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The anthropological trickster

McGill University


Response to Hau Book Symposium on Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of Anonymous. London and New York: Verso.

Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of Anonymous ends with a confession. To borrow from João Biehl and Naomi Zucker’s clever title, in the final few pages, I, as the masked anthropologist, unmask my intentions and divulge that I played the part of an authorial trickster. On the one hand, I wanted to convey concrete sociocultural dynamics and facts and marshal analysis in the service of stamping out all sorts of myths and misconceptions about Anonymous. On the other hand, I wanted to play the part of enchantress in the hopes of accentuating the mythic qualities of Anonymous so as to inspire readers to consider sauntering down the path of activism.

As I state but largely avoid theorizing, these two goals sit in some degree of tension with each other. Did I succeed in the delicate balancing act of dispelling myths and helping to sculpt a positive, public image of Anonymous as a politically-minded collective that should be taken seriously, or that is understood to possess a legitimate agenda? It is a difficult question to answer given I don’t have direct access to the reactions and opinions of most of my readers. It is precisely for this reason that it has been illuminating to read these generous and enlivening responses that consider the perils and promises of making anthropology public. I did not pen a detached scholarly or theoretical tract but instead deliberately crafted a popular ethnography that would appeal to a wider audience including, as Tom Boellstorff notes, to Anonymous directly. All the authors richly comment on the tone and genre of the book with Haidy Geismar most adroitly picking up on and nicely dissecting my role as trickstress. Here, I will first provide some context that will help explain why I was compelled by these two goals and this will then form the basis for a deeper response to many of the rich issues raised by the symposium writers.


Between 2008 and 2010 my research on Anonymous, conducted only part-time, would not fully qualify as being ethnographic in nature. However, immediately following a dramatic surge of direct action activity among Anons, in December 2010 I dedicated myself to full-time fieldwork research. This deluge of Anonymous activity began soon after WikiLeaks released a cache of classified US diplomatic cables, a release that prompted the American government to target WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by convincing companies such as Amazon and Paypal to halt the processing of all services to the organization. Anonymous, angered by this act of intermediated censorship, rallied in support of WikiLeaks. Keeping with recent tradition, in early December 2010 they launched a multiday barrage of distributed denial of service (DDoS) campaigns against the companies that caved to US government pressure. After this operation, Anonymous never let up, demonstrating an incredible run of activism between 2011 and 2013. In the midst of this initial blizzard of DDoS activity, I installed myself in nearly a dozen Anonymous chat channels, and rarely left.

Journalists contacted me in the early stages to gain insight about various emergent phenomenon related to these activist networks. In contrast to WikiLeaks—a constituted entity with clear objectives—journalists were understandably perplexed by Anonymous’ organizational styles. Even as I began to tease out cultural and ethical logics, throughout most of winter 2011 I still found myself baffled by Anonymous: while it was clear that many Anons were galvanized into action in order to expose corruption and remedy injustices, many of their activities seemed to rather stem directly from a rowdy and often offensive culture of humor. Furthermore, even as I gained access to many Anons and witnessed some operations in the making, I also was aware of an inaccessible underworld where sometimes-illegal activity was hatched; while I began to recognize that Anonymous had settled into a few predictable patterns, it also became clear that mutability and dynamism were core to its social metabolism and development. It was difficult to forecast when or why Anonymous would strike, when a new node would appear, whether a campaign would be successful, or how Anonymous might change direction or tactics during the course of an operation.

With the exception of technology journalists capable of finding Anonymous for themselves, in this early period of research, the great majority of reporters knew little about the collective, and tended to believe that all participants were beyond reach, as if they were deliberately hiding in an Internet black hole. I found myself constantly stamping out this and so many other myths. As Luca Follis and Adam Fish put it rather well “Anonymous has been both lionized and demonized but always mythologized to the point of obfuscation.” Indeed, for the first few months of media work, numerous journalists, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, were keen on slotting Anonymous participants into the category of raging, juvenile hackers. Others were bent on identifying the “leader”—some singular, all-important person who puppeteered all operations. Others still were unwilling to entertain the notion that Anons were driven by an activist sensibility, instead slanting their reporting to emphasize criminal elements.

Right from the start and years before I sat down to write this book, I was thrust into the role of a public anthropologist, which introduces some particularly challenging and thorny situations for an anthropologist’s work and writing (see, for example, Fassin 2013). For me, the most difficult aspect of being public was having to speak authoritatively, even during the early stages of research. Commenting about Anonymous, already a perplexing entity, so early in my fieldwork felt premature and went against my deep-seated anthropological instincts to engage in longer term research before saying anything definitive. However, remaining silent on the sidelines didn’t seem a reasonable option; if I refused interviews, other even less knowledgeable pundits, in no short supply, would simply take my place. Alongside providing basic background and getting journalists to Anonymous, I was also keen to question the need to find “leaders” and the oft-cited, but embarrassingly naïve narrative of the alienated teenager. I was also keen to push against two problematic media framings. The first was the move to belittle Anonymous’ politics so that they were not taken seriously as activists—a common mechanism used to disable the power of counter cultural movements (Hebdige 1979). The tendency to downplay the political legitimacy of Anonymous is also part and parcel of a much longer trend in American journalism to marginalize radical political interventions (Gitlin 2003; Downing 2000). Second, and even more vitally, I desired to trouble the far more serious threat poised by the state or some media outfits who would label Anonymous as cyber-terrorists. Indeed, one of the most vigorous attempts to suture Anonymous to extremism failed (see Coleman 2014: 6–7 for a recounting of the incident). Had this connection been successfully forged, the entire movement could have been discredited in one fell swoop. Still, the threat to paint Anonymous as cyber-extremists always struck me as a possibility. As Fish and Follis in this symposium rightly highlight, the state, when dealing with an entity like Anonymous, commands the upper hand: “while knowledge about the other is coproduced, the state has resources with which to exploit this knowledge in ways hacktivists do not.” Further, given the ideological and legal trend in the United States to liken environmental activists to terrorists (Potter 2011) and the prevalence of cyber-warfare rhetoric, it was conceivable that state actors or law enforcement could, given adequately ambiguous conditions, have successfully folded Anonymous under this rubric.

Elsewhere I have theorized as to precisely why it is that Anonymous managed to escape the clutches of “cyber-terror” and warfare imaginary—a story that is too complex to recount here (Coleman 2015). But even though Anonymous has until now managed to avoid framing as “cyber-extremists,” it nevertheless may become harder to dodge this designation in the future. The cyber-warfare pump has been so primed and for so long, that all it will take is one major hacking attack on infrastructure to potentially demonize the entire field of direct action–oriented hacktivism. While there is no evidence that progressive hacktivists want to target critical systems, these systems are vulnerable to attack. The American government spends far more money propagating fear mongering tactics and surveillance apparatuses than they do investing money in securing critical infrastructure (Masco 2014). Since the forensics of hacking attribution is a notoriously difficult and politically malleable science, it is also conceivable that any attack on infrastructure could be pinned to hacktivists even in absence of credible information (Rid and Buchanan 2015: 4).

This broader context—the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore or sideline radical political manifestations and the lasting possibility that Anonymous could still be labeled as extremists—goes some way in helping to explain the tenor, form, and timbre of my book. Or as Biehl and Zucker rightly note, “While never discounting the persistent humor-seeking trickery of many of her informants and their online campaigns, she comes to view them through a primarily political lens, especially in the context of an increasingly-present contemporary security state and its pervasive forms of surveillance, regulation, and control.” It was imperative for me to write a book where readers could at least contemplate the possibility that Anonymous participants are legitimate activists, and not mere “cyber-extremists,” a problematic label to say the least.

But allow me now to take off yet another mask: it was not simply enough to make them legible as activists; my greatest trick perhaps was my desire to embolden the field of activism itself: even if Anonymous is not perfect (far from it) a far greater political risk looms today from those who avoid imperfect activism in favor of doing nothing or approaching political life through discourse alone: political inaction masquerading as democratic process, attached to the naïve belief that publicity alone can spark meaningful political change (Barney 2013). Indeed, to answer another question posed by Biehl and Zucker: “might Anonymous’ activities, as the anthropologist asks, broaden the scope of public debate and the political field itself?” My answer would be, they do, but by showing the limits of what publicity alone can achieve, favoring instead a politics of direct action enabled crucially by anonymity. As I state in the epilogue of my the paperback version of my book,

It is difficult to boil down the workings of anonymity within Anonymous to a single logic: it can always be adopted and repurposed, in different ways and towards different ends, by whoever wants to use it. It can never be owned, much less controlled, effectively because any attempt to do so will change the thing into something other than anonymous; the ideal itself is thus, in some ways, incorruptible (or endlessly corruptible)—always outside the reach of power, even if those temporarily experiencing it, or believe themselves to be experiencing it, can be grasped. Nevertheless, Anonymous has clearly has enabled a new political subject position, one where the point is to exceed “talk” … one where actions matter, and actions can be evaluated, but the identities behind them—even when they are identifiable and subject to prison—are acknowledged by all involved to be less important than the actions they do. In this way, even when the individuals are named, the value of the anonymity they once believed they enjoyed is preserved in the actions it enabled them to perform. Belief in the idea of Anonymous is enough to motivate action, even if full anonymity is not the goal or unachievable. (2014: 416)

Given my ambitions, it made little sense to delve deeply into theoretical issues—such as elaborating on the relationship between tricksterism and anonymity or theorizing new methods of statecraft—that the authors in this symposium raise so richly. It was a strategic decision to avoiding diving deep into these issues, rightly raised by the symposium authors, for fear it would repel the sorts of readers that I sought to reach, including middle and high school students (a number of whom have contacted me to commend me or comment on my book). Instead, I sought to capture and re-create the language, events, excitement, fears, and conundrums that my interlocutors and I experienced. This approach, as Geismar reflects on, embodies classic anthropological writing or as she states a bit more precisely and eloquently, my deployment of Anonymous’ language provides “a fuller participation in the aesthetics of hacking, trolling, and coding and their interpenetration into diverse social worlds.” She also rightly connects this anthropological style of writing and engagement with trickster-like qualities (see Toon van Meijl 2005 for an exploration of the anthropologist as trickster).

That is not to say that I wholly ignore theoretical (and by extension some ethical) issues. With the aid of Nietzsche, I address the importance of transgression. I also centralize one of the more commendable ethical dynamics I witnessed time and again: Anonymous’ robust anticelebrity ethic.

I do, however, stop short of delving deep into the panoply of theoretical discussions and ethical conundrums. Nevertheless, I was pleased to read that so many of the symposium writers put forward a theoretical analysis based on the book’s material, sometimes even reading against my own framing. Or as, Biehl and Zucker put it quite bluntly, “there is also space for other possible readings that exist alongside such engagements with Anonymous, opening productive frictions that might complicate or deepen our understandings of techno-democracy, politics, and the configurations of the social and the ethical in the present day.” Although my desire was to influence my readers in the ways elaborated in my introduction, I am still pleased to read the alternative readings. Partly due to more metaand theoretical issues, and partly because of Anonymous specifically.

To get at the first set of issues, I will once again take a cue from Nietzsche. Anyone who has read Nietzsche knows his rhetoric is anything but cool and calm. The style, instead, reflects the provocative content he was advancing. Nietzsche scholar, Alexander Nehamas argues that his “irreducibly hyperbolic” writing style conveys, in a forceful, performative manner, the argument that all human representations bear traces of value and judgment, that “there is no single, neutral language in which his views, or any other, can ever be presented.” (1987: 37). His rhetorical audaciousness helps convey that his views are exactly that: his views. They are not hidden behind the cloak of truth and rationality, a deceptive mask that so many of his philosopher brethren adopt (not to mention certain social scientists as well). Nietzsche himself also overtly signaled in content and form the provisional and perspectival quality of his positions: “They [our accidental position] serve as hostel for the night, which a wader needs and accepts—we beware of settling down” (1968: 132).

Very early on and throughout the manuscript I sought to signal that the story being told was being conveyed from a particular position and from a specific perspective. For example, within the first ten pages of my book I state, “I was sympathetic to many of Anonymous’s tactics and causes, but not all of them.” Or when I visited CSIS, the Canadian equivalent to the CIA, I reveal I went, in essence, to test whether they found any humor in Anonymous’ own deviant brand of humor (the “lulz”). While some journalists reading my book interpreted these stances negatively as “bias,” it is forthright and clear as to one’s inescapable position and perspective.

Second, even if I generally support Anonymous, some of their actions are also controversial enough that I myself can’t support them all. It was important for me to include a thicket of socio-cultural details and represent the moral arc of their actions—some laudable, others far less so—and do so both to express my own ambivalence about Anonymous and also so others can come to their own conclusions about the collective. It was not acceptable to me to scrub away some of their most unsavory interventions and mistakes, even if I often portrayed this material diplomatically.

Finally, I avoided some ethical and theoretical issues for a rather mundane reason: they were too complex for me to tackle in the compact time frame I had to write the book. By the time I was ready to write, much of the uncertainty about Anonymous that had plagued me early on had evaporated. I was armed with a lot more information and was confident to cover sociological and cultural dynamics of Anonymous. But I was still unsure about how to confront a bevy of ethical and theoretical issues. For instance, it took months of reflection and reading relevant literature for me to work through, and finally address, the relationship between accountability, anonymity, and pseudonymity (which I now cover in the new epilogue to my book). By juxtaposing mistakes made by Anonymous with rather similar ones made by journalists, I argue against the naïve idea that transparency alone creates the conditions for accountability (the argument in the epilogue, I believe also addresses a number of questions about the politics of anonymity asked by Biehl and Zucker, specifically, “What kind of politics does anonymity enable or erase, and are there other, perhaps darker, implications of anonymous speech and action?”).

Many others issues are still unresolved and warrant much further consideration. Boelstroff raised one of the most important looming questions in this category. If Geisemer provides an exegesis of my role as an authorial trickster, then Boelstroff pushes me on the nature and significance of the anonymous/pseudonymous trickster. First, I must confess: I was tortured whether or not to apply this frame to Anonymous at all and had many discussions with anthropology colleagues about if it was appropriate and fit. My biggest fear was in doing so, it might provide an alibi for certain grotesque and unacceptable behaviors—especially at the hands of trolls. (It came as a relief when someone who has been targeted and abused by trolls thanked me for not whitewashing them in the book.) Originally, I had a much longer, heavily qualified explanation about how and why I was using the archetype but my editor cut much of it, again for the sake of sparing the nonacademic reader from a long-winded explanation. Left with less space, I had to convey in shorthand how I was deploying the trickster figure: as a heuristic device not meant to simply celebrate Anonymous but used in a way that could be mobilized to critically engage with their actions. Their actions that reside on a spectrum from the noble to the playfully devious.

Boellstorff’s queries and questions about my use of the trickster also seem to gesture at another deeper one: does the trickster frame apply at all to Anonymous? With some time and distance to ruminate on this question, my answer would still be in the affirmative. There are also many qualities associated with the trickster that Anonymous similarly embodies. I will briefly mention two that were left unaddressed (or addressed only in passing). First, Anonymous, like many tricksters, are adept shape shifters—prone to different interpretations depending on the specifics of the action and the moment in which one encounters them. Anonymous has managed to deceive, confuse, and inspire (sometimes all three at once), as most any trickster will do. Closely related, Anonymous is pluralistic in every sense of the word: it is multitudinal, a hydra composed of various competing factions. There is a surprising degree of diversity in Anonymous, yet its character and image is singular, their iconography presents as a single face and single character. This illusion of creating one out of many, E Pluribus Unum, is an apt demonstration of their artful trickiness.

Second, what connects Anonymous most closely to the trickster archetype, and explicitly differentiates it from living, political tricksters, like the Yes Men or Stephen Colbert, is its mercurial nature. Anonymous is fastidiously hard to predict. Rapidly changing, its actions are fickle, whimsical, and volatile. This does not mean Anonymous is random or purely chaotic. It is anchored by technical bodies and cultural sensibilities. You can find its members on Twitter and chat rooms, talk to them as real people. Once an opportunity arises, which they seize tactically, its well-oiled propaganda machine kicks in. Activists learn from past mistakes. Its campaigns are remarkably well organized. But their mercurial tendencies, also fueled by some degree of deception, make them almost impossible to predict, even to themselves.

Boellstorff’s specific question about living tricksters is one of the most provocative and important ones. He asks what it means for a living trickster to be cloaked, noting, “Even our contemporary tricksters, our Stephen Colberts, Tina Feys, and Amy Schumers, who nota bene are highly Internet-mediated, do not usually derive the power of their tricksterism from anonymity.” This question is challenging enough that I don’t have a satisfying answer yet, but a few thoughts come to mind: First I am not so convinced by Boellstorff ’s point that “from town fools to court jesters, historically tricksters have not been ‘figures’ or ‘archetypes’ but living, breathing persons known to those around them.” I don’t doubt that the living trickster has been vitally important but when we consider the full pantheon of tricksters such as Loki, Puck, Anansi, Crow, Chango, Maui, Coyote, Hermes, and dozens more, many people have and continue to encounter tricksters in the form of the figure and especially the tales and representations, from film to plays, associated with them. However, it was, to be sure, the mythic figure rather than the living one that formed the model from which I worked. My use of this model was not to downplay its importance (and was rather compelled and I wish I had included an explanation similar to Geismar’s where she argues the trickster is “a cultural form and as a mode of description powerful enough to constitute social relations and identities). But given that Anonymous is composed of humans, I do need to think more deeply and carefully about its connections to the living trickster.

I also find Boelstroff ’s claim that the Anonymous’ trickster role does not include social commentary in the way provided by the likes of Stephen Colbert, puzzling. Anonymous’ commentary may at times rely on problematic tactics but one of the reasons they have been appealing—to the extent that a new television series on hacker politics, Mr. Robot, is so obviously modeled on Anonymous—is precisely because they constantly provide raw, unvarnished social commentary combined with direct action. Nearly all their operations are geared toward concrete and most often politically progressive causes: their support role in the various movements such as Occupy Wall Street and those that constituted the Arab Spring; the commitment to domestic social justice issues seen in engagements against rape culture and police brutality; many of the hacks, for instance, at the hands of Jeremy Hammond were meant to expose the shadowy world of intelligence or security firms (and the tradition of direct action–hacking aimed at exposing questionable cyber-arms firms has been now taken on by other hackers, such as Phineas Fisher who has since leaked documents from two different security firms). Anonymous has tapped into a deep societal malaise about the crooked state of governments and corporations and are able to convey it through word, deed, videos, image, and action.

To wrap things up, two long time Anonymous media makers recently launched a video series on Anonymous activism with the title “STFU.” Internet denizens will immediately recognize STFU as the offensive quip: “Shut the Fuck Up.” But in fact, the title is a trick, for they have refashioned it as “Save the Fucking Universe.” This small detail is analogous, in a microscopic way, of the metamorphosis Anonymous underwent from nihilist hell-raisers to Utopic hell-raisers that grabbed my attention. In 2008, a roving band of Loki-esque—often terrifying—nerds accidentally found themselves at a crossroads facing the censorial ways of Scientology. It was as if Eshu appeared on the Internet, gifting Anonymous with an irresistible choice. After pranking the Church, they were given the opportunity to simply return to their trollish underworld, to slumber before the next raiding campaign. But they also had the chance to walk down another path, one that provided a chance of improving the world. Enough Anonymous participants went down this second road, the road of activism, to constitute what would become a distinct political movement. But, being borne from trickery, they found it hard to abandon the trickster, and so they clutched the spirit of Puck—the “shrewd and knavish sprite” who is a “merry wanderer of the night” and took him along on their activist adventures.

My hope is that as a nascent movement, prone to experimentation and thus mistakes, its participants will continue to saunter down that path of activism and as they do so they will critically reflect on their successes and shortcomings and many already do. Will it be Puck’s spirit that reigns? Or will Loki’s more fearsome side (as it does on occasion) still make an appearance? It is hard to imagine Anonymous without its shocking tactics. But then again, had someone told me before 2008 that a notorious trolling outfit was bound for activism, I would have never, ever believed them.


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  • Thomas Rid, Ben Buchanan. 2015. “Attributing cyber attacks.” Journal of Strategic Studies 38 (1–2): 4–37.

  • Toon van Meijl. 2005. “The critical ethnographer as trickster.” Anthropological Forum 15 (3): 235–45.

Gabriella Coleman

Department of Art History and Communication Studies McGill University
853 Sherbrooke St. W.
Montreal, QC H3A 2T6 Canada