In his book, Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates & Pirate Utopias, philosopher Peter Ludlow imagines “virtual communities as laboratories for conducting experiments in the construction of new societies and governance structures.” In the context of Metaviews' inquiry into the nature and future of authority, I believe it's important to understand how the modes of sociality and organization emerging within lulz-centric communities like 4chan, Anonymous and the now-defunct LulzSec are challenging and modulating our understanding of what authority is and how it is wielded.
On 4chan, for example, the notion that authority is something that you can collect and carry with you online is being contested. The radical anonymity of 4chan -- 90 per cent of all posts to the site are made without even so much as a pseudonym -- means the things we’re used to in other incarnations of web 2.0, things like followers, social capital, reputation, etc. are made impossible. If you arrive with a clever argument or a particularly humourous piece of content, you may be able to manifest a measure of influence in a given conversation, but you can’t take that authority and port it elsewhere within the community because every conversation starts at zero. It's just one of the many ways in which 4chan functions to draw a line in the sand between the real and the virtual; just because you're authoritative in the real world doesn't necessarily mean you get to take that authority for granted on the internet.
At last count, 4chan has as many as 18 million unique visitors per month, and, according to a recent paper out of MIT, the site generates an equivalent level of user activity as YouTube. This feat has been achieved without any venture capital, without ever making a profit, and with no means of marketing or promotion. The popularity of the site, and the rise of its founder, Christopher Poole, represent a kind of banging on the gates of the more established authorities of web 2.0. Poole is often billed as a kind of anti-Zuckerberg, and the sizable community he’s amassed is evidence that privacy is far from dead and users still desire a place online where their activities are not tied to their real name.
Anonymous emerged out of 4chan in 2006, and since then, the loosely-knit group has transitioned away from digital pranks to become a viable political actor both online and in real life. They famously protested the abuses of the Church of Scientology in 2008, participated in the Iranian election protests of 2009, initiated denial of service attacks against the music industry and the enemies of Wikileaks in 2010 and have played a significant role in the online aspect of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Anonymous takes its reputation as a truly decentralized and leaderless group very seriously, and they’ve adapted the radical anonymity of 4chan into a working ethic for organizing. Anyone can take up the banner of Anonymous -- the usage of the moniker and aesthetic are not policed -- and those who begin to amass any measure of individual authority or power are quickly taken to task by others in the group. We witnessed this last month, as Anonymous descended into a brief bout of civil war when those behind the AnonOps site -- just one node in the broader Anonymous network -- were attacked for behaving like leaders. This staunch anti-ego ethic has resulted in an intra-group environment where authority is pooling and dispersing in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
Lastly, there’s LulzSec. While the folks behind this hacker collective are less anonymous than other groups, I believe they’re disrupting authority in a slightly different way. They’re a prime example of what danah boyd calls “hacking the attention economy”. Not only are they making powerful players like Sony look foolish, they’re doing it in a way that’s garnering significant media attention. Most of the hacks perpetrated by LulzSec are very basic, and often result in only marginal safety concerns. However, the way in which they’ve gone about perpetrating them has afforded them a substantial following (over 250,000 twitter followers) and has the news media hanging on their every action. If you concede that LulzSec’s goal is not so much about successful hacking, but rather about reminding the masses that they should be a tad more careful about their personal information, then the group has been wildly successful.
And while more elite hackers may condemn LulzSec as “script kiddies”, it does little to change the fact that a group of kids with a knowledge of how to leverage online attention achieved in a mere 50 days what more technically sophisticated grey hat hackers have been unable to do all decade. Again, it's an interesting modulation of authority online, which for years was based on a measure of skill and the ability to get things done (ie. deliver working code) as opposed to being perceived as getting things done.
The Future of Authority
I want to stress that we’re investigating the future of authority, a concept that becomes more acute when you consider the average age of the participants in these communities. The average age on 4chan is probably 18, Anonymous was well-represented in the youth crowding Tahir Square in Cairo, and Scotland Yard recently arrested a 19-year-old in connection with LulzSec.
As a fairly young person myself, I feel that we’ve lived through an era where authority -- embodied sometimes by political influence, but mostly just by money -- has been used to undermine the democratic process and set the agenda through lobbying, marketing, campaign financing, etc. Unsurprisingly then, conscious youth are coming to see authority, at least the kind that pools -- for 4 years as an example -- as a barrier to democracy (this article from The Onion encapsulates the sentiment). This is what the BBC’s Paul Mason meant when he said “young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies". 4chan, Anonymous, LulzSec and those like them are serving as mimetic gateways for young people interested in messing with hierarchy and authority, and, as a well-known Anonymous slogan suggests, we should expect to see more of them in the future.