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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
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Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
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We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency - Parmy Olson I'm going to talk about the book, but then I'm going to riff on the subject.

Olson's deft narrative of how Anonymous organized out of the chaotic prankishness of 4chan and eventually--in some ways obviously--fragmented and fell apart is deceptively accomplished. The book runs chronologically, helping us newbies ("newfags" in the language of this community) get a handle on what happened when and where, neatly tracking a linear path from early dickishness on discussion boards to a more organized ethos (against any constraints on internet freedom) that aligned--sort of--with politics (from Wikileaks to the uprisings of the Arab Spring).

On first reflection, just having finished the book, I thought the story structure too pat, too familiar: ragtag kids find common cause and form a team (each with her/his own unique set of talents), early actions, more organized missions, hubris and internal strife, actions that went too far or fell apart as the team disintegrated, and the wistful nostalgia of members post-Events. We've all seen this movie. Yet that clean arc belies the real breadth of the history captured by Olson. In particular, she's expert at the expository aside--contextualizing 4chan while describing its birth, for instance--and the skeleton of the book's "plot" is a very, very smart way to give shape to all this information. Olson also had amazing access to many of the central players (who were, um, anonymous--and generally derisive of outsider interest). Thus her history is more richly-detailed, yet also more widescreen, than any I'd seen before. Her insights are generous yet rigorously critical--her accomplished account of who these folks are and how they worked is complemented by nuanced assessments of motive, philosophy.

At times I wished for less "and-then" and more "so what"--I wanted a book more expansively engaged with the cultural study of the pranker/hacker subculture, and with the intersections of politics and pranks. But it's unfair to wish the book was everything, when it already so damn good on its own terms. (I still think it's a little over-stuffed with detail, too bound by its own structural focus on chronology. But these are minor quibbles.)

That's why I picked it up, though. I'm fascinated by, a fan of, pranks--the disruptive energies of rule-breaking, from the pettiest acts of childish disruption to the "important" stuff that gets the "moralfags" all hot and bothered. I'm interested in rule-breaking. And one of the things that fascinates me--about 4chan, or Reddit, or Anonymous, Lulzsec, or predecessors like Alan Abel, Andy Kaufman, Sasha Baron Cohen, and the Yes Men--is the way the prank's unexpected intrusion into public spaces reveals (in disregarding) all those social conventions we implicitly or explicitly demand allegiance to. The prankster comes along and may just fart in church, or may come in all dressed in her Sunday best, sitting down in the pew, paying careful attention to the service before--say, mid-sermon--laughing loudly, and frequently. Maintaining a perfect face of reflection and engagement--she's really paying attention to the preacher!--but not responding the way we're supposed to. Events like this make us uncomfortable: they violate the social contract governing behavior. And that's where I get so excited: by intruding on and disrupting the (oft-unexamined, or intensely-protected) rituals of acceptable behavior, the prank provokes some reflection on those behaviors and that unexamined ethical code. Often the response is intensified policing of those behaviors. (The response to Assange and Anonymous illustrates this to a T, eh?) But there's an opportunity for subversion there--an opportunity, when the rules aren't simply behind-the-scenes but are made visible, to imagine some other way of behaving with one another.

(A cheap sociologist's way to experience this: walk on to an elevator, and stand facing the wrong side. Or sit in a public bathroom stall and try to strike up conversations with people in the next stall. Jimmy Kimmel had a wonderful bit where he offered the guy in the stall next-door a plate of brownies.)

But what I love about the prank is what's dangerous about it. The prankster isn't standing outside, throwing stones--they're in the mix, and subject to consequences. Further, the "subversion" is not necessarily driven by moral purpose--or at least one can't bank on the moral outcomes. The problem with rule-breaking like this is that all rules go up in the air.

(We could stop here and address the 4chan love of the "-fag" tag. Newbies to the board were "newfags;" folks in Anonymous who stopped aiming just for Lulz--the mean/cynical bellylaugh of the jackass--and started thinking about purpose and politics were "moralfags." Clearly this nomenclature emerges from a foundational homophobia, and a pervasive bullying on the 4chan boards. Yet the usage became a neat tool for driving away the prudes--join in the game, or take your scolds somewhere else. And the new usages--perhaps--attained new semantic functions in the community; the "external" rules of culture were rewritten "inside" the chatroom. And, as Olson carefully and intriguingly defines in a thread throughout We Are Anonymous, there was an inclusivity to gender and sexual fluidity in these spaces. The breaking of that cultural rule--don't say the word "fag"--is not mere subversion nor simple bullying. It's a lot more fucking interesting, and to my mind suggestive of why breaking rules matters so much. Adherence to rules is often a way NOT to think about the messiness of our values. "Don't say 'fag'" allows us to cover up, act like homophobia, intensely-policed gender behaviors, and the limits of our cultural understandings of gender and sexual identity--the neat binaries we normalize--are not always on the table or in the room. The downside is obvious: the breaking of the rule might be a vicious, overt attempt to maintain other rules. This is at the heart of the problem of the prank. Sometimes you're being a [lovable] jackass; sometimes you're an asshole.)

We might turn this around on Goodreads culture, and maybe the recent kerfuffle about the "bullying" of authors, the site's attempts to define and control behaviors and image. 4chan had no real constraints on how people behaved, or what people could post. And I think this improvisatory play is more 'organic' to social media community; anything goes, and the rules, such as they are, form (and constantly reform) depending on what the mass of users will accept. It leads to a constant rule-breaking and -setting. Goodreads, like lots of social networking sites, is constantly grappling with this tendency for "open" conversation to evolve through bouts of jackassery and assholishness. Reviewers here aren't bound by some of the constraints imposed by newspapers or print sources -- we can let it rip. We might be profane, might be cruelly or crudely derisive of the themes/topics or the (non-existent) aesthetics, might call the author names ("What kind of misogynistic asshole wrote this?"). We can write reviews that ignore the book entirely, and just throw mud. Authors could pipe up--and throw mud back, or game the system (what rules? I'll get my ratings by making up profiles), or go out on the internet and start attacking the "attackers."

If we were 4chan, we'd just ride the waves of anger and counter-move, and eventually "rules" would shake out. I think that on a social-networking site largely driven by readers, the assholish writers trying to control how people write or talk about their works would have their asses handed to them. And ought to. But my point is: I would be fine with letting the shitstorm rage. If there appears to be a user behaving in a way that other users find inappropriate, I think the visceral response is just fine. For example, trolls will troll, and will usually spark mobs of fire-wielding friends to attack. I wouldn't censor trolls--I'd assume the mob will get 'em. But mobs are dangerous, too, right? I wouldn't censor mobs, either, but things can get uncomfortable. (A while back--some eons ago in internet time--another kerfuffle on GR was about "reviews" that attacked the problems of predatory behavior on sites like this. Some felt like the mob had gone vigilante. I felt--still do--that the internet runs on different rules. And part of the pleasure, and pain, of playing on a site like this is the discomfort of figuring out what rules/values matter to me, and how do I fit in, and....)

I understand why GR wouldn't want to have 4chan as a business model. It's a difficult thing trying to figure out rules to shape social network behaviors.... and it's damned interesting to watch problems blow up, and then seeing how the community and the overlords try to make sense of and then structure behaviors accordingly. But the place--Goodreads, but also this broader new world of a networked community--demands new ways of thinking about our values, and how behaviors get policed. And for that reason the "bully" debate is wonderful, if painful. And I'll delight in coming upon the next prank--whether neat jackassed air horning or assholish prowling--that disturbs the community here. "Delight" in the most complicated sense: relishing its worth and value, even if I feel outraged, or aggrieved, or hurt.