Dauphine Island The loose assemblage of computer activists and hackers that came together from time to time to protest or, more often, wreck havoc on what they perceived to be threats on internet freedom or their allies like Wikileaks or Occupy Wall Street is an interesting organizational phenomenon in my view because it defies easy definition. These are the men and women (I presume?) who have the real life “dragon tattoos” and the potential to be the folks that “kick the hornet’s nest” and develop a tactic that, if harnessed and directed, might advance the interests of the powerless around the world. Or not? At the same time the work of Anonymous is another contemporary example of what I have called before “a tactic in search of a strategy.”
All of which led me to read with some interest a six-month old story I found in my son’s July copy of Wired called “Inside Anonymous” by Quinn Norton. The graphic editor’s of the story hooked me with a pull quote saying, “Anonymous is easy to understand – if you forget what you think you know about organizations.” I have to confess, I took that as a personal challenge, if not a taunt.
Here’s the heart of Norton’s argument on the ways and means of Anonymous:
Anonymous is a classic ‘do-ocracy,’ to use a phrase that’s popular in the open source movement. As the term implies, that means rule by sheer doing: Individuals propose actions, others join in (or not), and then the Anonymous flag is flown over the result. There’s no one to grant permission, no promise of praise or credit, so every action must be its own reward.
That’s interesting, but in itself hardly unique. “Sweat equity” organizational systems are common in many forms after all. In fact a critique of all federations goes directly to this kind of system or problem, depending on your perspective. In a unitary organization, there can be some coordination, no matter how imperfect, and some discipline, either with a loose rein and consensus or command-and-control. In a federation one could just about substitute the word organization or group for individual above and have a good fix on how it works or doesn’t work. It often seems that the level of autonomy within the federation is proportionate to the effectiveness of the overall federation when it comes to actions and campaigns. In that sense though Anonymous is (was?) interesting though and perhaps different since its effectiveness is not tied to any observable accountability nor are their actions triggered by any organizational decision or process.
If Norton is right many of the Anonymous actions began through message boards where aliases are allowed and limits are virtually nonexistent on comments and postings. Private channels would be created for different actions or proposals and some would fizzle and others would go viral in their own way and emerge in the do-ocracy full blown either effective or fizzling. Over the years various strains developed that were more or less political with clearer targets and unspoken alliances, while others drifted into black boxes or more juvenile pranks of one kind or another. Critical to their effectiveness, as is true in an organizational setting or campaign, was developing a very simple, easily replicable tool, or tactic in my terms, that anyone and everyone could do effectively, virtually from home, and that was the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC). According to Norton,
The LOIC was an application for sending test traffic to servers, much as a programmer will do to make sure a website can keep functioning under heavy use. A single firing of LOIC from a single computer sends just a small burst of meaningless requests to a server. But when enough people download LOIC and point it at the same target, they create what is in essence a voluntary botnet, capable of taking down a server.
And, away they would go!
Where Norton is not convincing and where logic trumps the Anonymous spin, is the self-serving and very smart notion that Anonymous was “leaderless.” Even with fabricated internet “handles,” clearly it would be more likely for certain “voices” and “logins” within the channel to gain increasing credibility either through their arguments or actions, which is part of what defines leadership. A “call” from them, like the call from any leader, would be more likely to attract support and sweat equity, and over time “bands” would form that trumpted when trusted cadres were arguing for action and in Nick Silver’s astute expression would separate the “signal” from the “noise” and be more likely to lead to action. Determining leaders based on who has followers is a good way to go in any operation or organization, and even eliminating some of the “leaders” through arrests (since most of what Anonymous is doing is not strictly legal!) would not necessarily permanently cripple the organization since the sweat equity or do-ocracy process over time would be the perfect process to recreate new leadership, if there was interest and intent, and that may not make the case that Anonymous is leaderless, but it is a clear contribution to the natural selection of how leaders should be determined and tested within any organizational culture.
All of this is worth keeping an eye on!