In a new global topography of cultural movements, repressed layers of populations come to historical consciousness and demand autonomy and sovereignty: many are finding ways to engage through online communities. In the wake of rapid global and social change, groups increasingly organized and operated independently of the control and planning of states are taking shape. Elaborating these so-called “processes” as manifested by those behind Guy Fawkes’s mask is a key concern in this study. The author builds theoretical insights on the shifting semiotic vocabulary of the Guy Fawkes Mask used by the niche online community of Anonymous as a disruptive insertion of online visual communication
A Image Given Below is one of a multitude of illustrations posted by various online group administrators
claiming to be associated or linked with the now infamous online set of actors identifying
themselves with the name “Anonymous” or Anons. The image symbolizes some of the key ideas behind
this loose collective: identity in/as non-identity, and action as transformative. It also gestures toward the
history of the coalescing of this collection of actors in that they had to take up a face upon “emerging”
from the Internet. Like other photographic statements posted by Anonymous-related social media users,
it makes a reference to “truth.”
This image depicts a young white male with a laptop who, in the process of typing, literally has his
face drawn in and through the screen. The visage emerging on the other side of the screen is a representation
of the now well-known Guy Fawkes Mask (herein referred to as the V-mask). However, we can
see that the hair of the subject is continuous, figuratively indicating that it is still him essentially. In the
image, it is unclear whether the subject’s face is only attracted to the screen and pulled into it, or if he is
also venturing into that other space, perhaps as a function of the ability or desire to “see the truth.” As a
parallel, one might ask the same of Lewis Carroll’s character, Alice from his children’s book, Through
the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Why does Alice step through the looking glass and
how does she do it? In the 1871 classic, Alice sighs, “How nice it would be if we could only get through
into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! Such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way
of getting through into it…” (1990, p. 4).
Carroll’s Alice is clearly very imaginative, her favourite words as noted on the same page are “let’s
pretend,” but she is also very curious. On the oddly ironic day of the fourth of November (i.e. the day
before Guy Fawkes Night), Alice is pulled into the mirror by curiosity, but her own imagination is the
vehicle that makes it possible. Imagination/creativity and curiosity also play key roles in the emergence
of Anonymous as what might be seen as an enigmatic online community. Following a similar impulse,
this next image
brings into play not only the notion of the screen/mirror but also the theme of
identity more directly. The back and part profile of a white male in his late 20’s or early 30’s is shown
bending forward and looking into a mirror. Lying on a small shelf are some kind of toiletries and in the
reflection, a shower frame recedes into the background. It is a banal and mundane setting recalling daily
routines in all their ordinariness. However, the image looking back at the protagonist is extremely unusual.
The hooded figure wearing the V-mask represents an as-if of the looker’s face. It is also an encounter with
alterity in a play with identity/non-identity. Somehow there is recognition and misrecognition simultaneously
through the creation of this alternative space. But there is also a gesture toward what will emerge
as a repeated notion for members, and that is, that they “live there” in the virtual realm, in/beyond the
screen: that is home. Again, the play of presence and absence is felt, since home is a non-concrete place.
The magic screen is an ancient trope: myths and stories from the world over are littered with enchanted
portals into heterotopic spaces, from mirrors to pools. Through their adventures in these alternate worlds,
characters are transformed and become able to see otherwise. Metaphorically, the image in figure one
implies that the interface of the screen provides a transgressive technological vehicle for the subject to
experience and witness another world, which follows different rules according to the second epigraph
“we are not restricted by your rules.” These online experiences then prompt actors to emerge transformed
as agents in the material world. One might ask, what then, are your rules? Clearly there are insiders and
outsiders and a way of belonging. Or is it so clear?
APPROACH AND RATIONALE:
The “network society” (Castells, 1996; Negroponte, 1996; Turkle, 1995) informs, reflects, and shapes
other kinds of educational and social practices in everyday life. As a result, the cultural politics of digital
media has global implications. As Coleman (2010) wrote, “it would be a mistake to overlook how digital
media have cultivated new modes of communication and selfhood; reorganized social perceptions…and
established collective interests …and projects” (p. 490). But understanding groups dependent on digital
technologies for their existence is a not only a minefield for research in terms of a litany of limitations,
such as varying degrees of anonymity, ephemerality, and changeability, but also tends to overwhelm the
capacity of a researcher’s tools: “Despite the massive amount of data and new forms of visibility shored
up by computational media, many of these worlds remain veiled, cloaked and difficult to decipher” (p.
498). Scholars need to respond to these challenges creatively with flexible/emergent research designs.
In a new global topography of cultural movements, repressed layers of populations come to historical
consciousness, and demand autonomy and sovereignty: many are finding ways to engage through online
communities. In the wake of rapid global and social change, groups are taking shape that are increasingly
organized and operated independently of the control and planning of states. Elaborating these so-called
“processes” as manifested by those behind Guy Fawkes’ mask is a key concern in this study. Often existing
in a moral and legal gray area, “Today Anonymous is associated with an irreverent, insurgent brand
of activist politics” (Coleman, 2012, p. 1), Anonymous’ activities, however disparate and paradoxical
on their surface, have tapped into a “deep disenchantment with the political status quo” (p. 3). And yet,
“Anonymous manages to achieve spectacular visibility and individual invisibility at once” (p. 9).
As Coleman (2010) notes in her review of the literature, increasingly scholars are approaching digital
practices, subjects, and communication modalities through ethnographic lenses “(Baron, 2008; Biao,
2007; Boellstorff, 2008; English-Leuck, 2002; Juris, 2008; Malaby, 2009; Senft, 2008; Taylor, 2006).
Yet, much of this work continues to confound sharp boundaries between off-line and online contexts
(Kelty, 2008; Sreberny & Khiabany, 2010)” (p. 492). In her survey of the growing body of ethnographic
work on digital media, Coleman provisionally identifies three overlapping categories based primarily on
their varying frames of analysis. The first focuses on cultural politics of media vis-à-vis digital media,
which includes a sociological perspective on identity categories and an examination of how those are both
formed and informed through digital technologies. The second, is termed “vernacular cultures of digital
media” (p. 488) to express a focus on examining how communication forms are organized around qualities
proper to digital media and the political economy of digital media. Research itself is transformed by
virtue of finding ways to address such digital forms as flowing/intermittent comment lists, and Internet
memes. The third, which Coleman (2010) calls prosaics of digital media, refers to work that interrogates
the effects of digital media integration on social and material practices, habits, and discourses.
Because my subject is an assemblage that came into being online, it necessarily includes and is materially
dominated by both the second and third categories. The vernacular of digital media is crucial as
I interact with the data through social media and must essentially immigrate to the Internet in order to
do so and learn the symbiology of Anonymous to some extent in order to comprehend at some level the
interactions between members. Prosaics, the third of these categories, is used in the sense ascribed to
Bakhtin by Morson and Emerson when they identify in Bakhtin’s thought that which can be seen as the
non-everydayness of the everyday. This formulation encourages a revival of the potential fruitfulness of
a micro-sociology focusing on the unexpectedly creative, participatory, and non-totalizing and radical
imagination at the core of everyday life and by extension communication. As I am examining daily postings,
prosaics play a significant role. However, the first of Coleman’s categories is most closely tied to
the thrust of this phase of the study. By examining this kind of amorphous group gestating primarily in
the digital realm, its practices and communicative modalities, I hope to contribute to developing work
in “digital ontologies” and teasing out a “community’s overall structure of priorities and issues” (Srinivasan,
2006, p. 510) through the ways these are visually transferred to public spheres (Coleman, 2010).
WHAT IS ANONYMOUS?:
As I explore here the possibility of considering Anonymous a community, I will refer to Anons as a
mobile-tiered assemblage to reflect what I will describe as fluid, formless, and circumstantially connected
sets of actors. At times referred to as a group, or collective, Anonymous lacks the cohesion to be
well understood with the ideas these terms evoke. Indeed they are most often identified by what they
are not as in this Soundcloud recording (2013) posted online by Anonymous ART of revolution titled
“Welcome to Anonymous”:
You cannot join Anonymous. Nobody can join Anonymous.
Anonymous is not an organization. It is not a club, a party or even a movement. There is no charter, no
manifest, no membership fees. Anonymous has no leaders, no gurus, no ideologists. In fact, it does not
even have a fixed ideology. (online audio)
All we are is people who travel a short distance together – much like commuters who meet in a bus or
tram: For a brief period of time we have the same route, share a common goal, purpose or dislike. And
on this journey together, we may well change the world… Anonymous has no centralized infrastructure.
We use existing facilities of the Internet, especially social networks, and we are ready to hop on to the next
one if this one seems compromised, is under attack, or starts to bore us… We are more than you think.
We are more than anybody thinks. We are many. And you are now one of us. Welcome to Anonymous. At
the time of this writing, Facebook, Twitter and the IRC appear to host the most active congregations. But
this may change at any time. Still, these are probably the best places to get started. Look for terms like
“anonymous,” “anonops” and other keywords that might be connected to our activities. (Soundcloud
The reference to boredom hints not only at the characteristic of changeability but also of unpredictability.
This reference is one of many across different images, texts, and recording that participates in
a rhetoric of evasion. Paradoxically, Anonymous cannot be joined and yet you can be part of it if you
want, “Join us if you may in our revolution for the Internet” (Soundcloud recording, 2013). What is the
nature of “us” then?
In his seminal book, The community of those who have nothing in common, philosopher Alphonso
Lingis (1994) writes, “community is usually conceived as constituted by a number of individuals having
shadows, omens, halos, and reflections make the things visible and are the visibility the things engender”
(pp. 41-42). One of these forms is the history of this mobile-tiered assemblage, also fragmented, but
coming gradually into view as a narrative of actions.
Although it was not their first coordinated action, the group Anonymous gained global notoriety by orchestrating
a series of online uprisings in support of Wikileaks in 2010. In June 2011, NATO published a report
on “Information and Information Security” calling for “Anonymous to be infiltrated and dismantled…
In July Anonymous hackers infiltrated NATO” (Coleman, 2012, p. 3). Under the increasing intensity of
scrutiny the members of the group have burrowed deeper underground, however, anthropologist Coleman
(2012) who has been studying what has often been called a “movement” since its inception and is
the foremost expert on this group notes, “the reach of their icons has increased” (p. 3).
For a faceless assortment of people with an absolute requirement for anonymity to emerge from the
Internet, a visual identity was required. Both online and offline anonymity was, for many reasons, seen
as essential. The choice was the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the film V for Vendetta based on Alan
Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. This mask is a stylized depiction of Guy Fawkes himself with
his pointed black beard and moustache. It is most frequently a stark white face frozen in a smile. How
this particular choice was made is connected to the history of a meme, a movie, and the man himself.
In brief, some of the defining characteristics of Anonymous are a changing membership, they are
increasingly politicized, and taking illegal actions, and by all appearances are organized in networks.
This network structure is one of the keys to Anonymous. The group has gathered many followers. Some
are passionate hackers, others merely sympathizers. Some work around the clock, others participate
only sporadically. The structures are loose, the exchange sporadic. They communicate through a channel
called IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and historically an image board called 4chan, which hosts spaces for
dialogue and exchange on a wide variety of topics.
Their signature attacks, which are motivated not by profit or espionage, but rather take the form of
political protest and “lulz,” which can be roughly understood as laughing at someone’s expense, are a
trickster or prankster way of registering the fact that they have witnessed something objectionable. As
O’Neill (2011) writes, “the people of the Internet use denial of service attacks to show their protest on
any attempt to hide the truth from the public” (p. 4).
So, how does masking both enable and constrain new ways for Anonymous to address regimes of
representation, spatial imaginaries, borders, and spaces? In this chapter I theories how they, like their
counterparts globally, have become protagonists by making meaningful interventions in chaotic social
contexts such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) sit-ins/attacks to overwhelm Websites, and providing
tools and support to activists in need of evasive tactics online. In order to do this I examine their
messaging and recruitment process as well as the way they reflexively portray their own image/s. In this
context, I explore what agency might mean for those who claim to be part of an emergent, nonlinear,
and process driven uprising.
Thus, the use of V-masks forms of indirection such as irony and fantasy are used to question and
challenge cultural assumptions and court the chaos of the present by facing opposing forces, and the fear
of the unknown. Interestingly, “throughout history, masks have appeared in art and literature at times
when change was occurring