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My contact tells me to “dress sexy” for my date at the Edison with three Anons, affiliates of the troublemaking Web vigilantes Anonymous. Ordinarily I’d ignore such a ridiculous directive but talking to the press is usually verboten for Anonymous affiliates — Anonymous rule No. 1: “Do not talk about Anonymous”; rule No. 2, Fight Club–style: “Do NOT talk about Anonymous.” So pushing any semblance of feminism aside, I do my best imitation of a high-end /b/tard anime fantasy, complete with gray knee-high socks and patent-leather high heels.
When I meet the Anons at a loft in a seedy section of downtown, they are dressed like something out of Mad Max, all kerchiefs and T-shirt graphics. They assure me that this is not what they are going to wear on our date — the Edison has a strict dress code — and before heading off to change clothes, they politely introduce themselves as Ras, Solar and Daywatch, who is tonight’s host. These aliases are not even their message-board handles; a big Anon fear is being doxxed, or having your real personal information spilled online. Also, a large part of the Anonymous modus operandi is making sure the collective takes precedence over the thoughts of any individual member. I am enjoying unprecedented access to these Anons, two of whom are in Southern California to attend protests in Hemet, celebrating the one-year anniversary of Project Chanology — the movement that sprang up after the Church of Scientology tried to suppress the leak over the Internet of the infamous Tom Cruise Scientology video.
The secrecy is understandable; aside from the IRL (in real life) Scientology protests, the more sinister online actions of people posting as Anonymous — including highly illegal DDoS’ing, or Distributed Denial of Service attacks and botnets, or automated spamming programs — have landed other “Internet griefers” in jail. Clearly, as part of a group in which some members have taken the law into their own hands, there is danger in presenting any kind of public profile.
The group is basically centered around the philosophy of trolling, or, as Solar puts it, “getting into somebody’s head so they leave the Internet forever.” This usually involves hurling insults, or gifs, or memes in a forum to get a response, the Net version of the schoolyard game “the dozens.” A major precept of image-board culture is centered around doing stuff for the lulz — Encyclopædia Dramatica, the online compendium of Anonymous high jinks (encyclopediadramatica.com), defines “I Did It For The Lulz” (IDIFTL) as “a catchphrase that serves as a catchall explanation for any trolling you do or any Internet drama you cause.”
Why should you care about a patchwork group of Web vigilantes? For one thing, its influence is all over the Net. Last month the No. 4, No. 6, and No. 8 trends on Google were Anonymous-related memes — the Twin Towers unicode icons; the “Steve Jobs is dead” hoax; and the Internet phenomenon known to her lovers and haters alike as Boxxy. Like it or not, you appropriate Anonymous culture whenever you forward a lolcat or a Rickroll link (just Google it), or download Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” as your ring tone. The Internet has an armpit and it’s where all your beloved memes come from. They have power, actual IRL “meat-space” power, as evidenced by the high attendance at Anonymous protests from Clearwater, Florida, to Sydney, Australia. The Anons I meet downtown reveal that one of their recent accomplishments was gaming Obama’s Book of Change, ratcheting up “revoke the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status to No. 8.”
The group got its biggest dose of recognition when Fox News aired a report accusing Anonymous of hacking into MySpace pages and “spoiling” the new Harry Potter book — Fox punctuating its coverage with footage of a truck blowing up and phrases like “Internet hate machine.” Wired magazine wrote: “This ‘news report’ is the funniest raid anyone on the board has ever pulled off.” The Wired blogger got it backward, however. In fact, according to Solar, the Fox news report is what changed it from a joke to something legitimate. “The report gave us carte blanche. You realized you could get attention,” he says.
The guys estimate that the movement has more than a million members, all posting as Anonymous — 888chan.org gets from 500 to 600 hits daily. Solar says that the group pulls off an average of three raids a day, though few make it onto our radar. In its most idyllic manifestation (the one that is presented to me), the Anonymous movement is a Darwinism of ideas, where the collective Zeitgeist takes precedence.
The Edison has a no-sneakers policy, a fact that our host, Daywatch, has neglected to mention to the other two. Ras, the soft-spoken 888chan.org moderator, wears black sneakers, and Solar, a charismatic organizer from San Francisco, is in Adidas. Daywatch scrambles through the loft looking for more appropriate shoes, and I sit down with his colleagues and try to make small talk while eating an apple.
According to Ras, Anonymous is not as much a group as it is the “manifestation of Neuromancer,” William Gibson’s vision come to life. When I ask who they speak for, they reply almost in unison: “For ourselves.” It occurs to me that this loosely affiliated collective of individuals is the new New Romantics, or who Norman Spinrad called "Neuromantics" and described as, “a fusion of the romantic impulse with science and technology” — tech aesthetes with a zealous respect for the untamed nature of the Internet. While the party line is that Anonymous is a postgeographical phenomenon, it is composed of many factions, local and conceptual, all with their own infighting and drama. The three bring up a schism between the “hatefags,” or nonprotesters, and the “moralfags,” protesters. (Side note: Almost everything in Anon vernacular has the word “fag” appended.) Being from different locales, these three influencers do not pledge allegiance to any one faction.
After Daywatch finds a pair of shoes I deem appropriate, we pile into the car they have rented for the occasion: a candy apple–red PT Cruiser. “We’re PT pimpin,’” Solar jokes. They plug in an iPod, and the musical selection ranges from a B-52s song and the music meme “9000 penises” to anime music. “We swear we’re not anime dorks,” Daywatch insists.
As one Anon video implores, “We hope you are having as much fun with this as we are.” And, all things aside, I am. I compliment Ras on the progressive graphic design posted on the chans — headless Anon figures and the like. Ras explains that many of the message boards started as spaces for original thought before they became infected with what they refer to as “cancer” or “old jokes, naked pictures and hookup threads.” If you visit 4chan.org, you’ll be barraged with a critical mass of memes and porn — some of which is extremely racist and offensive to those not in on the joke. Each chan offshoot is competing to be the most “cancer-free,” and 888chan.org is the one currently most in line with my sources’ tastes. The Anons comment that by mentioning it here, I have probably just announced its death knell. “Most of the people on the chat forums are psychopathic.” Solar asks if I know what psychopathic means. “You mean like Barack Obama?” I reply. He looks at me, impressed. “Exactly.”
Dressed now in collared shirts and more appropriate shoes, Ras, Daywatch and Solar have no problem getting into the Edison. It is Thursday, and the crowd is all upwardly mobile and impeccably dressed. We sit down at a table that Daywatch has reserved and order drinks. “So why Scientology?” I ask again. Solar explains that when the Scientology angle happened, “they were the easiest target at the time.”
“It’s not a matter of their beliefs, it’s a matter of their actions,” Ras chimes in. “It’s because their actions interfered with the freedom of the Internet.”
Anonymous, they say, is an experiment in what you can do now that the culture is wired; it is the dark side of social networks. “What does it mean if a kid has a problem with a bully at school, except now he has the power of Facebook?” Solar asks. With the appearance of Flash mobs in 2003, masses of people congregated in order to accomplish seemingly meaningless tasks. Anonymous takes this aimless form and gives it shape. Daywatch refers to Project Chanology as the movement’s “training wheels.”
All three express a desire to move it forward, harness the power of community to do something greater. All three agree that the Obama campaign is the best example of this. After finishing off a plate of Edison sliders, Daywatch emphasizes, “Anonymous is a symptom of a larger condition” — the intellectual side of the Internet liberation front. The mantra “We Run This” is true in the sense that they understand this new period of culture probably better than most — that power and freedom to communicate whatever you want has and will have drastic and yet unknown effects on human behavior IRL and online. Daywatch wants to use the medium to solve problems: “Let’s start getting things done instead of looking for porn.” He is sick of the “off-color jokes and pranks,” and the schism between the Anon members who want “free hugs and people who want to make racist jokes.” His views on DDoS’ing are also somewhat rational: “Breaking the law is taking the risk, and regardless of how big the fine is, you are playing with high stakes.”
These three actually have careers, homes, stock options and real lives to lose. Solar and I discuss the significance of the day’s 6 percent rise in APPL, and I learn that he attends many of the same tech events I do. “I love my life,” he says to me over a shot of Sambuca at Bar 107, where we’ve stopped after leaving the Edison. “I may sit behind my computer a lot, but I live life to its fullest.”
We make further non–Anon related talk, about the economy and our friends being laid off. He pines for a time when people will harness the boards and forums for “less protesting and more building connections with people like you.” It frightens him that his subculture “is being reduced to ‘cancer,’ and the only thing that unites [them] is a common enemy.” I tell him he should take his MBA-level marketing skills and become a social-media consultant. He laughs and says, “These are the kinds of things you can’t put on a résumé.”
I leave to go to the restroom and ask him to write his e-mail address in my notebook — which I later open to find they’ve tagged it with “Failure frees the ego” and “Fags for Life.”
After our brief stop at Bar 107, the guys pick up a friend and head to Ralphs to get drinks for the after party back at the loft. Wearing V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks (they give me one as well), we barely get a raised eyebrow from the guy at the checkout, who simply asks us if we’re part of a V for Vendetta party. The cashier then launches into a Heath Ledger impression from The Dark Knight: “WHY SO SERIOUS?”
Unbeknownst to him, he is propagating yet another meme.
Editor's note: The quote "a fusion of the romantic impulse with science and technology" has been clarified and is now attributed to its originator, Norman Spinrad.