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My contact tells me to “dress sexy” for my date at the Edison with three Anons, affiliates of the troublemaking Web vigilantes Anonymous. Ordinarily I’d ignore such a ridiculous directive but talking to the press is usually verboten for Anonymous affiliates — Anonymous rule No. 1: “Do not talk about Anonymous”; rule No. 2, Fight Club–style: “Do NOT talk about Anonymous.” So pushing any semblance of feminism aside, I do my best imitation of a high-end /b/tard anime fantasy, complete with gray knee-high socks and patent-leather high heels.
When I meet the Anons at a loft in a seedy section of downtown, they are dressed like something out of Mad Max, all kerchiefs and T-shirt graphics. They assure me that this is not what they are going to wear on our date — the Edison has a strict dress code — and before heading off to change clothes, they politely introduce themselves as Ras, Solar and Daywatch, who is tonight’s host. These aliases are not even their message-board handles; a big Anon fear is being doxxed, or having your real personal information spilled online. Also, a large part of the Anonymous modus operandi is making sure the collective takes precedence over the thoughts of any individual member. I am enjoying unprecedented access to these Anons, two of whom are in Southern California to attend protests in Hemet, celebrating the one-year anniversary of Project Chanology — the movement that sprang up after the Church of Scientology tried to suppress the leak over the Internet of the infamous Tom Cruise Scientology video.
The secrecy is understandable; aside from the IRL (in real life) Scientology protests, the more sinister online actions of people posting as Anonymous — including highly illegal DDoS’ing, or Distributed Denial of Service attacks and botnets, or automated spamming programs — have landed other “Internet griefers” in jail. Clearly, as part of a group in which some members have taken the law into their own hands, there is danger in presenting any kind of public profile.
The group is basically centered around the philosophy of trolling, or, as Solar puts it, “getting into somebody’s head so they leave the Internet forever.” This usually involves hurling insults, or gifs, or memes in a forum to get a response, the Net version of the schoolyard game “the dozens.” A major precept of image-board culture is centered around doing stuff for the lulz — Encyclopædia Dramatica, the online compendium of Anonymous high jinks (encyclopediadramatica.com), defines “I Did It For The Lulz” (IDIFTL) as “a catchphrase that serves as a catchall explanation for any trolling you do or any Internet drama you cause.”
Why should you care about a patchwork group of Web vigilantes? For one thing, its influence is all over the Net. Last month the No. 4, No. 6, and No. 8 trends on Google were Anonymous-related memes — the Twin Towers unicode icons; the “Steve Jobs is dead” hoax; and the Internet phenomenon known to her lovers and haters alike as Boxxy. Like it or not, you appropriate Anonymous culture whenever you forward a lolcat or a Rickroll link (just Google it), or download Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” as your ring tone. The Internet has an armpit and it’s where all your beloved memes come from. They have power, actual IRL “meat-space” power, as evidenced by the high attendance at Anonymous protests from Clearwater, Florida, to Sydney, Australia. The Anons I meet downtown reveal that one of their recent accomplishments was gaming Obama’s Book of Change, ratcheting up “revoke the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status to No. 8.”
The group got its biggest dose of recognition when Fox News aired a report accusing Anonymous of hacking into MySpace pages and “spoiling” the new Harry Potter book — Fox punctuating its coverage with footage of a truck blowing up and phrases like “Internet hate machine.” Wired magazine wrote: “This ‘news report’ is the funniest raid anyone on the board has ever pulled off.” The Wired blogger got it backward, however. In fact, according to Solar, the Fox news report is what changed it from a joke to something legitimate. “The report gave us carte blanche. You realized you could get attention,” he says.
The guys estimate that the movement has more than a million members, all posting as Anonymous — 888chan.org gets from 500 to 600 hits daily. Solar says that the group pulls off an average of three raids a day, though few make it onto our radar. In its most idyllic manifestation (the one that is presented to me), the Anonymous movement is a Darwinism of ideas, where the collective Zeitgeist takes precedence.
The Edison has a no-sneakers policy, a fact that our host, Daywatch, has neglected to mention to the other two. Ras, the soft-spoken 888chan.org moderator, wears black sneakers, and Solar, a charismatic organizer from San Francisco, is in Adidas. Daywatch scrambles through the loft looking for more appropriate shoes, and I sit down with his colleagues and try to make small talk while eating an apple.