Gabriella Coleman is already a well-known and respected scholar in the field of cyberculture and hacking. She has published numerous articles on the subject and her book on Anonymous was eagerly expected for quite some time. Finally, it came out in November 2014 and portrays Anonymous since their inception in the Internet’s underbelly all the way to the summer of 2014.
Coleman, being an anthropologist, offers a take on Anonymous and hacktivism that is somewhat different from the more prevalent optics of IT security, political science and law. She does not dwell too much on their specific politics, legality of their actions or the technical aspects of their exploits. Instead, she elaborately traces the culture of the geek and hacker community and explores interactions within it. What emerges is the story of the gradual transformation of Anonymous from the caustic collective of trolls into a global movement of passionate political activists, through which she carefully weaves the narrative of trickster mythology.
From the first pages it is apparent that this is a story which is told from the Coleman’s own perspective. She shares her own experiences in an engaging and eminently readable way. Her encounters with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or weev (a notorious troll) are full of character and help drive this point home. Some passages truly manage to capture the mood of the moment – the tense atmosphere of the Hackers On Planet Earth conference in New York springs to mind.
Moreover, she does not try to hide her own opinions and does not present the book as an absolutely objective historical account of the movement and free of any bias. Her sympathies towards some of the ideals Anonymous fight for shine through even though she is often critical of their methods. This is probably most visible in the chapter on Chanology, the Anonymous campaign against the Church of Scientology. Coleman does not tiptoe around and does not mince her words. The only thing she clearly despises even more than the Church of Scientology is the Settlers of Catan board game. The other thing she remains highly critical of is the overzealous prosecution of political hackers and their disproportionately harsh sentencing in the US. Nevertheless, Coleman’s unmasked bias does not in any way detract from the insights she bestows upon the reader.
The book is also replete with direct copies of chat logs (mostly from IRC), often in their original form, with typos and profanities alike. This mostly helps to convey the culture and common modes of communication. Even a brief history of lulz and trolling is included, so the book should be of interest even to the readers curious about cyberculture and not necessarily just Anonymous. While her writing style might turn off readers expecting dry scholarly tome, those unfamiliar with lulz, trolling, IRC and various boards can get some sense of what it entails. On the other hand, it cannot substitute firsthand experience, so those truly interested should just go and check out those places themselves (at their own peril).
Possibly the most tricky and fascinating subject she delves into is the issue of informants within the community and the interplay between the pseudonymity and trust among individual hackers and their associates. She first approaches this subject through Adrian Lamo, the hacker who reported Bradley Manning to the authorities after he leaked US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. To say the least, this action did not make him terribly popular among the hacker community. The book naturally culminates at the point when Sabu (Hector Xavier Monsegur), a very prominent Anonymous hacker, turns out to be an FBI informant, which sends waves throughout the movement. It is further complicated by the fact that Coleman has met Sabu (and many other hackers and Anonymous activists) in person. This serves as a reminder that even a physical contact over a coffee or any other beverage is not enough to untangle the intricate and ever shifting web of identities, secret rooms and various cabals. Afterall, they are what makes Anonymous anonymous and why Anonymous is not unanimous.
This anonymity and lack of outward individuality is even culturally enforced. Coleman cites a number of instances when individuals who decided to take credit for themselves angered their colleagues. Fame-seeking or promoting centralised leadership is strictly prohibited. However, this prohibition does not stem from some institutionalized doctrine. It is the unwritten ethos and culture which lead the collective to intuitively stamp out any individual attempting to grab the limelight for themselves and to shun any form of overt hierarchy or any fixed set of rules.
In the end, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is a must-read book for anyone interested in the culture, security or political activism in the age of the Internet, its profanity and slant notwithstanding.
Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Verso, New York. ISBN 978–1–78168–583–9