Thursday, May 21, 2009

Anonymous Revisited: Anonymity and Societal Norms

Patton Oswalt once said that the fuel of the nerd mafia is disappointment and exclusion. This isn’t only true of the nerd mafia: it’s true of any socially disaffected group that doesn’t have access to the well of societally granted superiority and therefore must fabricate their own. In any group that is mostly filled with nerds (or any other sort of socially less-accepted individuals), the people that craft the agendas and lead the pack are those that are best at fabricating superiority.

The most common method of fabricating superiority is to lambast anyone that doesn’t contribute in the desired way with personal attacks and derision. The nerd mafia don gets his power from being the meanest, most alienating member of the group, thus crafting his group only of people that will give in to his superiority.

But what happens when such a nerd society goes leaderless? What happens when, say, a group of anonymous individuals band together to have a laugh and pour out their derision on those less quick-witted than them?

If you are a regular reader of this blog (or if you are an informed Internet citizen), you have probably already pieced together that I am referring to the Internet’s most famous nerd mafia, Anonymous. In a previous post, I described some of the higher goals of this loose collective: the goals of free speech, of critical thinking, and of challenging social norms. All of these are noble goals, and Anoymous takes them seriously. But as a result of their structure as a largely unorganized group of aspiring nerd mafia dons, Anonymous is also a hotbed of bullying and hate.

Since every member of Anonymous is inherently anonymous themselves, each encounter they have with the group is a new chance to feel that surge of nerd power, to cut down another faceless individual with ridicule. The ridicule, then, is much more potent, vitriolic, and terrible than it would be if normal reputational factors were at work; people can say and do the most horrible things when neither they nor the objects of their ridicule are even clearly defined as actual people.

So any given thread on 4chan, Anonymous’s home base of a sort, is filled with faceless rage, meaningless hate, racism, sexism, cruelty of many kinds, and jostling competition for the reward of even one post declaring one nerd mafioso’s contribution “win.” This fleeting declaration of the worth of someone’s contribution is the only reward Anonymous offers.

Such fast-paced, quick-turnover work among tirelessly approval-seeking nerds breeds innovation, but of a certain kind. Rickrolling is the perennial perfect example: it’s clever, it’s hilarious for a while, and then, after what seems like mere weeks, it’s tired and played out. Anonymous is a breeding ground for this kind of viral content. Anonymous is innovative, but their innovation is fleeting, transitory.

Which brings us to today. Remember when Anonymous struck out against the actually quite harmful tactics of Scientology? They rallied around a cause, and their efforts were not unrewarded, since as a result of their protests, new documents came to light and new organizations jumped in to help those imprisoned by the more cult-like directives of Scientology. But in an organization that prizes quick-wits and competition for attention, a movement like Anonymous’s anti-Scientology campaign is bound to fizzle before it makes the desired impact. In fact, among the 4chan boards, those people who still protest at Scientology centers and still sport goofy costumes and pithy signs are considered the lowest of the low. They are slaves to the last big thing, and Anonymous only appreciates the next big thing. Within what passes for the social circles of Anonymous, these people are referred to as “the cancer that is killing” 4chan. Any progress this campaign was making is now halted by a wall of disapproval.

While I agree with the fundamental tenets of free speech and Internet anonymity, this factional split and continuous member alienation within Anonymous demonstrates what we lose when we do become entirely anonymous. What we lose is the benefit of societal organization. We lose social norms, the incentives to make a lasting change, and the deep rewards of long-term interpersonal relationships. While we don’t lose what it means to be human, we do lose what it means to be humanity.

Unfortunately, I am in no position to propose answers or clear solutions. For now, I merely seek to demonstrate the problem. Before any laws on privacy or anonymity are enacted or enforced, there must be a careful analysis of what we gain or lose when the Internet trends towards more (or less) anonymity. I value anonymity on the Internet, but such severe anonymity has its price. When society is a collection of flashes in the pan competing to see which can flash brightest, we’re just burning through useful social capital.

(image credit: cc licensed (by-nc-nd) image by JacobDavis)