Tricksters everywhere

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Haidy Geismar. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.021


Tricksters everywhere

Haidy GEISMAR, University College London

Comment on Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of Anonymous. London and New York: Verso.

There have been several excellent reviews of Gabriella Coleman’s book Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy (2014) that give detailed and thoughtful overviews and locate the book within its wider cultural context (see, e.g., Postill 2015). My comment today focuses less on the content of the book and more on its form. HHWS is a rollicking history and ethnography of the evolution of Anonymous from the darkest recesses of 4Chan to the front lines—and courtrooms—of contemporary battles for privacy and freedom of speech. It casts Anonymous as an emerging social movement focused (in no particular order) on the lulz (the Internet chat and messaging acronym for online laughs and pleasures, often at the expense of others), and on toppling corrupt figures and organizations while exploring the nature of contemporary democracy and globalization. Here, I want to focus on HHWS as ethnography: a tactic that Coleman employs to write both about and for Anonymous. Coleman herself acknowledges that the “book leans heavily on journalistic conventions and sourcing methodologies” (2014: 409). I propose that while anthropology may be only lightly present in the citational ecology of the volume, such a work could not have been written without both the critical thinking at the heart of anthropological theory, and without the very particular role ethnography plays within anthropology. In general, this includes a textual recognition and embrace of the ambiguous subject position of the author, the crafty cultivation of an aesthetic of neutrality, and the simultaneous interrogation and suspension of normativity from the vantage point of the field.

Figure 1
Figure 1. List of books confiscated from Chelsea Manning in prison, source @xychelsea.

Many reviews have focused on Coleman herself, with one commenter going so far as to call her “Anonymous’s own hero” and “a fervent stoker of Anonymous’s mystical fire” (Chen 2014). Indeed, Coleman has come be known as Anonymous’ own anthropologist. As the ongoing controversy of Gamer Gate demonstrates, there is often a tense relationship between online actors and their observers. It is a testament to Coleman’s social skills—and tactical commitments—that she has emerged from publication relatively unscathed by criticism from Anons. Throughout the book Coleman is careful to locate herself as a particular kind of participant [377]observer—one whose participation is framed in terms of translation, advocacy, mediation, and in many cases emotional support, for the humans behind the masks especially as they start to be hauled off to European and American prisons.

Coleman draws on the frame of the trickster, an established anthropological trope, in order to explain how Anonymous can be understood as

provocateurs and saboteurs who dismantle convention while occupying a liminal zone. They are well positioned to impart lessons regardless of their intent. Their actions need not be accepted, much less endorsed, to extract positive value. We may see them as edifying us with liberating or terrifying perspectives, symptomatic of underlying problems that deserve scrutiny, functioning as a positive force toward renewal, or as distorting and confusing shadows. (2014: 34–35)

The trickster category functions itself in a recursively trickster like way as both a description and also a compliment to those invested in the lulz. And, like all good anthropologists (and perhaps unlike all good journalists), Coleman herself embodies in her writing a number of tricksterish qualities. Her wry account of a visit to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (2014: 10–17) shows us her own appreciation for the lulz. On showing an early Anonymous video manifesto during her presentation, she describes how

Intelligence agents were laughing at the lulzy video made by Anonymous trolls that gave birth to the “threat” they were tasked with assessing. I will get out of here alive after all, I silently sighed. (Coleman 2014: 12)

In a recent article published here in HAU, Tim Ingold argued “participant observation is absolutely not an undercover technique for gathering intelligence on people, on the pretext of learning from them. It is rather a fulfillment, in both letter and deed, of what we owe to the world for our development and formation” (2014: 388). For Ingold, ethnography is but one way to represent that encounter, and he roundly criticizes the elevation of ethnography to become a metonym for the complexity of anthropology itself, arguing that ethnography is the “description of,” whereas anthropology is “work with” people (392–93). This is a very different understanding of the place of ethnography in anthropology contained, for instance, within the recent reception of Alice Goffman’s book On the run (2014) in which she recounts her experiences in the Philadelphia badlands. Media criticism of Goffman’s role in the illegal activities she describes (see the summary by Paul Stoller [2015]) demonstrates the ways in which ethnography is understood by many as not “just” description but as a form of truth telling about the world that sheds light on the kind of “work with” people that anthropologists undertake, akin to investigative journalism in terms of its ethics, accountability, and political commitments.

Coleman treads similar territory and we are aware throughout the book that she is working with people often in the process of transgressing legal and political borders (see Fish and Follis’ comment in this symposium). She is conscientious and careful in her approach, and this comes through clearly in her writing. However, she also demonstrates how ethnographic writing itself may be understood as a continual process of establishing a form of interlocution. This is particularly pertinent in the case of Anonymous, for whom text is talk, and writing (from tweets to [378]code) as well as other representational forms such as YouTube videos, instantiates a profound form of social action, which Coleman describes throughout the book as “weapons of the geek.”

The language in the book therefore should not be simply mistaken as accessible or journalistic, or even following Ingold, as descriptive. It is in the very form of her writing that Coleman exhibits her most artful trickery. We see this in her deliberate use of colloquialisms. Her text is peppered with adjectives such as “epic” (21 mentions), “motherfuckery” (12 mentions, only 4 in quotes). In the index we find reference to “hardened lulz-seekers” (see p. 68) and Anonymous “as jujitsulike force of trickery” (see p. 50). I suggest that this is more than just an appropriation of the language of her interlocutors but in fact indicates a fuller participation in the aesthetics of hacking and trolling and their interpenetration into diverse social worlds (and this is also explored thoroughly in Coleman’s previous book, Coding freedom [2012]).

This layering of meaning, and doubling of textual intentions, extends into the ethnography in other ways. Take the ways in which Coleman handles Sabu—the hacker-turned informant. Sabu is now, ironically, persona non grata for many Anons—an anti-Christ of the movement—but he might also be understood as the ultimate trickster. What better lulz than to inform from IRC to the FBI? When talking about her interactions with Sabu, Coleman is the exemplary anthropologist, cultivating what I described earlier as an aesthetic of neutrality. Her tone is nonjudgmental as she recounts her initial meetings with the legendary hacker, both onand then offline. She presents with sensitivity the complexity of his situation— as a New York Hispanic youth struggling to keep his extended family together and to parent his adopted cousins (Coleman 2014: 330).

Coleman’s story of engaging with Sabu also presents her as a researcher trying not to know too much. As they met periodically to work with documentary filmmakers or exchange season’s greetings, Sabu was in fact informing on his comrades to the FBI, having undertaken a plea bargain to protect himself from imprisonment. AntiSec, a notorious hub for Anonymous operations, emerges in fact as a front for the FBI. Sabu’s tricksterism: that he capitalized on his identity through his pseudoanonymity; that he was a double agent working for the FBI; and that his commitments to security have moved in both directions, has provoked vitriol and hatred from other Anons. Coleman was shocked and angry after his arrest but she very deliberately falls back on quotations from published media sources as commentary, and her Anonymous sources remain hidden through multiple layers of pseudonyms. More robustly than a sense of journalistic ethics or neutral description, this portion of the book both illuminates and instantiates the pervasive paranoia created by the entanglements of state surveillance and the very condition of anonymity itself. Coleman herself acknowledges that she will not travel with her laptop across borders (2014: 10).

In this way, her text grapples knowingly with—and instantiates—the elisions, confusions, and rumors that constitute the subjectivity of Anons. I propose we understand this as a kind of metaethnography, or in the words of this journal, ethnographic theory. The falling back into seeming modes of journalistic citation and convention masks the limits of the anthropologist’s neutrality and the possibilities of what they are able to write. Some of these descriptions work very much like [379]code—text that makes something happen. In this instance, the subject positions and identities of Anonymous are constituted through not just their own code writing and hacking but through the descriptions that circulate through IRC, Twitter, and out into the media, something Coleman, as a broker between Anons and the media, is well aware of.


The recursive constitution of text and person extends into other social and political recursions (see Kelty 2008). Sabu, like another tricksterish character Julian Assange, uses networked activities, through hacking and the Internet, in order to expose the how these networks are explicitly implicated in a recursive stranglehold of (self) monitoring and governmentality. As outspoken tricksters, they are so provocative because they press on crucial social buttons about privacy and freedom of speech as they simultaneously transgress social norms and demonstrate how social interaction and political opinion may be converted through digital code and networks into political action and activism. Coleman’s lively ethnography, tracing the details of IRC, 4Chan, hacks, and lulz; tracking the volley of communication and activity between online and offline environments; and following the tenuous silken threads that connect us through screens and streets to one another, both describes and personifies the fundamental trickery of Anonymous—the ability to create something solid and identifying from behind a mask.

Tricksters are holders of double-edged swords. While they may encourage levity, we should also take them seriously as both a cultural form and as a mode of description powerful enough to constitute social relations and identities. HHWS describes how law enforcement has attacked hackers, doling out lengthy prison terms, and classifying acts such as DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) as a form of cyberterrorism. In this context, it is noteworthy when there is a refusal to take seriously other, no less impactful, kinds of anonymous networked activity and the gendered nature of this is striking. There is a notable difference between the ways in which police and other law enforcement agencies deal with Anons and the ways in which they attend to overtly gendered trolling. For instance, in the United States, local police reportedly use anonymity as a cause for inaction for attacks over social media threatening violence, rape, and even death to women (see Merlan 2015). It seems to have become a new norm for women to receive hateful and violent communications over social media. The brilliant Cambridge don, Mary Beard, in the face of her quite shocking twitter abuse parsed these texts as harmless and sophomoric, suggesting she might call one tweeter’s mother, causing prolific apology from the young offender (Mead 2014).


Given the repeated demonstrations of how text and image can bleed into action, not just in the case of Anonymous, but much more violently in the case of Charlie Hebdo, the extent to which public hate speech against women is tolerated by both politicians and mass media alike might be construed as bizarre and hypocritical. However, we might take both Coleman’s, and Beard’s, example and harness the power of the Lulz. We can turn again to Anonymous and to the disgusting and dark recesses of 4Chan to soothe as well as torment us. Coleman’s book, in describing the adventures and identities of Anons reminds us how much the borders separating anonymity as a democratic right or as a punishable identity; or freedom of speech and hate speech; or trolling and political activism, require robust and ongoing conversation and that these words, like all descriptions, have the ability to powerfully constitute states of being. Loki, Sabu, and Assange are hardly court jesters, they are elemental forces both inhabiting and commenting on our times, much as Coleman does herself in this book.


Chen, Adrian. 2014. “The truth about Anonymous’s activism: A look behind the mask reveals a naïve techno-utopianism.” The Nation. Accessed September 17. http://www.thenation.com/article/190369/truth-about-anonymouss-activism#.

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2012. Coding freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

———. 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of Anonymous. London and New York: Verso.

Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[381]

Ingold, Tim. 2014. “That’s enough about ethnography!” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 383–95.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mead, Rebecca. 2014. “Troll Slayer: a Cambridge Classicist takes on her sexist detractors.” The New Yorker, Accessed September 22. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/troll-slayer.

Merlan, Anna. 2015. “The cops don’t care about violent online threats: What do we do now?” Jezebel. Accessed September 17. http://jezebel.com/the-cops-dont-care-about-violent-online-threats-whatd-1682577343.

Postill, John. 2015. “Review of Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of Anonymous.” johnpostill.com. Accessed September 17. http://johnpostill.com/2015/06/12/21-review-of-hacker-hoaxer-whistleblower-spythe-many-faces-of-anonymous-by-gabriella-coleman/.

Stoller, Paul, 2015. “In defense of ethnography.” Huffington Post, The Blog. Accessed September 17. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stoller/in-defense-of-ethnography_b_8028542.html.


Haidy Geismar
Department of Anthropology
University College London
Room 146
14 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW
United Kingdom