Distraction Free Reading

Biella Coleman, 2015 Forsythe Prize Winner, on IRC, Anonymous, and Wild Publics

It is truly an honor to join the cast of previous Diana Forsythe Prize winners and honorable mentions. In this blog post I decided to consider briefly a topic left unexplored in Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous that may be of interest to scholars working at the intersection of anthropology, media studies, and science and technology studies: the type of public Anonymous enacts with a lens directed at the communication infrastructure—Internet Relay Chat (IRC)—that helps sustain it.

In many regards, IRC is one of the core communication technologies that helps support what Chris Kelty has elegantly defined as a recursive public: “a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public” (2008:3). His work addresses various features of this public but one of the most important concerns how hackers have the knowledge—and by extension the power and ability—to build and maintain the technological spaces, whether it is IRC or mailing lists, that are partly, or fully, independent from the institutions where hackers and geeks otherwise labor.

"You call it piracy" by Anonymous - Operation Payback IRC channel.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Image: “You call it piracy” by Anonymous – Operation Payback IRC channel. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Anonymous, especially during the most intensive period of my research, relied heavily on IRC or similar chat rooms to congregate and organize operations. Although it is not difficult to find or use IRC, many non-geeks and hackers don’t have the necessary experience or background knowledge to easily or quickly jump on the platform (during research one of my core contributions was teaching journalists how to use IRC, which I could usually do in under 10 minutes in person). So in contrast to contemporary social media sites like Twitter, IRC might be thought of as a partially hidden public space. Compared to Facebook, IRC might also look and feel like a primitive backwater given its simple functionality and user interface. IRC is primarily meant for one thing alone: text based chatting (although more complex and at times illegal operations, notably running botnets, can be coordinated from these chat rooms as well). Its simplicity is one reason why hackers can easily erect and maintain the infrastructure autonomously. Corporate social media platforms require enormous costs and resources to build, maintain, and especially scale. In contrast to those platforms, hackers can install an IRC server in a jiffy, and once running it can be used by thousands of people.

If IRC is one of the many technologies constituting a recursive public, it is also a helpful gateway to think through other distinctive features of the Anonymous public that are illuminated by other theories of language and publics; in Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy, I gesture toward the nature of this public in one particular passage when I discuss the cacophonous conversations that routinely erupt on IRC. This passage, which I will quote in a moment, concerns one of Anonymous’ largest protest interventions which materialized as a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack. This deluge of Anonymous activity began in December 2010 soon after WikiLeaks released a cache of classified US diplomatic cables, a release that prompted the American government to target WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by convincing companies such as Amazon and Paypal to halt the processing of all services to the organization. Anonymous, angered by this act of censorship, rallied in support of WikiLeaks and in early December, Anonymous managed to attract thousands of participants into a single IRC channel—possibly the largest number (over 7000) to congregate in a single room, possibly ever. This is what I had to say about it in my book:

With thousands of people logged in and up to a hundred users talking at once, it was wildly cacophonous and required every last shred of my already ADHD-addled brain to follow. Indeed, there is probably no other medium on earth as conducive to what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin terms “polyphony” (multiple voices, each with a unique perspective and moral weight) than IRC. And while some would come to describe Anonymous as “a microcosm of anarchy, with no morals, empathy, or agenda,” I witnessed something altogether different: everyone had a moral viewpoint, a reason for being there. They cared, wanted justice, wanted to end censorship (and some even were there to disagree—vehemently—with the tactics being used). Yes: Anonymous had no universal mandate as a collective, but participants had their own, often well-tuned moral compasses guiding them. (2014:131)

Allow me now to stretch this passage out: Anonymous is an ideal example of what Bakhtin scholar Michael Gardiner has described as a wild public (2004). Although I never theoretically sutured Anonymous to this idea, Bakhtin and Gardiner were my silent interlocutors. In this fantastic article[1], Gardiner takes Habermasian theories of communicative exchange to task via Bakhtin’s work on language. What Gardiner seeks to slay most deeply is the Habermasian idea that communication is, can be, and most especially should always be transparent, accessible, and rational. It is worth reading the entire article but allow me to quote one passage that nicely sums up the core differences between the two thinkers:

So precisely what Habermas regards as ‘parasitic’ or derivative in language-use—namely, irony, humour, or paradox, as well as the rhythms, cadences and inexhaustible metaphorical richness of living speech—are not only what Bakhtin would consider to be the most interesting and important features of human communication. They also constitute a crucial resource through which the popular masses can retain a degree of autonomy from the forces of sociocultural homogenization and centralization. (2004:39)

My book is brimming with examples of this “‘parasitic’ or derivative in language-use.” The disposition to embrace wily, ironic, and at times, offensive speech genres stems largely from a culture that values this type of speech. That is, Anonymous’ roots in the dark underworld of trolling—and not simply their IRC uses—partly accounts for the use of impure, subversive language (see Phillips 2015). And in comparison to say, open source developers, who also heavily rely on IRC, Anonymous’ speech is rather more unpasteurized, to put it mildly.

Still, IRC matters because like the anonymous image board from which Anonymous hatched, 4chan.org, these chat rooms help nurture polyphonic speech. The affordances of IRC and those of an image board make centralization and homogenization of language difficult to achieve, which means particular genres of speech, from slang to humor, can thrive in these media. While many IRC channels (likely most of them) are rather lifeless with participants only sporadically speaking up, there are always a number of chat channels on various servers brimming, even exploding, with linguistic life. They are marked by multiple, unconnected conversations occurring simultaneously in real time. With the exception of private channels, participants generally are not pre-screened and can just show up. Although there are forms of control on IRC, the general expectation is these are open zones for chatting.

These places are called chat rooms for a reason: they are roomy. Unlike say Twitter, one can have a complex full fledged conversation on IRC, especially if you are willing to spend the time doing so. Since many participants tend to visit a select number of rooms pretty consistently, I believe they are also experienced on more spatial terms, than say, participants on a mailing list or even an anonymous image board. IRC has always struck me as something lying between a place/cafe and a purely discursive forum, which may help explain its staying power over the years. People become very attached to particular rooms/channels.

If indeed Anonymous is at least partly served by theories of wild publics, it is vital to note that Anonymous participants code switch depending on the audience. When Anonymous reaches out to the wider public, usually with a press release[2] or video[3], trying to convince them to support their cause, they tend to avoid using offensive language instead taking on a journalistic and civil (and hence Habermasian) tones. In other words, wild, recursive, and Habermasian publics all co-exist.

But even if Anonymous’ public has these multiple faces, the wild and recursive faces go furthest to explain the general state of autonomy of the Anonymous public. Participants can run and maintain their own infrastructure, like IRC, and a form of freedom complemented by the styles of speech that flourish there.


[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2004.00472.x/abstract

[2] http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/anonymous-most-memorable-hacks/13/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHyLqdW1vI8


Coleman, Gabriella . 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London: Verso.

Gardiner, Michael. 2004. “Wild publics and grotesque symposiums: Habermas and Bakhtin on dialogue, everyday life and the public sphere.” The Sociological Review 52(s1): 28-48.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Phillips, Whitney. 2015. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gabriella Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, she researches, writes, and teaches on computer hackers, digital activism, open source production, and intellectual property law.

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