I realise this is more than 500 words but I was enjoying myself so I will make my second literary review shorter to compensate. 🙂
When reading Our weirdness is free by Gabriella Coleman (2012) on the online hacktivist group Anonymous, one of the things that I started to think about was how the formation of such a group was a new kind of structure for social interaction and action for digital human kind, one that has a parallel in the natural world. A leaderless, structure-less, gathering of masses in nature is a swarm.
The evolving technology used by Anonymous is allowing humans to act in a swarm like structure (or lack of) on a massive global scale. If a swarm can be defined as “the collective motion of a large number of self propelled entities” (Evans & O’Loan as cited by Wikipedia), with no central coordination, then the definition also fits the collective congregation of Anonymous.
In nature, swarms consist of schools, or shoals of fish, flocks of birds, herds of quadrupeds and massive groups of insects. – To a lesser extent the idea of a swarm can be applied to the behaviour of a crowd of people at public events and I suppose that knowledge of this is used in aspects of crowd management, but I don’t believe it has been previously seen in the sheer numbers of Anonymous’ online community.
Swarms occur when large groups of a particular species exhibit the same need for movement and change, the benefits of swarming include better foraging success, a better chance of finding a mate (Parish, 1993) a migration towards more food or a safe place to raise young or interestingly in the case of locusts, a raised level of the antidepressant chemical serotonin, but one of the strongest reasons is as a defense mechanism to deter predators .
Is this a logic that can be applied to the group Anonymous? If there has been an abundance of something (food, breeding, information, freedom) followed by a deficit then in nature a swarm occurs, creating chaos and ensuring the survival of (most of) the group.
If Anon. is a swarm then could it be seen as a type of biblical plague like the plagues of Egypt? A vengeful force purposed towards penalising the established hegemony, an avenging force punishing the greedy few and giving power back to the people?
The adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask seems to support this idea. Modern culture is riddled with the idea of the antihero, I grew up in a media saturated with the vigilante figure from Batman to Robin-Hood; maverick figures who protect the everyday man and punish the oppressor. However, Guy Fawkes himself became a martyr figure rather than a maverick, possibly due to how he threw himself to his death from the scaffolding where he was about to be hanged, rather than submit himself to the death penalty from the government.
He was doomed in his singularity and could fail where Anon. is many, so could never really be wholly sacrificed. Like in a swarm, some of the creatures on the fringes may be lost but at the centre, the tightly packed density of the multitude is untouched.
Could a crowd of people that large create a devastating force as seen by locust swarms, which decimate the landscape? Surely such a large collective spirit ends up with it’s own kind of moral code. Without a figurehead or an influential main body to sway and lead the group, the only consensus would be in numbers, more like a true democracy. So if an action is proposed then does it only occur if enough people in that swarm think it is a good idea? The members must come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to be able to navigate the digital space they exist in they must have some degree of education, so overall, is there a degree of self-regulation through common sense? A moral code created by the overlapping views of many?
If so then what about the idea of doing it for the lulz and as it is so aptly put in the article, the sheer “motherfuckery”(Coleman, 2012) of it? The change seen in Anon. in it’s transition from just doing it for the lulz into becoming ”moralfags” (Coleman, 2012) with a strong sense of social justice can be seen as the maturation of the group as an identity.
Where a child may be satisfied with a simple joke, a more mature identity tends to enjoy a more complex joke with multiple layers of meaning. Like the comparison of a knock knock joke with a rant from comedian Bill Hicks, an empty prank is not as fulfilling as one which has a specific target, especially if that target is perceived as a bully or is guilty of something deemed morally wrong. It is more fun when it has meaning.
This idea is seen not only in pranking and comedy but also in art and music. A piece of either may be beautiful in and of itself but if there is a concept, something to relate to, and in many cases an injustice put to rights or exposed, it is more satisfying, it puts the meat on the bones. Perhaps the Anonymous swarm is developing a far more advanced sense of humour and social responsibility as it leaves its childhood behind and matures into an adult swarm.