this great term by this great Russian philosopher/linguist [Mikhail Mikhailovich] Bakhtin, which is "double voice hybrid." It means trollist language can be racist but it also can be a parody and undermine those categories. It depends on the situation, the receiver and so many different elements. Obviously [I'm] someone who has been part of these worlds ... [but] it doesn’t make me uncomfortable in part through being desensitized and also because I get what they’re doing.
There have been moments, especially on IRC, when people are like, "Will you marry me? I love you." On the one hand it’s not inappropriate -- I mean it is inappropriate, but not misogynistic necessarily. They’re not sending me disgusting images and making me feel harassed, but there’s an inappropriateness: "No, you shouldn’t be asking me to marry you." That definitely has happened in Anonymous … I chalk it up to, it's a crazy world down there. It's volatile, unexpected, brimming with humor, extremity, drugs, and in that context, it doesn’t surprise me that it happens.
Quinn Norton has reported you've brought members of Anonymous to your classes. Is that true? How have you convinced them to come?
I have had people from Anonymous come to my class. Some have been part of the Chanology Network, which is not illegal so they could show up, and I’ve had people Skype in as well. You know it's really fun to talk about what you do to people who want to eat it up and listen, so it’s not too hard to convince them.
What do you bring them in for? What do they usually talk about in your classes?
Some of it is just to give a sense of why they got involved and what Anonymous is like. Although the last time some people came -- they did it through Skype because they were in New York -- they gave these amazing speeches that I’m going to use parts of in my book. They were so well written, reflecting on the nature of Anonymous and what it means and some of its pitfalls -- it was really astounding. So they gave speeches. They were like, "we’re really going to prepare," and that’s exactly what they did.
It was. My students were blown away.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.