A cultural anthropologist and professor at McGill University, Gabriella Coleman first encountered the hacktivist collective Anonymous when she was studying Scientology. The religion was an early target for the loose-knit network of online pranksters and hackers. Over the years, Coleman was able to penetrate the network to gain the trust of some of its most influential figures. Her recent book, "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous," offers a rare glimpse into their digital universe. Passcode recently spoke with her about the book and some of the common misperceptions about Anonymous. Edited excerpts follow.
Passcode: What does the media still get wrong about Anonymous?
Coleman: A lot of journalists get it now. But initially so many people just wanted to say that they were all hackers. Over time a great majority realized that while hacking is very important, what makes Anonymous interesting is precisely the fact that general geeks can join. The second has to do with the leader issue. So many people ... still want to boil down leadership [well-known hackers such as] Sabu or Topiary.
Passcode: Anonymous may be best known for carrying out online attacks in the name of supporting victims of sexual abuse, such as the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. But at the same time, it's also notorious for being verbally abusive to women. What's your take on the general Anonymous view of women?
Coleman: So, the hackers are all male. We could blame Anonymous for keeping [women] out, but they are not keeping black hat hackers [who are women] out because they barely exist. That said, there is a culture where they embrace this very offensive language – including misogynistic language – and this is obviously going to be a barrier, not simply for women but certain quarters of the leftist community.
There are women who participate – I put the number at about 25 percent. They play key roles with Twitter accounts, organizers, these sorts of things. But among a camp on the left, they don't buy into the importance of transgressing language and norms and that acts as a barrier for them. That is just a fact.
Passcode: I thought the so-called “White Knight Ops,” or actions that support social causes, would draw more women to Anonymous.
Coleman: Feminists were very torn. Some saw [Anonymous] as quite bold and could see the value, there's others who really are just like, “it's incredibly regressive.”
Passcode: There's so many contradictions to various aspects of Anonymous. They forgo identity yet are incredibly publicity hungry. They are leaderless but then they always have a handful of temporary leaders for short periods of time. Out of all these contradictions, which one is the hardest to explain?
Coleman: There's a series of contradictions and that really defines who Anonymous is and it’s hard to convey some of them.
The hardest thing to convey is the changing structures of leadership, because people still think there must be leaders. In certain moments, certain teams or individuals are more important than others but it is highly dynamic and shifts. I think some people have trouble understanding because they've never been on Internet Relay Chat and they don't know what the exchange looks like. That was one of the reasons why I included so many chats in the book.
What's interesting about Anonymous – and this also goes back to the contradiction – it's not simply that there is a shifting leadership, you have small teams that are very controlled and then you have those big channels in the public that determine what happens.
Passcode: There are plenty of loose cannon associated with Anonymous. How do outsiders know which ones to take seriously?
Coleman: When you don't have a spokesperson, someone still needs to say, "Hey, don't listen to them." At one time, I took that role, and helped a lot of journalists, telling them “he is credible,” “she is credible,” “he is not credible." Because I am not active anymore I don't play that role.
Passcode: That’s the biggest contradiction. Anonymous can’t be entirely anonymous to function as a group. Your book is breaking down the myth. But at the same time, that myth is what draws people to Anonymous. And, in many ways, you are reinforcing the myth.
Coleman: My whole book is traveling this set of contradictions. There are too many misconceptions [about Anonymous] but I also wanted to keep it enchanting.