Gabriella Coleman examines classical anthropological questions in the heart of technology. Photo by Pierre Arsenault.
Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman conducts research among a strange, sometimes hostile tribe: computer hackers.
By Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
In 2011 Gabriella Coleman, AM'99, PhD'05, the Wolfe chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University, was interviewed by journalists more than 80 times.
Coleman studies Anonymous, which began as an online hacker group and transformed into a subversive protest group. Anonymous had been around since 2008, when a group of hackers ganged together to harass the Church of Scientology, mostly for the lulz (mean-spirited amusement, a term derived from lol, laughing out loud). In late 2010 the mainstream media began paying attention. That's when Anonymous, angry that Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal had frozen the accounts of classified-information publisher WikiLeaks, launched an attack that shut down the companies' servers.
Journalists covering the story needed help not only understanding Anonymous but also contacting its secretive, nameless members. "I hold the dubious distinction of teaching roughly two dozen reporters how to find Anonymous and how to get on IRC [Internet Relay Chat] to interview them," Coleman wrote in an essay for Limn. "I have answered the same questions over and over again in print, in TV, and in film interviews."
For an anthropologist, being in such demand is atypical, says Coleman: "Compared to political scientists, economists, and sociologists, anthropologists are more marginal." Although the frenzy has calmed, she still spends between five and eight hours a week doing interviews, partly because she wants to convey that anthropologists have something important to contribute and partly because of "the gender issue," she says. "Mainstream media is still so skewed toward male commentators."
When Coleman came to the University of Chicago for graduate school in the late '90s, she planned to write her dissertation on spiritual healing in Guyana. But when she became ill and could not travel to do fieldwork, she had to rethink her plans. During her yearlong recovery, she began researching hackers involved in the open-source software movement, who developed software collaboratively with others, relying on legal agreements mandating access and openness rather than licensing their technology with patents or copyrights.
Coleman persuaded her advisers to support her new topic and moved to San Francisco to study the hacker community there. When she tried to explain her research to her professors and other grad students, "It took a while," she says. "People couldn't get it. That alone was evidence that there was something interesting going on."
Her thesis, which won the division's Sol Tax Dissertation Prize, was published as Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012). The book is available for free download as well as for purchase from Princeton University Press. "I felt I had no other choice than to get a Creative Commons license," says Coleman, since the book is about a community whose entire existence is dedicated to open access. Convincing the publisher took some work; finally, Coleman told her editor, "Publishing a book on free software with copyright is like publishing a Hindu prayer book on leather." So far almost 50,000 copies have been downloaded.
Like her work on open software, Coleman's research on Anonymous grew out of a circumstance she didn't choose. In 2006 she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, which has the largest Scientology archive in the world: "I thought, OK, here I am in the middle of nowhere. It's literally negative 30 outside. I'll go do some research." Coleman developed a theory that Scientology, which many hackers disdained, was "the evil doppelgänger of the hacker world," she says. "But I was secretive about my project," because Scientology had a history of taking legal action against academics and critics.
Then in 2008 an unexpected development shifted her research focus. The Church of Scientology tried, unsuccessfully, to censor a recruitment video featuring Tom Cruise; Anonymous, which had recently come into being on the online message board 4chan, emerged to protest. (Anyone who does not register as a user on 4chan is displayed as "anonymous," inspiring the group's name.)
At first the group's tactics were puerile—sending pizzas to Scientology churches, faxing images of nude body parts—but Anonymous quickly adopted mainstream approaches, "highlighting the church's use of censorship and abuse of human rights," Coleman wrote in an article in the online magazine Triple Canopy. "An extempore spout of trolling had thus given birth to an earnest activist endeavor."
Coleman continued to track Anonymous as it transformed into a free-form, controversial political organization, condemned by Fox News as "the Internet hate machine," a label its members gleefully adopted. Anons, as individual members are called, helped the Arab Spring revolutionaries circumvent government censorship. They leaked the 2012 video of Steubenville, Ohio, football players mocking a rape victim, bringing an otherwise local story to national attention. In 2011 Aaron Barr, CEO of the HBGary security firm, claimed he knew the names of top Anonymous leaders (Anonymous has no leadership; one of their logos is a human body without a head). In response, the group took control of his Twitter account, wiped his iPhone and iPad, and published company documents. "Civil liberties is what they tend to be most attracted to," says Coleman. "But they're not bound to any imperative. That makes for extreme flexibility."
During her research, Coleman spent eight hours or more a day on the chat channels. "You can only get to know them by spending an enormous amount of time online," she says. "Some of their social dynamics"—including the constant chatting—"remind me of small-scale nonliterate groups." They also tend to control self-promoters. Traditional societies, she notes, usually contain ambitious members by accusing them of witchcraft; similarly, Anons shame members who give too many interviews or otherwise become powerful. "To me, it's fascinating that there are these classical anthropological questions in the heart of technology."
Coleman's book on Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: From 4chan Lolcats to Anonymous Everywhere, will be published by Verso in fall 2014. "The book is really crazy and fun," Coleman says. "It's got conceptual points, but it's not in an academic veneer at all." Like Coding Freedom, it will be available for free download. She would like to sell it only in hard copy before posting it online, but she doubts that's possible: "I'm sure someone from Anonymous will just get that thing up right away."