It may be easy to think of large distributed online groups like 4chan and Anonymous as groups of troublemakers, ruled by a mob mentality. However, Gabriella Coleman’s “Anonymous: From Lulz to Collective Action” provides a more complicated history and study of these groups, noting that they do have social organization and social norms. But what do these groups, along with WikiLeaks, represent in our society? Are they merely fringe groups? Troublemakers? Online cyber-bullies and mobs? Freedom fighters? Political activists? Perhaps because of their distributed nature and wide range of activities, there is some of all of these.
This is a question Vanessa Gringoriadis mentions in “4chan’s Chaos Theory”, saying:
This is an argument we’re likely to keep having over the next few years: Are Anonymous cyber-vandals or vigorous grassroots protesters? On one hand, Web sites are property, and taking them down is stealing, in a way.
How should we view these groups both as a society, and through the law? Perhaps DDoS attacks are akin to protesting in front of a business, blocking access by amassing hundreds of protesters. How should the law look at these efforts? Has the law caught up to what the internet affords – perhaps our categories of cyber-terrorism and cyber-crime do not fully cover the range of marginal internet activities, and we need “less criminal” classifications for these actions.
In another view, could the protest work of Anonymous be seen as the antithesis to “slacktivism?” They do have very different routes – “slacktivism” based in mainstream open social media, and Anonymous in anonymous action, amongst a smaller set of actors. Perhaps this mirrors traditional activism, which is generally carried out by a smaller set of actors relative to the entire population.
The question we come back to is what do these groups represent, and how can we explain them? Coleman’s brief history of Anonymous points to the fact that an “unruly mob” definition does not really describe them. At the same time, Felix Stadler seems to posit that they create an online public sphere, but their numbers compared to all internet users are relatively small, and they tend to skew male. Another question to ask are what ideals are they promoting, especially in their support of Middle East revolutions – they seem to be based in a Western-dominant view that access to more information creates a freer, more democratic society, which may not always be true, such as in examples of Chinese youth having access to Western information, which they use in Chinese nationalistic arguments.
Perhaps for further academic study into these groups, online ethnographic research may be appropriate.