From Lulz to Lawmaking

Some online political discussions lead to offline mobilizations and others don't. Scott McLemee looks at a sociological study of the difference that anonymity makes.

January 14, 2015

In 2012, Jessica L. Beyer received the Association of Internet Researchers award for her dissertation, “Youth and the Generation of Political Consciousness Online,” now been published as Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization (Oxford University Press).

The author, now a research scientist at the Information School at the University of Washington, spent several years monitoring and in some cases participating in a number of online communities which, though non-political, sometimes engaged in political discussion. Her analysis focuses on four sites. In two cases, the political concern led to offline activity, including the creation of parties that have won elections. At the other two sites, the conversation never made the leap to mobilization. Beyer’s study is series of ethnographies of the miniature social orders emerging at the sites, in search of the factors that generated or inhibited activism.  

“Once I had chosen to study social sites,” Beyer explains in a long postscript on research methodology, “I had also chosen to study young people.” There’s an implicit “of course!” hovering over the remark – and fair enough, given that she did her digital fieldwork in the late ‘00s. But social sites have greyed somewhat in the meantime. Beyer’s perspective on “the generation of political consciousness online” may well apply to a broader demographic by now.

One of the sites in question enabled file-sharing, primarily of music and video, while two others were devoted to online gaming. The driving interest of a fourth cohort, the group known as Anonymous, seems harder to identify, though Beyer pins it down as well as seems possible by calling it “the nihilistic pursuit of entertainment, referred to as ‘lulz.’” Major sources of lulz (an idiom derived from an acronym: it’s the plural of LOL) include trolling, hoaxing, hacking, and “breaking s[tuff]."

The readerly appeal of ethnography usually comes from its attention to the details of everyday behavior and interaction taken for granted within a subculture. And that’s certainly true in the case of Anonymous, which -- like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange -- has its own tightly self-encapsulating argot and code of conduct. The file-sharing and online-gaming communities also have specialized lingos and accepted norms, just as a stamp-collecting club might develop. But with Anonymous the markers of in-group status are much more sharply defined. Beyer understands this peculiarity to be a function, in part, of the design of the discussion forums that gave rise to Anonymous. Participants are never identified, even by a pseudonym, and venues do not have archives.

Because distinct identity is obliterated, “users assert their membership status in different ways,” writes Beyer. “To signal they are community members, users must use an extremely dense lexicon; show familiarity with community jokes and stories (signaling knowledge in a very particular way); articulate community values both directly and in the ways in which they frame conversations; and adhere to community norms of anonymity in all interactions, even when telling personal stories (e.g. ‘my math teacher is so stupid….’). Because of these norms of behavior, although the space is technically ‘anonymous,’ outsiders are easily spotted.”

While providing optimal conditions for digital hooliganism, these conditions would also seem to make political mobilization impossible – or, for that matter, completely irrelevant. (Misanthropic individualism tends to preclude any idea of the common good.)

But in 2008, the Church of Scientology forced a number of websites to take down the leaked video of a giddy Tom Cruise discussing his super-powers, and Anonymous responded with a campaign of attacks on its sites, accompanied by a memorable video of its own declaring war on Scientology. Faced with an angry swarm of unidentified and unidentifiable hackers, Scientology’s longtime strategy of litigation against its opponents was of no use. Members of Anonymous then joined forces with longtime critics of Scientology, many  of them ex-members, to launch a worldwide series of protests outside its buildings which have continued, on and off, ever since.

Likewise, Pirate Bay, the file-sharing entity originally based in Sweden, took on the motion-picture and recording industries through street protests as well as its online activity. In 2006, it spawned a Pirate Party calling for the abolition of copyrights and patents and respect for privacy. By the end of the decade it was the fourth largest party in Sweden (with, Beyer notes, “the largest youth membership as well as the largest youth organization in Sweden”) and held two seats in the European Parliament. There are now Pirate Parties in at least 40 countries, with candidates elected to hundreds of offices at various levels of government, riding waves of discontent with intellectual property laws and surveillance.

Pirate Bay and the Pirate Parties share an ethos while remaining distinct. File-sharers can be anonymous, but not electoral candidates. While the original site administrators gave the political movement some direction, legal actions attempting to shut down Pirate Bay forced it to build anonymity into its very structure: it operates through a network of servers dispersed over an unknown range of countries, with no individual or group knowing more than a little of the system.

So anonymity, however counterintuitive this may seem, was a major factor in enabling the communities around two sites to move towards real-world activism. By contrast, the other two formations Beyer studied -- the game World of Warcraft and an online discussion-board system called the Imagine Gaming Network – required users to register and regulated their speech and behavior in ways that,  she says, “undermine[d] collective group mobilization.”

Her account of how the layout of the different sites and the way they conditioned the degree of participants’ visible identity reveals a number of interesting contrasts – particularly between World of Warcraft, in which creation of an identity is part of the game, and the milieu of Anonymous, in which doing so is effectively impossible. On the gaming sites, in Beyer’s analysis, people are able to form smaller groups defined by shared interests or beliefs; they never reach the critical mass needed for mobilization in the offline world.

Perhaps, but other differences bear mentioning. Both WoW and are commercial enterprises which exist strictly for entertainment. Individuals drawn to Anonymous or file-sharing through Pirate Bay are looking for entertainment too, of course. But they do so in ways that violate – or at best skirt – legal norms.

A gathering of stamp collectors might well include members also interested in international affairs. But no matter how passionate their discussion may become, they aren’t likely to be able to mobilize them on non-philatelic matters. I suspect gamers sites resemble the stamp collectors. They aren’t engaged in something that challenges any powers-that-be -- while Anonymous and the Pirates are, and wave a flag while doing it. Beyer's case studies are interesting, but her findings not entirely unexpected.


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