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Anthropologist makes foray into the hacker collective ‘Anonymous’

McGill professor carves out an unusual research area with her work on hacker culture.


There are moments in Gabriella Coleman’s new book that clearly illustrate the diligent research she undertook for her book on Anonymous, the bombastic hacktivist collective. There are the late nights spent on her computer watching chat-room conversations explode over whether the group should participate in an illegal disruption of PayPal’s donations service. At times, she’s huddled at a New York payphone to schedule interviews with more secretive, police-wary members, one of whom was later revealed to be working as an FBI informant.

“There’s a lot of deception and mystery with Anonymous,” said Dr. Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. “So you’re partially, but not entirely sure, what’s truthful, what’s a lie, and what’s going on.”

Some of the most interesting moments of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy are when she finds herself explaining Anonymous to the many institutions that want to better understand this amorphous collective. In her book, released last November, Dr. Coleman recounts speaking to journalists, to corporate executives and even to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, all of them interested in why the group has attacked government websites and staged demonstrations against perceived public enemies since the mid-2000s – and who its next target might be. This non-hierarchical, loosely connected group of hackers, born from a joke message board, has been credited for acts as diverse as helping facilitate the Tunisian uprising to hacking Sarah Palin’s email to prompting the RCMP to re-open the original investigation of Rehtaeh Parsons’ rape.

While the role of observer-interpreter is not unusual to Dr. Coleman’s discipline of anthropology, a few aspects of her career in researching hacker culture certainly have been. “The anthropological imperative is to become a participant,” she observed, “so in that sense all anthropologists go through what I went through.”

For more than five years, she followed the group’s evolution from prankster troupe to vigilante justice force, monitoring their Internet Relay Chat Rooms (the group’s communication mode of choice at the time), interviewing individual members, attending public protests and sometimes even the courtroom appearances of Anons – as the group members are called – charged with some form of cyber crime. For much of this time, Dr. Coleman was one of the few academics in the world studying Anonymous in depth.

Her early work thrust her into the media spotlight, since many news outlets were keen to under-stand Anonymous’s latest hack or most recent Guy Fawkes-masked protest. But she was also an Anonymous confidante. As one of a tiny clique, mostly technology reporters, who’d gained access to the collective’s more secretive sub-sects, Dr. Coleman learned about the personal online and offline lives of many of Anonymous’s more prominent members, but with none of the legal source-protection privileges that most journalists enjoy. “I interacted so much with journalists and the media in the course of my research,” she said. “That was very difficult and disorienting.”

A socio-cultural anthropology graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1990s, Dr. Coleman was originally set on studying spiritual healers in Guyana. An extended illness and recovery found her spending more time online. Partway through the program she decided to switch her research focus to online culture, specifically that of hacker communities.

Her initial focus on the more established political world of open-source software hacking began to shift towards Anonymous in 2008, when the group launched a series of well-publicized online attacks and in-person demonstrations against the Church of Scientology that took on a more political nature than the kind of phone-call-and-pizza pranks it was previously known for.

This was not a usual topic of study in anthropology. “In media and communications studies, it’s totally acceptable to study this, but often in that area, people aren’t doing it in a hard-core, ethnographic way,” said Dr. Coleman. From an anthropological perspective, her focus on hacking culture presented a geography problem: such communities existed not in a particular region, but online. “It’s a lot harder to get funded if you’re not doing an area of the world. If you’re doing a specific [region], there’s so many more fellowships available to you.”

At McGill, Dr. Coleman occasionally invites Anons and other hackers to speak via Skype in the classes she teaches in communication and culture. “I think a lot of [the students] get surprised that they’re eloquent and smart,” said Dr. Coleman, highlighting one of a few of the hacker myths she tries to dispel in her book. “They’re not these awkward, nerdy kids you can’t interact with. And it’s also an interesting question, ‘How did you get to Anonymous? Why did you decide to dip and delve in?’”

In speaking with Anons both online and off, Dr. Coleman learned that their reasons for joining ranged from the personal to political, and often in between. Many of those profiled in her book had been arrested at some point for their involvement in the group. One, an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada, was arrested for participating in a December 2010 protest at-tack against PayPal over the e-commerce website’s refusal of service to WikiLeaks. Others include Tunisian protesters, Irish chemistry students and Puerto Ricans living in New York.

“The hard part was that I didn’t want people to read this book and feel like they know everything about Anonymous. What made it tough at times was feeling that maybe, if I had one more chat log, the story would look so different,” she said. “As someone who’s still a social scientist, it’s a little unnerving that with the data you have, you’re either scratching the surface, or that the story can change.”

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