AnonymousHere at Humanity Online we’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing some background research into cultures of collaboration and collective action, investigating examples from the corporate world, the worlds of organised civil society and grassroots civil society. 

Probably the most striking example of collaboration is that of the Anonymous movement. You know, the ones who not so long ago shut down PayPal and major credit card companies after they stopped providing payment services to WikiLeaks. The ones who helped Egyptians connect to the net through their regular landlines when Mubarak’s government shut down the internet. Yes, and the ones wearing the Anonymous ‘mask’ at Occupy events around the world. Whilst many of them are just teenagers, they’ve taken on even the most formidable foes – with relish. They are a striking form of organic civil society.  

What’s so striking about Anonymous is that it seems to have happened almost by accident. Even when they have ‘happened’, it is hard to pin-point exactly what it is that has happened, what and who they are and what they will do next. 

 According to various people who were involved in the movement, who agreed to be filmed for documentary titled ‘Anonymous’, the movement rose out of the online community 4Chan – which essentially provides forum functionalities for users who always remain anonymous. But it was an evolution.

First they developed a sense of community: shared symbolisms sprung up – inside jokes, innuendos and phrases. Note, it is within the context of anonymity that the shared symbolisms sprung up; as though the symbolisms on their own established links of familiarity rather than names, social class or status.

Once a sense of community had developed, users on 4Chan began collaborating. For example, joining virtual communities and all dressing the same way and converging in the same location. They did it for fun and, actually, they got a kick out of joining forces to frustrate other unsuspecting web-users. Were they do-gooders? Hardly! So, what changed? 

They had already realised the power they had as a group, the strength in collaboration. But their moral turn seems to have begun once they started caring for each other as members of a community. When one of their members were threatened by an external force, they joined forces to support that member. 

This shared moral sense of purpose nurtured by seeing its power in action grew, and the rest is history. 

Are Anonymous taking the right route to civil action in all situations? Some would argue no. Is their stated ethos ‘we do not forgive’ the most constructive approach? Some would argue no. But the powerful paradigm that Anonymous provides for collective action using the web is unforgivingly glaring. They show the raw power of the collective, and that because we are living in the internet age, whatever we put our minds to as a collective is possible to achieve.

It is up to our generation to do what we can to create and shape the kinds of environments online that connect people from around the world so that together we can address the really big global issues affecting us in a positive way, channeling that power to the collective good.