The internet, as the saying goes, is serious business. From Facebook fanatics who obsesses over how many online friends they have, to World of Warcraft players who spend weeks farming for equipment of no discernable value, all online communities have been the target of ridicule at one point or another. But for Anonymous, everything is fair game.
Anonymous, the loosely defined community surrounding 4chan.org’s “random” image board (called /b/), is many things to many people. It’s an elite hacker network, an internet hate machine, a group of know-nothings, a cabal of know-it-alls, a cesspool of hatred and a shining city on a hill. But for all the colorful names bandied about, few have seen Anonymous for what it really is: a self-contained culture, the extremity of which is difficult to unearth even in the dark corners of the internet. The community has earned notoriety for some of its crueler and more obnoxious stunts, all in the name of the war against Serious Business.
The real world takes itself too seriously, which is why /b/tards – people who frequent /b/ – retreat onto the internet, where they can ridicule the pressures of everyday life by abstaining from them. But many take online communication as seriously as real life, forcing /b/tards to retreat farther from humanity to uphold their ironic detachment. The anonymity that /b/ affords is a surrogate world where anyone can become everyone and pay no heed to the conventions of reality outside the website.
In theory, /b/ is a place where people can leave behind their individual identities and become part of the collective. In practice, the only unity visible on the /b/ image board is the unanimous rejection of the real world as a guide for conduct. The result is the repulsiveness of /b/ that “serious” people abhor: pornography, racism, misanthropy and more frequency and variety of the word “fag” than any Xbox Live voice chat.
So, how in the world did a secluded online community, widely considered to be a bunch of social misfits and outcasts with little vested interests beyond expanding their collections of violent fetish porn, become a potent, organized activist group that has protested against the Church of Scientology since January in an operation called “Project Chanology“?
For one thing, they’re not quite so homogeneously pathetic at all. “The hundreds of people I have met at various Anonymous raids have all been great people from many walks of life,” says Mark Bunker, the Producer of xenutv.com, who has been fighting the Church since 1999. “Many of them are young, but not all of them. I’ve met students, doctors, lawyers, people from law enforcement and so many other fields taking to the streets, wearing the masks and speaking out because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”
The action Anonymous took against the Church was initially reminiscent of other “raids” or “invasions,” two common self-created terms for the organized antagonism of its targets. Characterized by threatening videos posted on YouTube and Direct Denial of Service attacks on Scientologist websites, Anonymous’ skirmishes with its first powerful real-life presence were both fought on its home turf of cyberspace and in its own style of high-fun, low-impact harassment. According to Bunker, Anonymous’ initially got involved “when a Tom Cruise videotape was leaked onto the internet at the same time the Tom Cruise biography hit bookstores. [The Church of] Scientology’s systematic removal of the video from YouTube caught Anonymous’ attention, and they got involved from a free speech standpoint.” But defending free speech assumes that Anonymous would not silence the Church’s own communications in retaliation – which they did – and that they would take their championing of the First Amendment more seriously than flooding a few websites and calling it a day – which they didn’t.
How, then, did the raid on the Church go from DDoS attacks to standing on street corners in major cities around the world with signs, masks and cake – all within less than a month? How was it that Bunker watched “Anonymous virtually pivot on a dime?” For his part, Bunker became Anonymous’ advisor, Wise Beard Man. “I made a video to suggest they stay within the law and do things the right way,” Bunker says. “I worried Anonymous would attack me for daring to make the suggestion, but I felt I had to say something. Happily, most understood my points and agreed with me. They dubbed me Wise Beard Man and started to rethink their involvement and their tactics and quickly transformed in a way Scientology has never been willing to do.” And there it is, in all its glorious simplicity – Anonymous rethought, transformed and changed. Did a convincing paradigm shift carry Anonymous into the real world with an ennobling goal?
Not necessarily. It was also an internal polarization: We only saw the more elevated, optimistically charged side in the real world, while its opposite sunk further into /b/. After all, if the entirety of the community had undergone a psychological revolution, the term “moralfag” wouldn’t exist to describe the side of Anonymous that Bunker helped foster in the community. Behind every audacious real-world protest was the dilemma the moralfag presented to the traditional /b/tard. So much of the Anonymous mentality is the perpetual goal of retreating farther and farther from the expectations and norms of the real world; yet here were members of Anonymous, bringing their memes and their love for the humorously grim and perverse and even their anti-identities out onto the sidewalks of the real world with their signs and quips and masks and a certain unbridled joy at showing the world their carefully cultivated and impossible to decipher cultural complex?
This tug of war has led to brief, intense surges of unfounded conspiratorial backlash against a part of Anonymous that has become foreign to itself. Most common was the assumption that those members of Anonymous that involved themselves in the protests were new – drawn in by hype or stories of former exploits – and so could not possibly be representative of the true Anonymous. These claims ignored the impossibility of knowing anything for certain about another member of Anonymous, including his intentions or experience. Indeed, it takes a certain leap of faith to assume the majority of these traditionalists are even serious in the slightest, and not just more of the same Anonymous having fun by raising havoc in their own ranks.
The biggest question that weighed on the organization was not about who was doing what, where, when and so on, but what was going to happen. It signified a breaking point: Anonymous was either going to separate into distinct factions that were rapidly growing apart in goals and ideology, or its old nature – maybe its true nature – would reign in the radicals, and /b/ would return to the usual firestorm of unnerving ephemera.
Interest in further action against the Church of Scientology waned greatly after the first two protests when the real-world media omitted further protests from their coverage. Anonymous came back together by virtue of its common tether, and the fervor and enthusiasm about making the protests more than just another raid faded. 4chan’s legendary apathy towards the real world triumphed. But perhaps subtler transformations had been wrought.
“Anonymous has smashed its name into history books,” Bunker says. The protests continue, even if they aren’t the center of attention they once were. And those that soldier on are still Anonymous – they haven’t become anything radically different – but they remain a different breed. The paradox of Project Chanology couldn’t persevere otherwise. Anonymous has expanded into a more flexible community, tolerant of each other in their own affectionately vicious way. Maybe Project Chanology was necessary for introspection, for Anonymous to see that 4chan, /b/ and the /b/tards themselves are more Serious Business than they thought.
Steven Croop has recently discovered a ninja poster taped to his door, which he guesses makes him a ninja. He is currently in search of metal cutting and welding equipment to make shurikens – please contact him if you have a spare pilot arc plasma torch or traditional forge he could borrow.