Mr. Washington Goes to Anonymous

Welcome to one of the inner rings of The Establishment. We're near Dupont Circle, a short distance to the various centers of power in Washington, DC. The Capitol Building is not so far. The White House, too. The myriad National Associations dot the streets, and the K Street lobbyists and big law firms are a few blocks away.

Here we find The Brookings Institution, one of DC's oldest think tanks. When you think of people in suits coming up with policies that become laws, this is one of the places you're thinking about. 

Today's order of business was a panel about Anonymous, about hacktivism, about... the lulz. "Radical online activism is a new public-policy challenge, with groups such as Anonymous being described as everything from terrorist organizations to freedom fighters," the Institution billed it.

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The speaker charged with explaining Anonymous' idiosyncrasies was Biella Coleman, an anthropologist who has been studying the group and its affiliates for months and months. An hour before she went on stage, she asked her Twitter followers, "The question for today: do I dare say 'Ultra-Coordinated Motherfuckeray' to the D.C. establishment in one hour?" (She didn't, sadly.)

This is the challenge Anonymous poses to the establishment. For those who think it is risky to wear a skinny tie, the group's argot and traditions are so alien that it's difficult to parse what the the group is. I have long imagined some DC lawyers gathered around 4chan.org with looks of horror and disgust on their faces. Even Coleman, who has spent massive amounts of time embedded among Anonymous and 4chan users, noted that the latter site was "teeming with pornography" and that many of its members communicate "in a language that seems to reduce English to a string of epithets." Which would, of course, be the point. Outsiders aren't supposed to understand.

So, when Coleman came to the microphone before the Brookings-blue logos of the stage, I was curious to see how her presentation of the social dynamics of Anonymous might be perceived. She described the group's birth on 4chan and the turn that some groups within the larger mass took to engage in activist politics in 2008, changes that came in the process of griefing the Church of Scientology in Project Chanology. Through that experience, various Anons developed the digital and physical moves that they'd later use on other organizations.

She covered several other notable Anonymous and AnonOps (separate group) exploits. What was fascinating about her talk was the way that it gave the impression that -- much as people would like to -- it is very difficult to separate out the different kinds of activities that define Anonymous' do-ocracy. Anonymous, a bit like Occupy Wall Street, is as much a platform for action as anything else, and individual efforts are largely separate from any other effort. This massive decentralization of power makes it difficult for Anonymous to stand for any one thing or even to ask that question of itself as an institution. It wouldn't make sense to say, "What are Anonymous' politics?" even if it seems clear that, in inchoate, intuitive form, there are some.

Coleman also highlighted the way Anons follow a strictly enforced "no fame" policy in which those members who seek celebrity are shunned. But inside the group, individuality is encouraged. The whole enterprise is "evasive, shifty, and nomadic," but not necessarily in a bad way.

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