Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/07/anonymous_feature/

ANONYMOUS: Behind the mask, inside the Hivemind

Where and who are the Anons? Everywhere and everyone

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Security, 7th July 2011 10:00 GMT

On a frigidly cold morning in early 2008, two dozen complete strangers arranged to meet for the first time. They had travelled from all over the metro area, some taking over two hours to reach their destination. Coffee and doughnuts were sacrificed to the ritual of placing online handles to faces. The first meeting of the Edmonton chapter of Project Chanology had officially begun.

Similar meetings were taking place around the world. Thousands of individuals (known as Anons) in dozens of cities were about to do something unprecedented. Anonymous was about to manifest in the real world in order to protest the sins of Scientology. No leaders arranged, organised or coordinated this endeavour.

Despite this lack of hierarchy, the protests were a spectacular success. From London protests that filled entire city blocks to the lone brave protester handing out leaflets on the streets of Tokyo, Anonymous had burst into the public consciousness with an unforgettable message: the internet is here.


Who is Anonymous?

I have had the opportunity to speak to Anonymous. People I grew up with, those I have known online for years all the way to complete strangers I have only just met: all have taken the opportunity to discuss why they became Anonymous. Quotes in this article are their words.

But who is Anonymous? Explanations aren't easy; you can't pigeonhole Anonymous. Every definition ever attempted – including this one – is in some way wrong. This is in part because Anonymous can't agree among its members what Anonymous is or whom Anonymous comprises.

Anonymous isn't a group, or a club. It isn't an organisation, a religion, cult or ideology. Anonymous is the fairly vague and nebulous realisation of an idea. Exactly which idea is a source of continual debate.

Anon3 )) The Oldfags1 are most likely the ones starting everything up, they've been doing it the longest. I like the Oldfags, I like listening to the stories about old raids and whatnot. They are kind of digital hipsters though, but that's needed to keep all the new people from taking over. A lot of the Oldfags lurk other boards, mostly because /b/ 2 has become a hangout for Newfags.

Anons argue all the time about who qualifies as an Anonymous. Since there is no formal membership, there is no membership roster. Some Anons believe that anyone who has ever posted anonymously anywhere is an Anon. Others have a more restrictive view.

Anon1 )) Depends on the mindset of the person, IMO. Some people consider using *chans "anonymous." Others define it as hacktivism. Others define it as a way of thinking about things.

Anon3 )) Anyone can be apart of Anonymous, and they need to be ready to tolerate the good with the bad, because there is going to be more bad then good. So I guess you could say that anyone who self identifies could be considered anon.

Anon3 )) You have to do raids to apart of anon. Raiding is a big part of being anon; they are the frontline and the part that everyone notices.

Anon3 )) This group isn't really a group at all, it's a bunch of people who feel strongly about something enough to do something about it

Lacking a formalised membership requirement, or method of identifying other Anons, those who identify themselves as Anonymous will often be accepted as such.

Origins of Anonymous

Anonymous traces its origins to internet image boards. There are a few different origin stories, but all have a similar theme. Depending on the whims of the moment, the image board admins would alternately enforce, allow or ban posting anonymously.

It was quickly discovered that if you allow (or enforce) anonymous posting, getting people to follow any sort of rules is functionally impossible. It was here that Anonymous began.

Anonymous is that part in all of us that wants to break the rules, defy social conventions, indulge a secret passion or get a rise out of someone. Anonymous is the expression of our desire for lulz.

Anon2 )) I never really "started" with anonymous, more so just drifted into it as a lot of interesting people, interesting ideas are around the people involved. Over the years you "become" part of it.

Anonymous rapidly evolved to become the symbolic representation of the ability to say what you want to say, when you want to say it, to whomever you wished to address.

Anon2 )) There's a reason this IRC network has lasted as long as it has with the opers we have here :p

Anon2 )) Our policy on no logging, no data storing, freedom and flow of ideas would mean anyone is welcome though unless they cause harm to the network.

This is a reincarnation of an old idea, one that has recurred with great frequency in our species history. From slaves fighting for freedom or the fragmentation of religions to "no taxation without representation", there have always been people willing to agitate, gather en masse, and even die for the right to speak their piece.

Anon3 )) If they shut down the servers Anonymous hangs out on they'll just move somewhere else and people will pick right back up where they left off.

Anon3 )) If the government tries to "censor" us, I think you will see wide spread rioting.

Anon3 )) Yes, real world rioting.

Anon3 )) People like their free speech: even if you don't like what they say, they have the right to say it.

Anon3 )) I would be out bitching, sending angry letters, fucking shit up on the interment. I'd be pissed.

Anon3 )) That's not to say that the "basement dwellers" will be as pissed as myself to make their voices heard, but we're talking about a site that gets millions of visits a day.

Anon3 )) To me it is worth fighting for. I'm truthfully sick of what seems to be a "company controlled" government that we have today.

Anon3 )) I would be willing to die for freedom of speech.

Anon3 )) I think they'd be right there with me.

Anon3 )) I hope.

Anon3 )) Protests are a little hard to get going, but if people are pissed enough they'll show.

Hippie culture brought a pacifistic element to this idea. Hacker culture took a similar theme and combined it with the desire to explore the boundaries of new technologies. Around the turn of the millennium, the freedom to speak one's mind took on a more activist edge.

This concept of "hacktivism" was embraced by some Anons and rejected by others. Some see hacktivism as the only method by which individuals can have their voices heard. For others, it's a bridge too far. Regardless of where individual Anons may draw the line, hacktivism has become the public face of Anonymous.

Obeying the rules is up to you

Outside of a handful of the most permissive corners of the internet, absolute uncensored freedom of speech isn't seen as a sacred right. If an Anon says or does something to offend the powers that be, that is their own fault. The result is often getting banned (b&) or vanned (v&)3.

Anon3 )) Anons are willing to break the law to a point. Nobody wants to go to jail though.

Anon3 )) Most of the time any attack that happens is a bunch of people that feel strongly about something, like our government cracking down on file sharing.

With the exception of unique corner cases, the bulk of Anonymous will not intervene. Quite the opposite: Anonymous will point, laugh and create various pictures depicting what it sees as your incompetence. A frequent theme will be actions that could have been undertaken to avoid the repercussions of your speech or actions.

That isn't to say that Anonymous won't respond to attempts to prevent individual Anons from expressing themselves. While many of the hacktivist tactics – DDoSes, fax abuse or hacking – are considered over the line by some Anons, the judicious application of these tools will still find wide support.

Trevor )) What about things like black faxes, blocking access to businesses?

Anon2 )) That's just funny :)

When a response from a target is desired, most Anons turn to trolling. Trolling is Anonymous's favourite sport, most refined art and sacred duty. Anonymous will troll people online as well as in the real world. Ban enough Anons from your forum and you may well be on the receiving end of trolling from dozens or hundreds of individual Anons.

Regardless of the methodology employed, attempts to stem the tide will usually prove ineffective. Anonymous is the ultimate example of crowdsourcing. Deny them access in any way and what were a few dozen Anons causing a minor annoyance will quickly become hundreds or thousands of people dedicated to finding a way around your security so that they may have their say.

In it for the lulz

Anon2 )) There is always lulz within anonymous :)

When trolling, everyone is fair game, including other Anons. A group of Anons who frequent one site may venture into the digital home of another group of Anons for a little friendly warfare. Those who have irritated Anonymous, or even completely random strangers, are all potential targets.

Individual Anons participating in organised activities (called "raids") vary depending on the cause. Some Anons will raid forums, chat rooms, businesses, or multiplayer video games for the lulz.

Many Anons won't bother with this sort of randomness. There are Anons who don't take part in directed or retaliatory raids, and those that respond to every slight. Each Anon finds satisfaction and lulz from different activities.

Trevor )) Where do you personally draw the line between "lulz" and "over the line of fail?"

Anon2 )) Haha, good question, and one that would get 1,000 answers if you asked 1,000 people.

Anon2 )) Anything that includes physical harm or damage.

Anon2)) People are in it for the lulz. Anonymous still is, and will be for a long time, lulz for the dedicated people that are still involved and for the new people that still join in today.

But this sort of chicanery is only scratching the surface of Anonymous' motivations. Anonymous is the sum of its parts, and it is composed of individual Anons. These individuals will collect under the banner of Anonymous to participate in as wide an array of activities for as wide an array of reasons as can be imagined.

Not always the bad guy

Despite the outwardly gruff exterior, Anonymous does have a soft spot. Anonymous worked hard to expose the real-life identity of a woman who was drowning puppies, and $deity protect you if you hurt a cat.

Anonymous ploughs enormous resources into whistleblowing. It also routinely battles censorship wherever it is found, with individual Anons putting hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars into anti-censorship projects. And it has a plan.

Anon3 )) Helping the people in the middle east is an example of "good things" anon does.

Anon3 )) I think it's a good thing. It's always a good thing to have people doing stuff that's for others, which I think has always been Anon's goal.

Anon3 )) Some people just can't handle a laugh at another's expense. Even if it comes in the form of trolling a dead person Facebook.

Anon3 )) Anonymous is not as evil of a monster as some might think. Most people are there for laughs.

One group of Anons I have had the opportunity to spend time with deserves special commendation for their efforts. Friends since grade school, this group of Anons numbers 12 in total. They are professionals: a medical doctor, a lawyer, laboratory technicians of various sorts and a selection of IT nerds. All of them are over 30, with one individual nearly 50.

Collectively they have pooled their time and resources to do good deeds in the name of freedom of information. They have set up and maintained an IRC network with servers in many countries. They buy time on servers around the world and set them up as TOR exit nodes. These Anons have set up informational and proxy websites to help individuals bypass – among others – the Great Firewall of China.

Some among this group contribute financially to Reporters Without Borders. Others have put years of their time into providing technical means to defeat censorship in the all over the world. They also support more esoteric efforts.

Anon4 )) We had a friend who had just gotten laid off by HP and was at loose ends.

Anon4 )) This was right after the housing crash and there were no jobs.

Anon6 )) Yeah… http://rlv.zcache.com/accidentally_the_whole_economy_christmas_card-p137220475387249618qi0i_400.jpg

Anon5 )) We were sick of a lot of the propaganda being passed around, so Anon4 came up with an idea.

Anon4 )) We found enough money to pay his bills for 6 months. All he did for 6 straight months was watch Fox News and debunk them online. With links to primary sources.

Anon5 )) Poor bastard. But he caused many lulz...

Anon4 )) Another good one was the wireless mesh project.

Anon6 )) Oh, yeah!

Anon4 )) We worked with some Anons from Sweden, and the US.

Anon6 )) It was stupid. Frequency hopping multispectrum mesh wireless. If you have the seed you can hook into the network by predicting which frequency will be next up.

Anon5 )) It was too expensive.

Anon4 )) We're working on that.

Anon4 )) You can't trust encrypted darknets, the government controls the routers.

Anon6 )) Media, telcos, government. Bought and paid for. The only way people have a chance of hearing the truth is if they control the means of distribution.

Anon5 )) Oh god, not the twitter revolution again…

Anon6 )) The twitter revolution!

Anon4 )) At least until US.gov hits Twitter with an ICE takedown because some wanker calls Sarah Palin fat.

Come to the dark side, we have cookies


Recently, LulzSec AnonOps and other hacker/hacktivist groups have been in the news, used interchangeably with Anonymous. The truth is a little more complicated.

AnonOps is unquestionably Anonymous. They claim affiliation, and its membership is primarily rank-and-file Anons.

LulzSec (now disbanded) was a separate entity from Anonymous: a distinction LulzSec had made many times on the group's Twitter account. There are some ideological differences, and LulzSec as a whole has been more "pure" in their quest for lulz than Anonymous as a whole.

The tactics used by both LulzSec and AnonOps were not supported by all Anons, though there is widespread sympathy for LulzSec's motivations and the underlying frustrations which have served as triggers for their actions. This is reflected in the growing support for Operation Antisec, a concerted attempt by many different hacktivist groups to uncover and release documents belonging to governments and the whitehat security industry.

Anon1 )) As a hacker, I appreciate LulzSec's full disclosure policy, although the recent DDoS of random pointless shit is a little lame in my book.

Anon2 )) LulzSec: They're hilarious, huge ego-ed maniacs that think they own the place. They are original lulz.

Anon3 )) Anon's name has been dragged through the mud already, most People realize that there is no one member to this group and it changes as things come and go. Anon is mostly for the people, what LulzSec is doing is just showing they can shake the foundations of the internet.

Anon4 )) Asshats. But hilarious.

Anon5 )) SailStrong!

Anon6 )) LulzSec's methods and motivations may be off, But they are doing a really good job of showing the world exactly how little "we the people" matter to our governments and their corporate masters.

Despite keeping itself at arm's length, LulzSec did work with Anonymous on some projects, and their members eventually folded into Anonymous when the group disbanded.

Hacktivist groups exist that have nothing to do with Anonymous, yet will also cooperate with Anonymous when there is common cause. The People's Liberation Front (PLF) acted in concert with AnonOps during the HBGary affair, but is its own independent entity and claims no affiliation with Anonymous. Popular websites Wikileaks and The Pirate Bay have been the subject of intensive media scrutiny and also cyber-activism by Anonymous. Despite often being linked to Anonymous, they too are separate and distinct entities.


The hivemind (click to enlarge)

A hivemind is multiple individuals following a single, unified will. The Borg are a hive mind. Ants are a hive mind. Anonymous is not a hive mind. Trying to get a straight answer from Anonymous on anything is more akin to having a conversation with a breakfast cereal. There is a lot of "snap, crackle and pop", but very little unity.

Anon3 )) It's not really a "hive-mind" per say, but when people are in agreement on something, things happen. There's no denying that.

There are no "leaders" of Anonymous. Anonymous resists the concept of leadership so fiercely that anyone who attempts to take on a leadership role is ostracised. At the same time, Anonymous can – and does – contain sub groups which may have a more formalised social hierarchy than the group as a whole.

Anon2 )) Almost all people running the network has contributed to the network in some way. Myself, financially by renting servers and a lot of time invested.

Anon2 )) Time devoted to help provide a space for anonymous and other people to communicate came about as actually keeping a place stable enough for people to stay and ideas to flourish is difficult and requires a lot of time. Something not many people can actually provide both of.

There are many "strong personalities" who are active Anons. Quite often these individuals succeed in rallying other Anons, or serve to as organisers for some event, project or raid. Their contributions are generally appreciated.

Delicious cake

Most Anons are benign; however the error bars of acceptable – or fun – behaviour vary greatly by individual. In any given random sampling of Anons you will find one that feels it is funny to email or fax you horse porn at work, one who will bake you a delicious cake, one who volunteers at a charity 20 hours a week and yet another who will DDoS your website because they didn't like the colour scheme.


Anons are teenagers, they are programmers. They are judges and nurses and lawyers. Anons are sysadmins and teachers, the poor, the rich and everything in between. Anonymous may have started on 4Chan, but today there are members everywhere.

Anonymous lurks on Reddit, and includes commentards here on The Register. Anonymous spends time on FunkyJunk, trolls you on Xbox live and even counts among its number many of Something Awful's Goons.

Anonymous is neither internet Jesus nor the internet boogeyman – though individual Anons may well be either or both. Anonymous is here to speak its piece, fight for its variegated ideals, and enjoy the lulz. Party hard, Anonymous. ®


1 Oldfags are individual Anons, or frequenters of Anonymous-friendly websites who have been participating for some time. The opposite of course, are Newfags. No element of homophobia is implied. Rather, Anons append "fag" to the end of a term as a sign of disrespect for those who use "fag" and "gay" as pejoratives.

2 Anonymous is often linked nearly exclusively to the /b/ section of the 4Chan image board. In reality, Anonymous occupies far more digital real estate than this one website. There are hundreds of other image boards bearing the "Chan" name, 420chan and 711chan being the most notable. There are also numerous other image boards that do not use a *Chan nomenclature. More here. Warning: not remotely safe for work, home, or anywhere else. Ever.

3 Getting banned refers to being banned from a website, forum or IRC channel. Getting vanned refers to being arrested by a law enforcement agency, frequently the FBI.

Disclaimer: Any opinions contained in this article are those of the author or those quoted, not the editorial position of The Register. We do not endorse breaking the law and we take no stance on the righteousness or otherwise of the causes espoused by members of Anonymous or any other online collective.