In early 2008, the Internet appeared in front of Scientology centers for a protest. Groups of primarily young men gathered in cities across the world. Accounts and photos of the protests indicated wildly divergent motivations. Some attendees held up signs directly criticizing Scientology’s methods, and wore politically charged V For Vendetta masks. Others carried boomboxes and played Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” or carried printouts with memes like “Longcat is loooooonnnngggg.” It was Anonymous’ first major public act, and it was confusing. Was this a legitimate protest, or was it a joke? Was there a central organization, or at least an organizing principle? What did it all mean?
It would be another two years before Anonymous re-emerged and started making bigger headlines by hacking and defacing major websites, but the central questions about organization and goals defined the group, both internally and to the media. The questions remain unanswered, but the struggle for—or against—definition leads the group’s biggest victories and defeats.
We Are Anonymous: Inside The Hacker World Of LulzSec, Anonymous, And The Global Cyber Insurgency is a journalistic attempt to trace the history, people, and relationships of Anonymous and its famous spin-off, LulzSec. Author Parmy Olson begins the story with the hacking and theft of emails from the HBGary consulting firm, using the small cadre of hackers who accomplished that deed—and later became the core of the rampaging LulzSec—as her protagonists. They’re a fascinating group of people involved in an even more compelling situation. Topiary, the group’s charismatic teenage public-relations guru, is Olson’s primary source. Sabu, the politically oriented, respected older leader, and Kayla, the girlish and extraordinarily talented database hacker, are two other LulzSec members associated with Topiary. They’re joined in the narrative by Laurelai, a 4chan member who joined the anti-Scientology protests and became increasingly important within Anonymous; Jennifer Emick, an anti-Scientology activist who eventually turned against the group; and William, a 4chan prankster who ended up helping Anonymous take on Sony.
Keeping the lens on the individuals and their relationships strengthens We Are Anonymous. First, it keeps the narrative relatively simple, something absolutely necessary with an anarchic group like Anonymous. There’s also a conventional dramatic arc to the LulzSec group: rising confidence and power turns into hubris, leading to downfall and self-examination. Olson’s structure also keeps We Are Anonymous moving quickly, as she jumps around in chronology, using dramatic cliffhangers to tie the different strands of the narrative together while commanding attention.
The characters’ magnetism and the storytelling quality help push We Are Anonymous from an interesting retelling of recent events into a bigger metaphorical story about order and chaos in activist communities. The free-for-all of 4chan’s anonymous, fast-paced, nihilistic message boards give rise to dozens of Internet memes, with that energy occasionally being channeled into pranks. The 2008 attacks on Scientology demonstrated how that energy could be applied to activism, but also demonstrated the flaws in the chaos. Without clear goals, the movement’s effectiveness couldn’t be judged. People who were interested in the results, like Emick, clashed with those who were doing it for the “lulz,” or personal amusement. The lack of structure and clear leadership meant that a few people began to fill that void secretly, while 4chan’s chaos gave way to the stricter hierarchies of IRC chats. And the lack of transparent leadership meant that the media and wider world were constantly confused about the movement’s nature and goals—something that was both a bug and a feature.
That process repeated in 2010, when Anonymous started attacking websites in the name of freedom of information—first to save the Pirate Bay, then Wikileaks. While hundreds, maybe thousands of Internet users joined in and gave the appearance of a mass movement, the attacks were guided by a much smaller group of hackers, and they succeeded thanks to the quiet use of a handful of “botnets”—groups of thousands of linked, infected computers. This was one of the core tensions of Anonymous: No matter how many people were involved in their actions, the power always resided in the experts’ hands and the botnet donors. Yet the participation of the masses motivated those “major donors,” and legitimatized the core group’s actions.
Perhaps more importantly, the chaotic mess of Anonymous protected some of the users from police response. Indeed, several of the less-savvy users of the software used to attack the websites were arrested, while the experts remained safe. But when that core group of hackers, flush on success after the HBGary attack, decided to spin off into LulzSec, their own group, they left themselves vulnerable to a determined investigation, in-fighting, and emotional exhaustion. A handful of mistakes—some technical, some personal—led to the arrest of one of the inner circle, who informed on all the others, leading to their arrests.
The mass movement of Anonymous was more effective when its most intelligent and powerful members were distilled into LulzSec. But the weaknesses were distilled into the group as well, something the members of LulzSec failed to notice as they went on their gleeful rampage. As We Are Anonymous shows, there is power in the crowd, but the crowd can also make poor decisions. And there’s power in tight-knit groups, but they’re equally likely to make poor decisions. We Are Anonymous is an eminently human tale.