Future anthropologists might describe the first 10 years of widespread Internet use as a decade defined by the embarrassment of coming to terms with a new mass technology. Because embarrassed is how even the adventurous could sometimes feel: Am I doing it right? Are you sitting in your basement trolling for fun? Nerd. Are you green enough to be offended by a little trolling? Loser. A significant portion of early online communication involved everyone telling everyone else to get a life.
In We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, former Frontline producer Brian Knappenberger’s fascinating, incisive social history of the online network known as Anonymous, those early grapplings are the source of a strange and amorphous moral awakening. That awakening occurred within a nascent society with its own culture (with trolling its first art form), language (“lulz”and “moralfag” being two coinages), value system (freedom of expression and information above all), and sense of identity (where anonymity is claimed as a collective sensibility, political position, and moral imperative). Having aspired only to the expression of unmitigated id, its members began to discover and develop their power to effect real-world change along with good-time plunder.
That the beginning of this process looked a lot, as one hacktivist suggests, like a virtual Lord of the Flies is not out of keeping with the history of either civil disobedience or computer science. Protests and pranks have always been close relatives, and as Knappenberger points out, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs got their start committing electronic mischief and outright theft. It’s a spectrum, you might say. Certainly there is a spectrum of interpretation when it comes to seventh-circle portals like 4chan, which is described here as—for better or worse—”the sum of human imagination.”
How the denizens of 4chan moved from disrupting Second Life games for lulz to taking on the Church of Scientology is the central hinge of Knappenberger’s story. Appropriately enough, it started with a video, that Tom Cruise barn burner circa January 2008, which Scientology HQ worked swiftly to wipe from the face of the Web. It was the audacity of that eradication that caught the attention of the 4channers who became known as Anonymous. Together, they targeted Scientology websites (a move that brought the FBI to the doors of several kids featured in the film) and organized international IRL protests, a move whose greatest success might have been getting a bunch of basement-dwellers laid.
Like cavemen discovering fire, the group quickly split between those who wanted to continue illuminating important issues (including Wikileaks and the Arab Spring) and those who just wanted to watch the world burn. The Guy Fawkes mask adopted by Anonymous members (who reject the idea of a single leader on principle) is meant to intimidate as much as protect; theirs is an increasingly rare spirit of revolt. “Expect us,” they say, though the meaning of that warning remains in flux; the evolution toward a consistency of ideals has proved as tricky as Knappenberger makes it engrossing and essential to watch.