What anon has to say to @: Part 1

February 15, 2008

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I’ve been telling Infomorph that I was going to write something about the planned 2/10 protests for something like three weeks now to the point where the protests have come and gone and I’m only now sitting down to hammer this out. At this point I think my thoughts fall into two separate entries so this is the first focusing on how what Anon has done and how it gives hope to radicals and anarchists of all types, but particularly those of us of a more pro-tech orientation.

Sometime in mid-January a video was pulled from YouTube and other video hosting websites. The video depicted Tom Cruise talking about how Scientology changed his life and featured a manic, giggling Cruise extolling the virtues of CoS. The videos were apparently pulled at the behest of the Church and in the wake of their pulling several mirror sites of the video went up. The Church acted to have these taken down too and the denizens of /b/, those known as Anonymous, who had been enjoying mocking the video as well as each other with the video, decided that the response of the church made it a prime victim for lulz. In this case, lulz initially took the form of flooding CoS websites with spam comments, DoS attacks against CoS sites, hacking CoS sites to display obscene images or redirect to pornographic websites, and ordering taxis, pizzas, and fire department call outs to CoS facilities.

This kind of merry pranksterism is not unheard of with /b/ and they usually do this to a victim for a few days until the novelty wears off. But the CoS didn’t react like most of their victims, by getting first angry and then resigned to their teasing until it went away. Instead, the church actively pursued Anon, trying to shut down /b/ and threatening several people with lawsuits whom they suspected as being involved (most were not, they had merely had their IPs used by Anon to conduct the attacks on CoS). This continued back and forth until a series of YouTube videos were released by Anon declaring war on CoS. The legal response of CoS to these videos, as well as the hysterical response of several CoS members in YouTube videos of their own, led the Anon members of /b/ to suggest ‘IRL trolling’ by way of actual protests. So a date and time were suggested on /b/ and spread through YouTube video and viral marketing. Ideas were kicked around on /b/ and elsewhere and the idea gained steam. Finally on 2/10/08 protests started popping up around the world, starting in Australia but making their way all the way around, finally drawing over 400 people in Los Angeles. Not too bad for a campaign that never held a single planning meeting, that has no membership list, and whose members more than likely have never met another member.

Simply put, this represents the promise of a new way of protesting, or organizing, and of tactically advancing towards a goal. And the best part is that it uses almost totally non-heirarchical structures to do it. If you look at how the protest was initiated, advanced, and executed, what you see is a process where there were no leaders, no physical organizations, and no ego trips. Literally everyone was Anonymous, and this continued on through the protests. Most of the protesters were masked and even though it was apparent that some knew each other outside of the protest, they all referred to each other as “Anonymous”.

But this is nothing short of an organizational miracle. What you have is, in some ways, a technology-fueled grail for future actions. It was the development of a consensus in an identity-free environment where opinions were aired, options considered, and plans laid without individual ego coming into it. Watching the 2/10 protests come together was like watching anarchy in action, as it should be. Decisions were arrived at by consensus with little pressure being exerted to conform (there was an underlying injunction to avoid violence, but this was just as often challenged as it was accepted).

Anonymous, and the CoS protests, have laid the groundwork for how the internet, SMS/mobile technologies, and grassroots hacktivist tactics can be used to build a global movement that lacks leaders, that lacks structure, but that still is able to work towards a goal and pull off a rather stunning showing (400-600 in Los Angeles, lesser numbers elsewhere). Anon should be applauded and admired for being the first to use these tools to pull off such an audacious undertaking. You may hate what anon stands for, you may find them personally repellent and politically wrongheaded (more about this in part 2) but I’d still ask that you consider what they have accomplished aside from the why.

For those interested here are some of the videos posted by Anonymous:

The original declaration

The Call to Action

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One Response to “What anon has to say to @: Part 1”

  1. Anonymous Observer? Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this report on the 2/10/08 Anonymous protest, Antisocialite!

    “Simply put, this represents the promise of a new way of protesting, or organizing, and of tactically advancing towards a goal. And the best part is that it uses almost totally non-hierarchical structures to do it. If you look at how the protest was initiated, advanced, and executed, what you see is a process where there were no leaders, no physical organizations, and no ego trips.”

    This was a fascinating example of technologically coordinated anonymous activism. While ego dynamics that may be somewhat useful for standard types of leadership are absent (at least in explicitly identified forms – people can have private ego trips based on the effects of their anonymous actions) and activity was coordinated in a highly decentralized manner, I’m not sure it is accurate or ultimately useful to say that “no leaders” were involved (vague perceptions of efforts as “spontaneously generated” could induce many sympathizers to act lazy much like perceptions of the inevitability of given outcomes). I think a more realistic description, albeit with less rhetorical punch, would be that there were no (easily) identifiable, centrally operating, designated leaders working within formalized hierarchies.

    Without individuals providing leadership in terms of inspiration and initiative, contribution of personal talent and skill sets, there would not have been any mass protest (with additional coordination, where present, provided by on-the-ground Anonymous leaders organizing clusters of 10-15 and selective use of megaphones). A few of the videos looked as though they were designed and written by the same person or people.

    Then there is the idea of leadership as a quality of character and behavior almost anyone can tap into, such as “personal leadership,” which, by a proponent’s account, would include every Anonymous who made it out to an event or somehow helped facilitate the effort.

    Perhaps a new word or phrase (e.g. collective leadership) might be useful to employ but clearly functions and attributes of leadership were shouldered by individuals and without such efforts the event would not have been conceived or carried out.

    One of the ideological mental blocks I have encountered in imagining a viable, modern, large-scale anarchist community has had to do with the inevitable need for functions associated with leadership to be carried out by individuals (in at least some cases with much less personal accountability than elected leaders and no obvious means of obliging anyone to provide essential services). Perhaps more advanced technologies might change the dynamics through greater automation and voluntary self-modification, but at least for the near-term anarchist movements seem to depend entirely on the voluntary leadership efforts of ideological community members.

    “Not too bad for a campaign that never held a single planning meeting, that has no membership list, and whose members more than likely have never met another member.”

    Overall, I agree. However, it would seem difficult to know with any confidence how many Anonymous who produced important media content met privately and even non-anonymously to plan or create that content. Some of the content in the media messages included strategic advice and requests.

    “It was the development of a consensus in an identity-free environment where opinions were aired, options considered, and plans laid without individual ego coming into it. Decisions were arrived at by consensus with little pressure being exerted to conform (there was an underlying injunction to avoid violence, but this was just as often challenged as it was accepted).”

    What kind of consensus was produced through this “identity-free” effort? It wasn’t directly, meticulously representative of collective will, as in voting. It wasn’t even representative in the same way as I’ve been told some Maori village meetings operate, in which topics may be debated for several days until everyone agrees on a set of positions and courses of action (I don’t believe any options were left “undecided” – so achieving groupthink was mandatory).

    Consensus may be the outcome, but in terms of the production of plans, media statements, etc., the functions of de-facto “collective leadership” of Anonymous, the unregulated (self-) selection and approval process seems meritocratic in nature. Sympathizers flocked to YouTube videos created by the most rhetorically eloquent, media savvy, artistically capable, activism experienced people to bother producing such content to receive their marching suggestions. In Anonymous there are still people fulfilling roles that are similar in a functional sense to hierarchical “generals” and “intel” but they appoint themselves (or their teams) to those roles and any people who collaborate with them do on a strictly voluntary basis – a decision partially motivated by the quality of their work. In a less formally structured and more decentralized manner, it reminds me of the radically democratic leadership system design of the “Canonizer” system created by Brent Allsop, a programmer and one of the leaders of the h+ community in Utah:

    http://canonizer.com/

    http://canonizer.com/topic.asp/10

    P.S. I note that Brent references a book titled, _The Myth of Leadership: How to Build a Leaderless Organization_

    Again, this sounds like a system run by collective leadership or an organization of leaders (potential or current) rather than one run with no leadership and no leaders.


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