The documentary recently released by Brian Knappenberger tells the story of Anonymous as we moved out of the virtual world and into the real world, becoming the very well-known phenomenon it is today. With no central narrator, Brian allows the story to be told by anons, academics, journalists, and security professionals with very little mediation. There were three members of NYC Anon / Motherfuckery.org who were featured in the film, as well as some of our friends and allies. There were also some foes, and those who famously share contrasting opinions.
Naturally, it is impossible to tell a 5+ year long story in two hours without leaving out some critical things. Anonymous, being a very complex and multi-faceted beast, could not be a more difficult entity to pin down and describe to people which are alien to our culture. As an outsider, Brian Knappenberger has done an amazing job. But as veteran members of Anonymous’s first real coalescence, we are in a unique position to fill in some gaps.
We can take issue with the idea that we came from /b/. It is absolutely true that the culture has initially been expressed through 4chan’s “random” board, and many anons consider /b/ to be a homeworld of sorts. Understand though that it is far more accurate to describe /b/ as the result of an already formed internet culture. The major early raids described in the movie- the Habbo Hotel raid and the Hal Turner raids, were only partially planned on /b/. There were always secondary locations from which these raids were conducted, whether it is supplemental forums or existing anon-friendly IRC chats, which served as the next step after the launching pad was established. This is because we are true internet citizens, and there are many places which we frequent as people who have ascertained an advanced familiarity with it. It has not only been difficult for us to find content which is new to us, but also to find places where other individuals with this same familiarity compose the majority of the user base. Many internet citizens had been relegated to those specific forums and sites, as they were the only places they could be amongst their virtual peers. The existence of a web of places like this, so critical to our culture, was under-stressed in the movie.
Decentralization is an underlying idea within Anonymous, with the leaderless structure of our community being the most obvious reflection of this. For a culture so strongly based on anonymity, it’s the extreme individuality of our uses which makes us dynamic and capable of producing new content in unexpected directions. In We Are Legion, Anonymous’s progression and history was expressed as quite linear, the result of a general consensus within the community. In order to express why this is inaccurate, we must do what the film did not have the time do to: describe the anatomy of major Anonymous projects.
We can begin once again by examining our culture’s decentralization. One prime example is the simple question: how many anons are there in total? A recent stat shows 4chan.org as getting as many as 400,000 unique visitors per day, while various anon-based activism forums see tens of thousands of accounts. Unfortunately, adding these numbers up and estimating any type of userbase means absolutely nothing. The fact is that there are simply millions of people worldwide who can identify with anonymous culture, even if they do not in fact consider themselves anons. Millions of people know our memes, generate content with us, share our jokes with their offline friends, and wouldn’t fall for a link leading to nimp.org. And more often than not they, by the vast majority, do not identify themselves as “members of Anonymous”.
Nomenclature aside, what we can see is how many of those millions of people actively engage in Anonymous raid activities, and it is a very very slim percentage. Project Chanology at its peak had between 10,000 and 20,000 active anons engaged in raids, mostly only participating online in some capacity. Project Payback has seen very similar participation ceilings, but was most notably clocked at around 5,000 anons active at any time. When Project Payback morphed into Anonops and the more current incarnation of activist Anonymous, it has at times had more active users than the previous projects, but still just a tiny fraction of the whole. It is for this reason why it is so highly discouraged for any one anon to claim to speak for all of Anonymous, and why we have so many times become disgusted by the audacity of those in a particular project to claim a morality base for Anonymous.
We can measure the user base of a project because only in projects does Anonymous cease being a fluid entity. During a project action, most participants usually identify themselves as members of Anonymous. A project can define what its member’s basic and unifying set of ideals are. Projects can even disassociate from certain elements of Anonymous history which they may find unsavory or inconvenient. Uniquely, projects also have an actual start date and indisputable origin story, whereas accounts of Anonymous’s beginnings range from the start of 4chan in October of 2003, to 2000BC where weird Greeks would run around in masks making fun of each other on a holiday.
From a philosophical standpoint, there have been a gigantic range of answers to the question “What is Anonymous?” We have posed answers in the past, such as the idea that it’s a collection of anonymous internet citizens, or that it is a movement for freedom of speech, or that it is an anti-establishment counter culture, or that it is a Scientology hate group, or a collection of hackers. The list goes on and on, and every answer is equally right and equally wrong. Only in the context of the projects, a clear sub-culture of greater Anonymous, can these be addressed. They are able to validate an individual’s Anonymous membership, the criterion strongly varying between incidences. A person who may be considered an oldfag and a notorious troll in Operation Payback circles can (and fucking does) get called a moralfag, who sucks at trolling, by a Chanologist. A Chanologist will also in turn get called a moralfag and a newfag in the context of 4chan. Activists from Occupy who identify as Anonymous are only considered actual anons by AnonOps, and even in that new project’s context are neophytes.
Still, not all individuals identifying themselves as members of Anonymous are able to readily seize this important idea. Why is this? It is because of how Anonymous is forced to organize in a decentralized environment. The beginning of all new raids goes like this:
• Something happens to draw anon attention
• There is a catalyst, bringing people to action
• Different plans and actions across many forums and chat channels; static web pages form
• Initial attacks are executed while the anons establish strong lines of communication between the planning channels and their various hosts
• The planning channels centralize around one medium, which then becomes the main source of information on future action
• Initial momentum is lost, while lasting infrastructure (sites, admins, organizers, and available tools) become proprietary toward the new project.
• The new project defines itself as an entity, whether its members like it or not
• Under this rigid organizational structure, specific cells form based on criterion like location and purpose.
Many raids only make it as far as the fourth bullet point, while true projects with lasting power follow this path. In the final environment, those of radically dissenting opinion of the project’s leadership and the remaining members have usually all been pruned out. When new people join the project’s central community, they are presented with an entirely proprietary set of Anonymous ideas. They are then indoctrinated within this smaller idea of Anonymous, very frequently missing the larger points. Just how small of a fraction the new user gets of anon ideals is highly dependent on the tenor of this one centralized place, or local cell. **Cells can have an evolution of their own, mirroring the path of an entire project. They then eventually identify as their own named entity, and can exist outside the project of their birth. Members can say, with utmost confidence, what Anonymous believes and what it fights for- regardless of how completely unrecognizable those ideals would be to an anon from a different project or place.
We can clearly see that there are major differences in the definition of Anonymous just project to project. But what about this idea (as correctly presented in the documentary) that Anonymous is constantly evolving and therefore the project modality may be a moot point? This is true, or would be true, if these projects developed in a linear timeline, with the most recent project being the current face of Anonymous. Again with credit to Knappenberger, he did include brief contrary explanations courtesy of Gabriella Coleman (who has been a longtime friend of NYCanon and a true authority on Anonymous), but less astute viewers may see a clear timeline of project origins, and will not understand a true decentralized structure.
Let’s ask a classically stupid question: If humans evolved from primates, then how come there are still monkeys? Well, because evolution doesn’t work that way. A frustratingly little known fact is that Project Chanology is actually still going on, with its central hub whyweprotest.net. It sees thousands of unique hits per month, organizes dozens of protest actions at a time, regularly disseminates information to the public with practiced ease, and continues to pound the fuck out of the Church of Scientology. **It is undeniable, as a side note, that the war between Anonymous and Scientology is outmoded, but mostly because we fucking won. You tend to shut the fuck up when a group of internet assholes directly causes or meaningfully facilitates your religion being kicked out of half a dozen countries, makes half of your membership leave, exposes all of your secrets, and costs you millions of dollars and destroys 50 years of public relations as your management throws in the towel. As a sub group which was established as a part of Project Chanology, we of NYC Anonymous share many of the ideals of other Chanology anons, but very few of the ideals of Occupy Wall Street. You could see in this context, that a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask at an Occupy protest will be a completely different animal from an NYCanon, although we can both identify ourselves as members of Anonymous.
More interesting than this is that there are many anons who freely participate in multiple projects simultaneously. Sometimes with different internet handles, and in varying positions and repute. Most anons only participate in a single project, or no project at all. Anonymous activism as a whole, while in its state of multiple projects, more keenly resembles the protean pre-Chanology Anonymous than it does a unified entity. It has no one centralized forum, but rather is a conglomerate of very different places. It is comprised of factions with different interests, which very frequently clash. Some groups have talents the others do not. They produce completely different original content, which finds its way around the internet as a representation of Anonymous culture, and depending on which particular content the audience is exposed to, a different idea of Anonymous is understood.
Our audience, when it contains traditional media, then wraps this content in a story and projects it out to the public. The general public, in turn, has no idea what the fuck is going on. Every once in a while, more in depth stories and articles attempt to clarify what this entity known as Anonymous really is, with few coming even close. And now, somebody has tried to present this entity to the public, in a comprehensive way, in a full length feature film. Our contentions aside, Brian Knappenberger and his staff have told much of our story better than any outsider has done before. For that, we are eternally grateful that somebody has pulled off this herculean task.