I spend a lot of time thinking about Internet culture. My career is based on the planning, design, building, deployment, management and maintenance of technology systems. Today most of the systems I work with are connected to the Internet. For these systems to be successful, the cultural norms of different web communities must be understood and factored into how the system operates.
Internet culture is fascinating. Different base sites spawn very different cultures, and those cultures can evolve rapidly. Facebook is made up of people trying to share their lives in the best possible light. Twitter is more relaxed, humorous and quicker to share important news. YouTube has two very different communities. You have the content creators which are in many ways redefining what creativity and sharing mean. On the other hand, you have YouTube commenters who consistently produce the lowest possible from of human discourse. Reddit is said to be the opposite of Facebook. If Facebook is people you know talking about things you don't care about, Reddit is people you don't know talking about things you care about. It's no secret that Twitter and Reddit are my favorite communities.
There is another community that is very influential across the web, but less widely known than those above. It's called 4chan. Most of that people know about 4chan comes from a single board called /b. It's not fair to ascribe the culture of /b to all of 4chan-each board on 4chan has a unique culture. Most are centered around the discussion of a particular topic, and they are moderated to keep the discussion relevant.
/b is the random board. Anything goes. I mean anything. I don't have the stomach to visit /b. It's sad because /b is one of the birthplaces of humor on the Internet. I laugh sometimes at how much Facebook has become like /b with it's image macro posts. But it's not the same. Facebook attaches someones identity to every post, while 4chan is anonymous. Facebook saves every post forever, while 4chan automatically purges any post that falls past the final page. That makes 4chan this strange sort of hybrid consciousness. The impermanence of its content drives endless iterations.
From this anonymous iteration came Anonymous. Anonymous is a complete ad hoc, amorphous collection of people. There is no hierarchy. There is no leader.
What Anonymous has is ops. When a member of Anonymous successfully lobbies the group toward action, Anonymous acts. There are some very talented hackers and crackers in Anonymous, and they are surrounded by a much larger pool of less talented who are willing to do as directed if they agree with the cause.
And what might that cause be? Amusement is one. Perceived threats to Internet freedom is another. Anonymous has claimed some pretty high profile targets. They've taken down the sites of the FBI, Justice Department, Universal Music and others. A friend and I joke that if we ever found a network we manage under assault from Anonymous we'd simply unplug out Internet connection and wait until the group grew bored.
What I find most interesting about Anonymous is when they do something good. Like this story where Anonymous hunted down a hacker that infiltrated a charity. Anonymous doesn't like to see children trifled with, and the also protect charities. When a hacker tried to impress the group by compromising Redsky Film, they turned on him and tracked him down. His information was handed over to the authorities.
I think people sometimes underestimate the degree to which our civilization is being transformed by the Internet. The ease of communication and information exchange possible can bring out the worst in us. It can also enable us to do great things. Never in all of history have we been able to coordinate activities in a way which so easily thwarts the organizational controls of companies, governments and law enforcement agencies. We've never been able to share our thoughts so freely with so many-for good and for bad. We've never been able to learn about and respond to human needs with such amazing efficiency.
May we use our newfound connectedness to help each other.