Anonymous and I [guest contributor]

Editor’s Note: Anonymous may still be a mysterious network, but there is one researcher who has helped the world better understand their activities, Gabriella Coleman. In this month’s guest post, Gabriella discusses how her research on Anonymous changed the way she conducted fieldwork: she moved from being a traditional anthropologist to a more public anthropologist.

Her post brings up issues that are central to the founding of Ethnography Matters – how to be an ethnographer today. Increasingly, ethnographers are engaging with the media either as commentators, pundits, or experts. By opening up our work to the public, we make it more accessible and immediate, but how does public engagement change the work we do? Especially when the engagement becomes a mode of access for data.

Gabriella’s intro to her post on Limn highlights the tensions she has experienced as her fieldwork with Anonymous has evolved over time. Is her work more about Anonymous or journalism? Or perhaps it is about something else? Share your thoughts in the comments.

With such a controversial topic, many institutions may shy away from hosting Gabriella. But not McGill University, where she holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department. Trained as an anthropologist, her work examines the ethics of online collaboration/institutions as well as the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism. She’s writing a new book on Anonymous and digital activism. Follow her on twitter @biellacoleman.

Gabriella’s first book is coming out next month, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking. You can pre-order it on Amazon!  In the meantime, Gabriella’ sresearch publications and non-academic writing will keep up busy until the book arrives. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers. Ethnography Matters is always lining up guest contributors.  Send us an email!



When I first dove into the ethnographic study of Anonymous—the global protest movement known best for its digital protests tactics—I  never thought my project would also become one on journalists and hence the media.  But after about the 40th interview, it became pretty evident that this was a central part of my larger project and my ethnographic experience.

To have to be public about your work, while you are doing that work is no easy task; in fact it went against everything I was used to as anthropologist, which was to delve and burrow as deep as I could into a topic/world, and come out the tunnel on the other side, about a year later, ready to start conveying some insight and arguments.

When the media catapulted Anonymous into the limelight, back in the winter of 2010-2011, I made a decision to intervene in the public debate by commenting on their actions. I did so initially because many journalistic representations were off the mark, but very quickly became fascinated by the way Anonymous became a media sensation in itself, empowered by the headlines it landed thanks to its many stunts, and also caught in the noxious trap of needing to outdo themselves each time simply to sustain this media attention around them.

The dance between Anonymous and journalism has now become central to my work and I am clearly a dancer in the dance.

Here are some initial thoughts about this fraught relationship. I hope it will give a taste of what is to come in my book, where I dedicate a chapter to the topic.

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5 Responses to “Anonymous and I [guest contributor]”

  1. October 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Reblogged this on NonviolentConflict.

  2. October 12, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    “needing to outdo themselves each time simply to sustain this media attention around them”

    Such an interesting aspect of this, and one that makes me think about violence and Occupy Oakland. Maybe the simplest way for a protest movement to get media attention is through violence or destruction, either by authorities or by protestors? Occupy Oakland was doing all kinds of interesting stuff in downtown Oakland before it was flooded with media attention following a massive, violent police raid.

    In the wake of that raid, Occupy Oakland seemed to be increasingly influenced by people chasing the same kind of attention. Although many people living in the neighborhood had supported OO initially, opinions changed as it began to seem that OO and the OPD fed off each other’s destructive actions.

    The Occupy presence in downtown Oakland now looks pretty different from what it once was. I wonder how Anonymous will evolve over time, and how adaptive their strategies for attracting media attention will be.


  1. Ethnozine: October edition | Ethnography Matters - October 12, 2012

    […] Gabriella Coleman’s research on the enigmatic Anonymous network has provided unique insights and dispeled myths about the group. In a guest contribution this month, Coleman writes about tensions in her work and what it means to be implicated in “the dance between Anonymous and journalism.” […]

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