Last month, we attended the book release party for Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web, Cole Stryker’s new book, which helpfully explains the world of memes, hacktivism, and the message board 4chan that birthed Anonymous. Cole was kind enough to discuss his book afterwards. Here is our somewhat edited conversation.
For noobs like myself, can you give a quick working definition of some key words: 4chan, memes, Anonymous?
4chan is a message board where everyone’s anonymous by default and none of the content is archived. It makes for a very vibrant culture of meme creation and also a place where people are free to cause mischief without consequence.
Memes are classically defined as conceptual equivalents to biological genes in that they seek to replicate themselves virally. Religions, political ideologies and holiday traditions are memetic. More recently, the word has come to refer to shared bits of pop cultural iconography that people recognize as being popular on the internet.
Anonymous is a psuedo-political group of people who’ve attacked individuals, corporations and governments. They are amorphous and difficult to pin down because anyone can claim to represent Anonymous. Born on 4chan, they initially sought to terrorize individuals for fun, or “lulz,” but have more recently banded together around lofty ideals such as freedom of information and the fight against abuses in law enforcement. They have performed several hacks and attacks that have accomplished several high-profile data leaks, but their power lies mostly in their ability to generate media attention around the cause du jour.
How much interaction have you had with Anonymous since publishing the book? Like, are they messing with your gmail?
Members of Anonymous have been trying to “dox” me, or unearth my personal information. They have my home address, email address, but little else that would cause me anything more than a minor annoyance, like having to turn away an unsolicited pizza delivery or put up with nasty Facebook messages. They have destroyed the online reputations of several others who’ve tried to expose their activities, so I try to tread lightly, but I’m not looking over my shoulder when I walk through my neighborhood.
You write about the mainstream appeal of many memes, the most successful becoming viral sensations. How long will it be before memes are fully institutionalized? Will we see Pratt and SVA offering an MFA in Viral Arts? A BFA in lulz?
Epic Win for Anonymous is already being taught in an NYU media studies course. Academia is typically slow to catch up to this sort of thing, but I’m confident that any university big enough to have a media studies program will offer a class in web culture within the next five years. It represents a new form of cultural expression perhaps more important than anything we’ve seen before, since the web allows anyone to participate in the production of new culture. I’m sure that plenty of business programs are also providing courses that focus on viral marketing, too.
You interviewed a lot of 4chan and Anonmyous folks for your book. Did you get the sense that some of them may be active both on 4chan (anonymously) and on Facebook (not anonymously, of course)?
I’d guess than 99% of people who’ve ever participated in Anonymous also have public identities on Facebook. Like the mask, the non-identity of Anonymous is a persona that you put on. People who wouldn’t ordinarily engage in malicious behavior feel free to do so when acting behind the mask. Most of these people are normal folks, mostly teens, who are just having fun playing the Anonymous game.
Both Facebook and 4chan seem to harness the user as a content producer. You describe this as a “participatory creative culture.” Other than anonymity, what values or ideals separate these two online communities?
The obvious answer: Facebook monetizes every user interaction that takes place on Facebook, whereas 4chan only runs enough banner ads to sustain the site. More importantly, Facebook puts the focus on building a personal brand rather than producing something for the fun of it. No one’s gaining anything in terms of monetary or social capital on 4chan. Because of the anonymity, everyone’s contributing because it’s inherently fun.
4chan seems to have created itself as unapproachable for most advertisers because of its unpredictability and near lawlessness. And yet, these same potential advertisers would kill to harness the next meme-turned-viral-video and associate it with their brand. What does this say about the gulf between our corporate class and our creative class?
It’s getting increasingly difficult for advertisers to poach memetic content, and they’re being forced to engage with consumers in new, exciting ways that actually contribute something fun to the end user. I think most people are fine with advertisers figuring out interesting ways to spread their content as long as it’s something they’d want to experience regardless of what the agency is shilling. The success of the Old Spice Guy says it all. 4chan gives people the tools to share ideas quickly; if agencies want to compete with the creativity of the hivemind, they’re going to have to learn how to compete with some 13-year old kid with a webcam and a pirated copy of Photoshop.
You argue that moot, creator of 4chan, could not have successfully monetized 4chan. Is that what his new project Canv.as is about? I mean, a guy’s gotta eat, right?
Canv.as is something different, and I don’t think it’s an attempt to cash in on the success of 4chan. I think Canv.as has the potential to be huge, and I think it’s because moot cares deeply about online community, not because he wants to make money. He strikes me as one of those classic startuppers who obsesses about how to push things forward for the inherent joy that comes with solving user experience problems.
In recent months, hacktivist groups like Anonymous and LulzSec have teamed up under the umbrella of Operation Anti-Security. They’ve carried out attacks against biotech company Monsanto and military intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as supporting the Arab Spring in various ways on the Internet. Unlike the purely lulz-motivated attacks of earlier days, these efforts seem specifically political. Is there a political preference among these hacktivists? I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans, but idealistically are they classical anarchists in real life as well as on the Internet?
I would be shocked if even 5% of Anonymous members know anything about the intellectual history of anarchy. They mostly just want to be a part of an army of badass Tyler Durdens. I do think that some of them probably are the kind to vote for Ron Paul or speak out against government secrecy “IRL,” but for most, the activism is limited to lulzy attacks.
Just for fun. If you could harness the hacking skills of Anonymous and direct them towards a target, what company or individual would you target?
I’d like to see a big leak of info at the Federal Reserve. Many of the Anons who have attempted to attack me over the last few weeks may be surprised to find that I share a few of their ideals.