Audience, genre, method, theory

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Tom Boellstorff. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.023


Audience, genre, method, theory

Tom BOELLSTORFF, University of California, Irvine

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


My title is—of course—an homage to Coleman’s brilliant monograph Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy, (2014) recalling her own homage to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (le Carré 1974). My title also indicates that questions of form will be central to the discussion. For reasons of genre as much as space, this is not a book review in the usual sense. I assume that you, dear reader, know that Coleman’s book is an ethnography of Anonymous; I will not summarize the argument. I write this essay as a scholarly conversation to which you are invited and which I hope you will find stimulating.

Having read Coleman’s book many times and taught it to graduate students in a seminar on digital culture, this landmark text continues to leave me impressed (though not surprised, for those of us familiar with her oeuvre). Any anthropologist working on contemporary questions of technology should know it. However, this book was not written for us. That question of audience animates the discussion that follows, envisioned as a gift of gratitude. My goal is to open up lines of anthropological inquiry that are largely implicit in Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy. This is linked to genre choices, linked in turn to intended audiences. I do not think that these linkages are inevitable, and will suggest avenues for extending Coleman’s analysis. Let’s go!


A book can speak to multiple audiences, but no piece of writing can ever speak to everyone. Authors always face the decision, pleasurable and painful, of deciding who their intended readers will be, and thus indirectly who will have to undertake greater work to engage with the text in question.

From the outset—from the title to the choice of publisher, from the size of the font to the de-emphasis of citations and endnotes—Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy is clearly written for a popular audience. This shows up as well in its writing and organization. The book is overwhelmingly structured by chronology: first X happened, then Y, then Z. The tone is that kind of comfortable storytelling that seems easy until you try it yourself. Chapter and section headings like “Revenge of the Lulz” or “A Team of Anonymous Ninjas Exposing Team Themis” describe the content to follow. Adjectives like “Deleuzian” make an occasional appearance, but there are very few explicit theoretical interventions. There are few citations to relevant scholarly literatures and almost no citations to anthropological work. All this makes it understandable why Glenn Greenwald’s endorsement praises this “fascinating history of Anonymous.” But recognizing Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy as a fascinating ethnography of Anonymous has consequences for the key issues I address in the penultimate section of this essay.

It is important for anthropologists (like all scholars) to be comfortable in multiple genres, and with this book Coleman demonstrates a simply staggering range with regard to her writing voice. I do not think the nexus of audience and genre must entail sidelining anthropological literatures—not only because such literatures can powerfully enrich the discussion but also because it is precisely through such engagements that the value of anthropology can become more legible to wider publics. In the chapter “Weapons of the Geek,” Coleman notes that the chapter title is derived from James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak (Scott 1985). She adds that while Scott’s study “describes the tactics of economically marginalized populations who engage in small-scale illicit acts ... weapons of the geek is a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life” (Coleman 2014: 106–7). Following this tantalizing sentence, however, Coleman returns to her largely chronological discussion. Scott’s text is not cited save for the title, nor are the conceptual interventions he and his many colleagues have developed drawn upon. I do not think this was a necessary or inevitable choice.


The intended audience of Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy is not just a broad public. It is also—perhaps primarily—members of Anonymous themselves: indeed, the book is dedicated to them. The idea that the people anthropologists study might read what is written about them (and possibly comment or even retaliate) is by now familiar, though not always a reality in practice. Members of the communities anthropologists study may not always be interested in ethnographic insights, and barriers of genre can be significant. Even if we find the time and resources to have our [393]work translated (e.g., Boellstorff 2009) the resulting text is typically of interest to scholars speaking that language. It is by writing in different genres that anthropologists most often share the results of their scholarship with the communities studied.

Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy belongs to that subset of ethnographies where the persons studied are highly literate in the language the text is written, and highly motivated to know what is said about them. Indeed, the subtitle “the many faces of Anonymous” emphasizes a sensitivity to this readership, given that being homogenized and conflated is a common complaint of many members of Anonymous and similar groups. Meticulously documented details leave no doubt that Coleman is a leading authority on Anonymous. She emphasizes this many times, particularly at the outset when describing a visit to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Later in the book, from physical-world meetings to online chatlogs, Coleman establishes the astoundingly comprehensive character of her ethnographic engagement.

When inviting me to contribute to this online symposium, Coleman noted “the book has garnered some interesting responses, especially from journalists who have tended to review it in positive terms although many consistently puzzled (one might even say offended) by how close I got to Anonymous” (personal communication, March 31, 2015). Perusing some journalistic reviews confirmed Coleman’s assessment. While exasperating, I do not find these responses illuminating save that they underscore a continuing lack of understanding among broader publics regarding ethnographic research. Particularly with regard to the domain of technology, warped by entrepreneurial—even “evangelical”—hype, such responses confuse the concerted attempt to present another point of view with taking sides. They confuse empathy with sympathy, understanding with promotion, and engagement with contamination. Trapped in the binary logic of assessing “success” or “failure” and obsessed with predicting the future rather than comprehending the present and past (see Boellstorff 2014), these responses do not help us appreciate the painstakingly careful and—I will say it without hesitation—deeply courageous ethnographic achievement Coleman’s book represents.


To explicate this achievement and suggest avenues for extending its contributions to anthropological theory, I want to consider Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy as ethnography. In this regard, it quickly becomes clear that while the topic of Anonymous is strikingly modern, the text is strikingly classical. Having written a book titled Coming of age in Second Life (Boellstorff 2015), I wholeheartedly embrace this approach, finding it a valuable conceptual counterweight to the overweening rhetoric of novelty all too common in the “tech space.”

But to simply note that Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy is a classically ethnographic text is insufficient; there are many modes of classical ethnography and we need to identify those most relevant to the case at hand. With regard to Coming of age in Second Life, while I began the text with a self-consciously Malinowskian arrival scene and frequently placed myself in the text, this was a relatively minor feature and the chapters were organized conceptually not chronologically (e.g., “Place and Time,” “Personhood,” “Intimacy”).[394]

In contrast, as noted earlier Coleman’s text is organized primarily as a chronology; furthermore, it is centered on Coleman herself. Almost every paragraph includes “I” and we find many statements like “I began participating in discussions and became known, and more-or-less accepted, in a number of the sub-communities and channels that were constantly popping up, like mushrooms in a forest after a good rain” (Coleman 2014: 178) or “increasingly, I was also being swept into this orbit of secrecy” (299). This is certainly motivated by genre and audience: a desire to reach out to publics by bringing them along on a first-person account, and a desire to show readers (particularly those associated with Anonymous) that the author knows of that which she speaks.

But these conventions of writing are also methodological and theoretical. As James Clifford noted many years ago, they are central to a model of “ethnographic authority” that is “cast in the experiential mode, asserting, prior to any particular research hypothesis or method, the ’I was there’ of the ethnographer as insider and participant” (Clifford 1983: 128). Indeed, while of course no exact historical analogue exists, Coleman’s text resembles to some extent British functionalist ethnographies of the 1930s and 1940s. Adam Kuper noted these ethnographies “were ethnographically rich, well documented, evocative, [but] sometimes rather light on argument and lacking in structure ... the problem was how to distinguish analytical relevance from empirical connection” (2014: 44–45). As I discuss below, the resemblance is not just in the ethnographic authority and empirical detail but in the specifically functionalist tactic of showing the rationality of social action. Against claims that members of Anonymous are motivated by random outrage, boredom, or malice, Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy documents how doing things “for the lulz” can serve a range of purposes—individual, communal, and social.


The question is how to move from documenting these important issues to more explicitly theorizing them. This is extremely important, and important as well to insist that such theorization need not be limited to “in-group” anthropological audiences. The genre conventions that can allow us to speak to broader publics do not mean we cannot share conceptual insights with those publics—indeed, that is what anthropology has to offer those publics, beyond an ethnographic corpus in a more descriptive sense. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy demonstrates this on many occasions (as with the notion of “weapons of the geek,” noted above). But many rich and valuable potential theoretical contributions of the book remain implicit. Here are two important conceptual topics that I do not believe are directly discussed in Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy, and to which this text can make a crucial contribution.

1) The notion of the “trickster.” One of the central interventions of Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy is to discuss Anonymous in terms of the figure of the “trickster” (rather than that of the “troll”). This “trickster archetype” is a functionalist move. Coleman notes that “trickster tales” can “function [sic] normatively ... or critically” (2014: 34). She cites the professor of creative writing Lewis Hyde, who concluded in Trickster makes this world that “the origins, liveliness, and durability [395]of cultures require that there be a space for figures whose function [sic] is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on” (Coleman 2014: 34; see Hyde 1998). This is a functionalist (specifically, a structural-functionalist) explanation par excellence. The existence of tricksters is rational: they fulfill a social need (to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on). But while Coleman notes, “I am an anthropologist, and tricksters are a time-honored topic of anthropological rumination” (2014: 33), she provides no examples of such anthropological ruminations and what they might contribute to the discussion. Hyde’s Trickster makes this world is the only scholarly citation to tricksterism in the book. Relying solely on this pleasant global romp through trickster myths and stories is consonant with Coleman’s repeated reference to tricksters as an “archetype,” but at the price of discussing any actual living tricksters, past and present.

This is terribly important for two reasons.

First, if we move from myths and archetypes to living human beings in social contexts, what immediately becomes apparent is that tricksterism has traditionally not been linked to anonymity. From town fools to court jesters, historically tricksters have not been “figures” or “archetypes” but living, breathing persons known to those around them. As part of a sociality, their trickster commentary might take place wearing a costume or makeup, but not typically to hide one’s identity. Even our contemporary tricksters, our Stephen Colberts, Tina Feys, and Amy Schumers, who nota bene are highly Internet-mediated, do not usually derive the power of their tricksterism from anonymity.

Second, if we move from myths and archetypes to living human beings in social contexts, it also immediately becomes apparent that the typical notion of a trickster is a person who comments on a social situation, not someone who reveals personal information, brings down a website, or challenges a government. It is significant that Guy Fawkes, the figure whose mask is associated with Anonymous (and appears on the cover of Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy) is never discussed as a trickster to my knowledge, including by Coleman herself: while emphasizing Fawkes has “accrued a multitude of meanings” (2014: 282), the primary definition of him Coleman provides is as transformed by Hollywood into “the quintessential terrorist-turned-icon-of-resistance” (281). Even in the contemporary period, the social power of people that we might think of as tricksters is not usually linked to a sense they could do harm. What does it mean for a trickster to be anonymous, or to threaten powerful institutions? How has Anonymous reshaped how we think of “tricksters?”

2) The notion of anonymity. The concept of anonymity is, if anything, more central to Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy than tricksterism, and Coleman’s rich discussion of Anonymous provides us with several fascinating ways we can extend analyses of anonymity.

First, what is the relationship between “anonymity” and “free information?” Coleman notes at the outset that “beyond a foundational commitment to the maintenance of anonymity and a broad dedication to the free flow of information, Anonymous has no consistent philosophy or political program” (2014: 3). But if this is a “foundation” or a “consistent philosophy,” it is a foundation built on a rather inconsistent philosophy, since the “freedom” in question ends where “anonymity” begins. The notion of “doxing” (revealing personal information about [396]someone) is treated as a descriptive term in Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: how might theorizing this term as a form of social action that breaches the divide between “anonymity” and “free information” help us better understand the cultural logics at play within and beyond Anonymous itself? In regard to her own fieldwork, Coleman notes, “I was hiding in plain sight. By no means was I anonymous. That was the irony” (2014: 10). But this irony is not unique to her ethnographic experience. It belies a far more fundamental tension that I might term “techno-power,” recalling Michel Foucault’s notion of bio-power (see Foucault 1978: 140). What are the implications of the fact that Anonymous is predicated on an asymmetry: those they challenge are not anonymous?

Second, we find a fascinating relationship between anonymity and pseudonymity (a term that appears only mentioned twice, in passing). It is remarkable how pseudonyms animate the sociality of Anonymous. In Coleman’s text we become familiar with persons like Adnon, tflow, and Slim, and these pseudonyms crucially have reputations attached to them. Just as we know that screen names in online games and virtual worlds are both real and meaningful, so it might be possible to argue that pseudonymity is more central to Anonymous than anonymity. What might be the consequences of this? How might this reframe the forms of “disinhibition” often attributed to online socialities? How might this shape the norms around gender and race that should be neither overemphasized nor underplayed with regard to Anonymous? In particular, how might this shape discourses of homosexuality, a topic never broached in Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy? In the 2000s and 2010s, a social discourse in which terms like “moralfaggotry” and “namefaggotry” are pervasive is a heteronormative discourse. What are the consequences of this? How do Anonymous’s discourses of both anonymity and pseudonymity intersect with an epistemology of the closet? Could the faggot be the ur-trickster of Anonymous itself?


In providing these ruminations on tricksterism and anonymity, I hope to have illustrated how this rich text can be extended to speak in even greater depth to issues of pressing concern. My contention is that such a discussion could take place through a range of genre conventions and with a range of audiences in mind. Turning to these questions need not entail locking oneself in an ivory tower. These questions can be debated in a publically accessible way, and doing so can demonstrate the contributions anthropology can make to contemporary debates. My hope is that through these expansive conversations, Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy will continue to enrich all our thinking for many years to come.


Boellstorff, Tom. 2009. The gay archipelago: Seksualitas dan bangsa di Indonesia. Jakarta: Q-Munity Press.[397]

———. 2014. “Trending ethnography: Notes on import, prediction, and digital culture.” Culture Digitally. http://culturedigitally.org/2014/01/trending-ethnography-notes-onimport-prediction-and-digital-culture/.

———. 2015. Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human (with a new preface by the author). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Clifford, James. 1983. “On ethnographic authority.” Representations 1 (2): 118–46. Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of Anonymous. London and New York: Verso.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The history of sexuality, vol. 1: An introduction. Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Hyde, Lewis. 1998. Trickster makes this world: Mischief, myth, and art. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kuper, Adam. 2014. Anthropology and anthropologists: The British school in the twentieth century. London: Routledge.

le Carré, John. 1974. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. New York: Random House.

Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Tom Boellstorff
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine
3151 Social Science Plaza
Irvine, CA 92697-5100, USA