A few weeks ago, Secure Thoughts posted an article in which they compiled the images of scores of identified hackers -- particularly those who have identified with the hacktivist group Anonymous in the past. Across both male and female hackers, the final composite image shows a young, White male: dark hair, non-descript facial features, strong jawbone...but nevertheless, a single identity purported to indicate the "average" Anonymous member affiliate.


A few things must be noted.

First, Anonymous does not have members. To boast a member, there must be an organization...something that Anonymous most certainly is not. Although not true for all hacktivist groups in the past and present, Anonymous is a peculiar beast that operates without a hierarchy, without power, without control, without a concrete and centralized identity. It is simply a social network, or in this case, a cluster of nodes connected by brief encounters over cyberspace.

Second, there exists a lay belief that Anonymous affiliates are exactly what is shown above: young, White, middle-class, and male. In actuality, anthropologist and Anonymous scholar Gabriella Coleman suggests that this is not true. In fact, she states that "those Anons I have met and those unmasked by arrests are a motley bunch" (Coleman, 2014, p. 173).

Below I outline two dimensions in which Anonymous is frequently portrayed by media and lay members of society as a homogenous sample, as well as Coleman's evidence to the contrary.

Heterogeneity of demographics within Anonymous

Copyright Secure Thoughts (2015)

Copyright Secure Thoughts (2015)

As stated above, we as society hold a belief that has transcended many years and many, many more Anonymous attacks. Shortly after the March 2008 attacks on the Church of Scientology (i.e., Project Chanology) there arose a belief that, possibly due to the use of methods such as sending black faxes (i.e., faxes of fully black pages to waste ink), thousands of pizza orders, and countless SWAT team calls, this still-emerging, yet-unknown Anonymous "was a community made up largely of young white males acting somewhat immaturely" (Jenkins, 2008).

And this mental image, first murmured among spectators, spread to media; the media, in need of a concrete target of the public's increased attention, maintained and broadcasted this belief; and to this day, there are few with whom I can speak about my research without receiving a comment along the lines of "Oh, they're just a bunch of testosterone-crazed teenagers sitting in their parents' basement and stirring up trouble."

This view is not only inaccurate, but it is grossly so. Ironically, we can turn to an early catchphrase for Anonymous protestors that has been used since (at least) 2009: "Don't worry, we're from the Internet."

Who uses the Internet? If we can trust the Pew Research Center (which, trust me, we can), everyone. Within America, 87% of all adults (aged 18 and older) are online. There are no differences in gender, nonsignificant differences in race/ethnicity, and even the Digital Divide has begun to close across the age gap -- while 97% of young adults (aged 18 to 29) are online, so too are 93% of middle-aged adults (30 to 49) and 88% of adults nearing retirement age (50 to 64). Gaps in Internet usage by education and income are continuing to close, and differences in community (i.e., urban, suburban, rural) are now nonsignificant.

If we were to form a composite of all Internet users in this country, the result would be a mess: neither male nor female, of no discernible race or ethnicity, hovering awkwardly in limbo by age. The sample is simply too heterogeneous.

Copyright Secure Thoughts (2015)

Copyright Secure Thoughts (2015)

What we forget, however, is that gone are the days when hacking was difficult. With the aid of tools such as LOIC and easily coded trojan- and virus-creating software packages, digital literacy does not need to be far above average to take part in (some) Anonymous-affiliated activities. The learning curve appears to be small, and although digital literacy may vary drastically within Anonymous, a sizable proportion of Anons are little more than "script kiddies" (i.e., lesser skilled individuals who use external programs to engage in hacking behaviors).

If digital literacy is no longer a determinant of hacking "abilities", we must therefore expand our gut instinct to believe that Anonymous is young, computer savvy (or geeky), and hailing from the middle class. Abandoning all hopes at being gender equal here, we must also note that yes -- only 20% of computer science degrees are awarded to women each year. But even so, such a statistic has less to do with the modal gender among Anons today than we might have once believed.

As some forms of hacking grow more accessible over time, and as average levels of digital literacy continue to climb within our society, we must work to adopt a more accurate view of Anonymous' identity: one that is heterogeneous and all-encompassing, rather than an immediate assumption that the faces behind many headline news stories are pimpled and barely pubescent. Maintaining this widely held view portrayed by the media carries with it a key danger: As Coleman states, if we view Anons as "socially alienated, White, angry, libertarian, American youth", it becomes "much easier to treat a hacker's political interventions as juvenile and suspect -- arising from a baseline of teenage angst, instead of the desire for politically conscientious action" (Coleman, 2014, pp. 175-176).

Considering Anonymous' recent actions against corrupt governments and widespread international terror, it would be almost rude to consider it as anything else.

Heterogeneity of beliefs and values within Anonymous

It is also imperative to discuss the heterogeneity of beliefs and values within Anonymous. In its infancy, Anonymous was driven strongly by the lulz, or what I like to call a form of cyber-schadenfreude. Laughing at others' expense drove many early affiliates to take part in actions that might be seen by society as crude or immoral (e.g., defacing an epilepsy help forum to show a rapidly flashing screen).

The transition from lulz-driven goals to an increasingly morally conscious Anonymous has been subtle, and has brought with it many internal disputes and divisions while Anons continue to work toward a solid identity. Those who have wanted to pursue moral goals (i.e., promoting freedom of speech, combatting corruption of government or corporation) were treated scathingly at first by original Anons who preferred to maintain a reputation of hilarity, pranks, and lulz. Even still, such heterogeneity exists within Anonymous. These differences have created chasms, often below the radar of societal or media attention:

"For the media, it is tempting to buy into this branding wholesale -- to present Anonymous as its values and its packaging. But the reality of the group's composition, in all its varied hues and tones, is impossible to present in any single sketch, even if Anonymous uses a single name. Its membership comprises too many different networks and working groups, each of which is at varying odds with one another in varying moments." (Coleman, 2014, p. 49)

Our discomfort with a faceless (anonymous?) Anonymous

From Secure Thoughts to media to broader society, it is becoming clear that we are hesitant to alter our preconceived notion that Anonymous is formed of young White males -- quite computer literate, socially challenged, and unable to make a sandwich without their mothers' assistance.

Such notions are glaringly inaccurate, and yet we cannot help but perpetuate them.

Anonymous is one of few examples of a social network that is completely and utterly faceless. For any group, there is (almost always) a spokesperson -- a leader and face of an organization that forms the immediate, unconscious identity of that group. President Obama is, around the world, the face of the United States; Mark Zuckerberg is the face of Facebook. The Pope is the face of Catholicism, and even for broader Christianity -- for which there exists no true face (uh, Jesus?) -- we can at least think of a few people within our personal circles who can "fill in" for an immediate perception of Christians.

Anonymous is none of these things. It has no face, it has no true spokesperson. We can judge and estimate by identified (and arrested) former affiliates, but this is still very little to go off of.

"Commentators often cast Anonymous as an amorphous and formless entity existing in some mythical and primordial jelly-like state of non-being, only solidifying into existence when an outside agent utters its name. [...] Anonymous and its interventions suffer from an inherent lack of cohesion." (Coleman, 2014, p. 113)

But it is this lack of cohesion that defines Anonymous -- this lack of hierarchy, leadership, and direction that support a key value of Anonymous: "the name [Anonymous] is free to be taken by any who would take it" (Coleman, 2014, p. 123).

If you are in search for a concrete representation of an ever-moving, ever-changing entity emerging from every corner of the digitally connected world, you are not in luck.

I end with a beautiful notion from Slim Amamou, a Tunisian citizen, programmer, and blogger who explores topics related to nonidentitarian politics:

"He described Anonymous as the number zero: the all-powerful number, the non-number. [...] Embodying the idea of void and infinity, zero was [...] the ultimate placeholder, refusing a concrete identity" (Coleman, 2014, p. 144).

Note: I frequently cite Biella Coleman's recent work, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, throughout this post. I highly recommend giving this book a read.