Hivemind - A Case Study
(On humanity’s first Internet collective conscience)
The following text has been composed in drab and condensed deep-voice-narrative and will seem boring to some due to lack of voice or background score. Use the hyperlinks to keep yourselves immersed. Be advised, this makes for one heck of a long read if done right.
Those of us who dwell in cyberpunk or philosophical Science-Fiction would be familiar with the concept of a “Collective Conscience”. My favourite manifestations of the idea involve consistent but uncoordinated actions of independent individuals with no direct communication links to relay their actual intents to, or to seek approval of each other (if that sounded redundant, you get the idea and may proceed further).
Ever since “The Laughing Man” incident), I’ve been scanning everyday affairs and recorded history for similar instances of kick-ass collective behavior, but real-life only has mundane peer pressure, fear of persecution or conformity driven herd activity to offer. All future-altering events are still proposed, initialized and catalyzed by select, identifiable and influential individuals, corporates or governing heirarchies. Not once has mass individualism and originality been expressed by a nameless horde, rendering the act gargantuan in proportion and potential, and yet without a credit roll . . . until now.
Origins of Anonymity:
The Internet was meant to symbolize connectivity and communication. It was only fitting for concepts such as forums, chat channels and imageboards to take root. Text/image-thread based discussion forums allow regular users to register for a permanent account, with a fully customizable name, avatar and signature, which allows them to be the same individual consistently every time they log in, and help develop long-term “relationships”. However, open forums allow unregistered users to post messages/comments on unrestricted threads. Often, such users are listed in the ID side panel as “unregistered”, or “noname”, or in case of imageboards like 4chan and 711chan (or the entire Chan family), “Anonymous”.
With an ever increasing number of conversations with substantial “Anonymous” entries in each, someone finally cracked and openly suggested what everyone always suspected at one point or the other: “What if all the anonymous postings were really being made by one single person?” If there is one thing you learn on the Internet, it is that a good (read: wicked) sense of humour is always rewarded. And thus the gag ran. Every unregistered person (deliberately or otherwise) would pretend to be that one entity and mimic the artificially created/established physche of Anonymous in the vicinity of the thread.
While this new meme spread like wildfire, infecting all major avenues of mass-gatherings (Youtube, Facebook, Slashdot, etc.), it began acting as a rolling party-mask, as if “the person who wears it is not held responsible for his/her actions“. Inevitably, hacker-groups started using it as an alias calling card. Reports emerged that “a” mysterious underground hacker group who call themselves “Anonymous” have been hacking into Myspace accounts, flooding it with obscene images, attacking websites with “Denial of Service” pranks, and so forth. A hilarious news report by FOX 11, generated much ROFLs and made the whole idea cooler. People started posting Anonymous replies to FOX news and more hackers started using the name. As a side effect, ethical Internet users put their masks on whilst practicing their crusade (using 1337 HaX0r skills), and the meme started to be associated with social service and vigilantism.
It is at this point that our little blog becomes politically relevant (for better or worse). Keep in mind that for obvious reasons, I am heavily biased towards Hiveminds in general. Since our focus is on the workings and concept of Anonymous and not their most recent engagement, I shall summarize the Church’s activities like so:
Streisand Effect Rulz:
While all of this transpired, even in the developed world, none of it caught the attention of the online community. Until one fine day, a telltale scilon video was leaked on youtube. And then, the idiots actually tried to get it removed (lol), claiming freaking copyright infringements (FTW). And thus, the Eye of Sauron could ignore it no longer. It all started (as always) with an innocent, jocular spark.
We all know how much netizens hate censorship. They hate giant corporations even more. And hence, right on cue, the “anonymous hackers” got to work. Several S-c-i-e-n-t-o-l-o-g-y websites suffered “Distributed Denial of Service” attacks. Prank phone calls, fake threats and black faxes began to flow. Some dude(s) even Google bombed them. The response was predictable. All these radical methods started to make the real activists who were fighting the church since much earlier look really bad. And so, soon, one of them made an earnest appeal to Anonymous, trying to get it to stop with the illegal stuff. Thats when something magical happened. Not only did the cyber-attacks stop, but something about the Wise Beard Man’s words touched everyone at a deep level. And on Feb. 10th 2008, I witnessed my first life-imitates-graphic-novels moment.
Simultaneous worldwide protests have been taking place every month since, in over a hundred cities including London, Plymouth, Seattle, Washington DC, Berlin, Kansas, Salt Lake city, New York, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Austin, Sydney, Boston, Dublin, Toronto, Orlando, and San Francisco. Even veteran critics have joined in on the movement. Some high profile people started to quit, and those already out started to speak out against it. Even an Ex-CIA agent started to give them fruitful advice. Ex-members, who initially kept silent out of fear of oppression started to speak out. Initially, there was some reluctance in the media to pick this story (for obvious reasons), but the levee soon gave way. Even my own heroes started to take notice. Wikileaks soon caught up, and is now fighting yet another lawsuit. The authorities have been both a hindrance and a shield. And the church’s retaliation when faced with such large number of “SP”s with masks, has been less than calculated. It appears that they’ve finally met their match.
State of the Art:
Anonymous, by definition has no hierarchy, no structure, no documentation as proof of its solid existence, no safe houses, basements or hangout joints (material or virtual), no permanent members, no temporary members, no mandate and no voice. Every single person who has invoked its name has merely pretended to belong to it, be it that bored to death unregistered user who happened upon 4chan and left a comment, or the masked activist family who brought their kids along to protest against a social evil. This simple quality gives it enormous immunity (the name is eerily apt). The existence of Anonymous is not provable in the court of law, and hence is immune to legal action. Even if some bloke or group wearing masks were to participate in a crime (material or virtual), only the individual(s) would be held accountable, and their link to Anonymous would be labeled cheap wannabe mimicry, for that is indeed the truth. Even if the use of the meme is banned, another will be conjured up to replace it. A flock of birds has no preferred direction of flight. Birds can join or leave at will. No single bird is responsible for the “Will of the Many”.
Sadly, while the average netizen gets it, the rest of humanity (particularly the older generations) do not.
Every article and news-report has called the protesters a group of cyber-activists with an agenda. Every target has labeled them notorious religious bigots and sadistic cyber-terrorists who symbolize an irresponsible and overpowered but mis-educated youth. None seem to realize the fallacy of associating a single adjective/objective to the entire [/quote]“group”[/unquote]. Some even attempt to fight it using conventional means.The mass-actions of Anonymous always spawn from a single expressed opinion by an Anonymous user (a la message to s-c-i-e-n-t-o-l-o-g-y). Kinda like the XKCD boston meet. An idea is hinted at, and like-minded individuals spontaneously and independently act upon it. Needless to say, the strength of Anonymous is in its numbers. Only the most widely shared opinions are automatically re-emphasized. Interestingly, the recent actions of anonymous, and “their” ability to self-regulate and resolve moral dilemmas in true democratic manner, imply that Terrans on the whole are a nice bunch of people!! Thats probably how Wikipedia survived its inception (although Uncyclopedia takes some heat off of it). Normally I would have expected such movements to be vandalized, and defamed with counter-actions, and graffiti quite soon. But the head-count of anti-anonymous user accounts by “anonymous”-like people are minuscule. Despite our tendency to worship Loki, the Norse God of Mischief, we hesitate to derail a good thing when its rolling. A common enemy (be it totalitarianism, or censorship) seems to bring out the best in us. The only real danger is in Anonymous losing itself in conflict, taking itself too seriously and thus lending a definition to defeat. I would think “they” should return to their beginnings, as an indifferent collective, living life for the lulz.
“The essence of balance is detachment. To embrace a cause, to grow fond or spiteful, is to lose one’s balance, after which, no action can be trusted. Our burden is not for the dependent of spirit.” -Mayar, Third Keeper)
Anonymous is mostly comprised of youth exposed to internet culture, and are therefore reasonably well informed, with a good sense of global scale and secular perspectives. They are children of the information age. Skilled in the forbidden hacker arts (or at least really good in diction and multimedia presentation).
Traditionally, such demographies are accused of sloth, apathy, complacency and isolationist behavior. All of these qualities are born of a sense of helplessness a member of today’s society is made to experience by every centralized organization in the world (yes, even Green Peace). Anonymous challenges that ideal. This seems to be the epitome of self-expression, with moral points for denial of recognition and fame. Technology has not only brought people together, but has stumbled upon a greater truth in the process.
There is a big sense of familiarity all users see in anonymous, reflected in their effective use of cultural memes such as “V for Vendetta”, “Portal” (The Cake is a lie), “300″ (What is your profession?!) and “DBZ” (over 9000!!) (yuck). This simply encourages their ranks to grow. The ability to influence a colossal force, or cause an earth-shattering change in the world order, just by expressing one’s opinion on the Internet, with a few text-to-voice converter gimmicks, is a seductive power, but a sanity filter is implicit, via the sanity of the masses.
The future of anonymous is quite uncertain. No matter how this S-c-i-e-n-t-o-l-o-g-y thing turns out, the existence of Anonymous will sound alarms everywhere. Academic sociologists and applied mathematicians will analyze this phenomena and publish many a paper. Governments will realize the power of the net, and respect the new Big Brother in town. But belonging to an as yet inexperienced and restless sect of society, Anonymous is its own greatest enemy. Despite the filter, a well played scheme of misinformation (possibly from the “inside”) could easily trick any number of people, and a failure of that magnitude would return Anonymous’s reputation to before the days of Project C-h-a-n-o-l-o-g-y. Hopefully, the new million year war will serve as an awakener for its own providers, and a new generation will learn a thing or two about the law of the land, legal processes, jurisdictions, reliability (or lack of) of information on the net, ethics, civic liberties, democracy and civilization.
They are Anonymous.
They are Legion.
They do not Forgive.
They do not Forget.
. . .
Expect them . . .
For more from both sides of the conflict, visit:
Note: This is not a political blog. This post is merely a case study. Commenters are requested only to discuss the Hivemind phenomena. Keep cult bashing to a minimum.
Old comments from the w0rdpress days
27 August, 2008 at 2:36 pm
Stand Alone Complex, for real!
A few observations:
The order-from-anarchy approach of Anonymous isn’t akin to that of Wikipedia (I’m not saying you implied it was- read on.) A large number of zealots with twisted notions of the “truth” have access to both Wikipedia and Anonymous. (I’m not talking about the griefers and vandals who try to break the system for fun.)
Wikipedia survives the mutations due to constant regulation by a few (<1000) dedicated individuals- and in turn, these individuals gain special privileges such as
i) The ability to veto edits made by a random user, lock articles, etc.
ii) Having added weight attached to their opinions.
It's effectively an oligarchy now, one whose health depends on the resolve and morality of the few "in power".
Anonymous appears to be a completely different animal, but I'm not sure.
A decentralized system with no hierarchy, coordination or manifesto enjoys as many advantages towards survival in its present form as it suffers liabilities.
The danger you describe, that of Anon taking itself too seriously, seems to me to be a far lesser concern than someone cognizant of the big picture manipulating the stand alone complex to serve their needs. No points for guessing where (in fiction) we've seen this happening. At the very least, I see one benign system (true collective conscience) being replaced with another (Wikipedia-esque pseudo-democracy), as even one well-meaning active Anonymous-er who comes out into the open will immediately be pushed into being the leader figure (by parties looking for someone to blame), as with the "trusted" Wikipedia members who emerged out of the contributing masses. The structure of Anon (or the lack of, thereof) seems too unstable- but I might be wrong.
A much bigger issue with Anonymous, though, is that right and wrong "according to" it/them is merely a question of consensus, not rational thought or morality. (This is much the case with Wikipedia as well.) For all the good Anon might be doing, the collective consciousness is susceptible to propaganda itself. A centralized cult of lunatics with people in charge is bad enough- an Anon cult can cause far greater damage.
That said, a long list of the number of ways that Anon can collapse (or be subverted) does not diminish the wonder of the phenomenon. Anon is a fearful adversary to have, and Co$’s reaction to the onslaught has been downright comical. It will be interesting to watch how the courts grapple with this one.
Illuminating post, as befits the exposition of an (again, as far as I know, I might be wrong) unprecedented social phenomenon.
And enough references to keep me occupied for months.
[ Phew! (Long article => Long comment) ]