After their visible hesitance to prominently cover various popular uprisings around the world, it seemed almost as if in compensation that TIME Magazine chose to honor ‘The Protester’ as their 2011 “Person of the Year.” But if I had my pick of nebulous groups-turned-philosophies that took the world for a spin this year, it would have to be Anonymous.
Indeed, the two often go hand in hand. The hacktivist group, which originated as a personification of the digital hive mind grown from the vat of anonymous message boards, has come a long way since its days of harassing Tom Cruise and his Scientology buddies. From aiding the internet-deprived citizens of Egypt to running DDoS attacks on the websites of repressive governments around the world, Anonymous has had no shortage of support amongst a growing culture of international dissent. In fact, so thoroughly has Anonymous permeated the revolutionary zeitgeist that it seems to hold an organic, almost spiritual role in nearly every struggle that has made headlines this year.
If you want visual proof of this transcendence from group to philosophical idea, one need only look for the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask seen amongst crowds of demonstrators everywhere from New York to Cairo to Moscow. Originally a set piece from the mid-90s graphic novel-turned-Hollywood movie V For Vendetta, the vaudevillian caricature has been wielded as a banner both in and out of the context of Anonymous. And yet, even where the context is absent, the core ideas the mask has been made to embody always seem to remain intact. The novel’s famously eccentric author, Alan Moore, recently expressed his simultaneous discomfort and satisfaction in seeing the symbol cross the rift between fiction and reality. But its ability to unite protesters with a healthy dose of melodrama, he admits, makes the mask a powerful and inspiring banner amid the drudgery of protest.
As a loose-knit collective of hacktivists, many of Anonymous’ greatest exploits this year were motivated by its sympathetic relationship with Wikileaks. The relentless cyber attacks on Visa, Mastercard and PayPal after those companies stopped processing donations to the whistleblowing organization, as well as the run-in with crooked government contractor HB Gary, undoubtedly rank high among them. And let’s not forget Anonymous’ ballsy offshoots, LulzSec and AntiSec, whose momentary blaze of glory brazenly escalated the electronic war against governments and corporations to anarchistic proportions unseen since the heyday of hacker culture in the 80s and 90s. For better or worse, Anonymous reinvigorated the idea of hacking and electronic disruption as a form of civil disobedience.
Say what you will about the politics, methods and individuals of the group which embodies it. But also consider that perhaps, Anonymous has demonstrated something unique to our period in history: the rapid processing of niche philosophy into the raw materials and patterns of everyday culture.