For an author who has dedicated her life to the study of the online movement hacktivist known simply as “Anonymous,” Gabriella Coleman is anything but. In an extensive career spanning several decades and disparate fields, she has delved into everything from the “work” of Anonymous to the nuances of hacker culture.
In an age evermore dominated by the intersection of technology and the humanities, Coleman strives to bring the two together in work that speaks to the spirit of modern online life.
Coleman began her studies in higher education at Columbia University, from which she received a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies in 1996. She continued her analysis of society and culture through a Master’s in Socio-Cultural Anthropology in 1999 from the University of Chicago. Her 2005 PhD thesis narrowed her field of study to the phenomenon of modern hacking culture with her dissertation focusing on “Hackers, Ethics, and the Liberal Tradition.”
It is here that the first inklings of her focus on the online sphere and the ethics of hacking and online life began to take root. Coleman’s work seeks to root the nature of hacking and sharing information within the grander liberal tradition of freedom of information set against personal rights.
Work on Anonymous
July 2010 saw Coleman beginning to comment on Anonymous, the infamous international hacking organization involved in some of the most high-profile hacks of all-time. The group’s notoriety has led to them becoming a sort of symbolic shorthand for hacktivism writ large.
Coleman’s early work on the group focuses on their operations against the Church of Scientology. Pivotally, Coleman characterizes the groups as a cyber version of archetypal “tricksters.” This characterization stems from both her previous socio-anthropological work as well as Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, which Coleman found influential in fleshing out her theory on the group.
According to Coleman, Anonymous, like tricksters from past social and folkloric traditions, are characterized by “sharpened wits” and “cunning.” Coleman cites both “play” and “political” motivations as the driving forces behind Anonymous’s actions. This is a double-edged sword that proves to be their greatest asset but that, like tricksters of the past, leads to them becoming “trapped.”
On a grander societal level, the moral dubiousness of the trickster archetype and ongoing dialogues about freedom of information vs. privacy online make Anonymous a test case for how these old ethical battles are rehashed in new online settings.
In the spirit of centuries-old debates on Social Contract theory, Coleman likens Anonymous to “virtual pamphleteers.” As with pseudonymous pamphleteers of past centuries, Coleman asserts that it is the anonymous nature of their actions from which Anonymous derives its power. Coleman’s theories on Anonymous has led to her being cited as an expert on the group by outlets such as the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Wired.
Crucially, Coleman’s work seeks to understand, rather than moralize or excuse, Anonymous’s actions. It also seeks to contextualize them vis a vis other, arguably more malevolent hacktivist forces. She contrasts Anonymous with 4chan, a notorious haven for fascist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and sexist rants that has spawned and cheered several mass shooters in recent years. Coleman also highlights the white nationalist Internet troll weev as a more malicious example of trickster hacktivists gone wrong.
Coleman has taught at a variety of schools including the Institute for Advanced Study and McGill University, where she has been a faculty member since 2014. She has been a research fellow and faculty associate at the Fonds de Recherche du Québec as well as Harvard, and has received backing for her research from organizations such as the National Science Foundation.
She published her first book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, in 2013. The following year, her second book, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, was recognized by the American Anthropological Association with the Diana Forsythe Prize.
Gabriella Coleman’s work offers an insightful glimpse behind the mask of Internet anonymity and hacktivist ethics and culture that dominate modern life, online and off.