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Stryker NY Times Interview
This is an interview with Cole Stryker about his new book, Epic Win For Anonymous by the New York Times.
One on One: Cole Stryker, Author of ‘Epic Win for Anonymous’
By JENNA WORTHAM - September 2, 2011, 2:28 pm
Cole Stryker, a freelance writer and media consultant living in New York, spent years digging into Internet culture and communities, both as a participant and as a blogger covering viral phenomena. He’s the author of a new book called “Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web.” He discussed with me what it’s like exploring the seedy underbelly of the Internet, the rise of Anonymous, and why it and 4chan, widely considered one of the darkest and most subversive corners of the Internet, may be one of the most important and influential creations to emerge from the modern Web.
How did you decide to write about 4chan?
I was writing about Internet culture for Urlesque last year when Anonymous targeted an 11-year-old girl named Jessi Slaughter and found out where she lived, posted her contact info online and made her life miserable. It became a viral phenomenon and I was covering it. A friend of a friend introduced me to a literary agent and I pitched her an idea about this community where a lot of these antisocial movements are cultivated.
I first became interested in 4chan in 2007 when my friends were passing around links that often led me back to 4chan. It was a repository for anything bizarre or subversively hilarious that didn’t have a place elsewhere on the Web. Anonymous kicked things into high gear over last year and especially this summer and it was the main reason I was able to score a publishing deal because it was becoming a big deal at the time.
How did you gain access and trust of the community?
I talked to people who were hanging out on 4chan and I would start threads and ask questions. There were a lot of different reactions. People weren’t angry the book was being made but they would say they couldn’t wait to download it illegally. I don’t know if that was meant to hurt my feelings or what. But there is this insular culture that the press had no idea about and no interest in until this summer.
I think the animosity comes from that they felt they had a cool secret club and I’m explaining all their lingo and secret codes. It’s like being into an indie rock band and it signs to a major label and then you get a bunch of tween girls singing their songs and claiming they are superfans. It feels like it’s not special anymore and you’ve lost part of your identity.
How does 4chan and Anonymous choose its targets?
It started off with attacking individuals. Most of the time it’s a power play. A huge community of social misfits that feel like they own the Internet and it was their refuge when society rejected them. When they feel like an idiot is encroaching on their territory or who is way out of bounds, they feel like it’s their duty to put that person in their place with what they call their “life-ruining tactics.”
The first moral crusade was the pedo-baiting tactics. They would look for pedophiles by posing as underage girls and then getting their contact info and turning them over to authorities. That was [Anonymous'] first righteous indignation and a moral victory. Up until then it had been psychopathic attacks on individuals.
The big turning point for Anonymous was the Scientology attacks. That changed the face of Anon in two ways. One, it was the first time they were appearing in public. Two, they were going after a mass entity. That defined them from 2007 and led the way for going after MasterCard and other big companies. It was a paradigm shift.
Are you finding yourself the target of Anonymous because of the book?
Yes, but on a very shallow level. They haven’t pulled anything off that’s given me pause. They signed me up for some magazines. They signed me up for an Indian matrimonial site. It’s a minor, minor annoyance and nothing I would be fearful about. I haven’t even gotten any pizzas delivered and I’m kind of disappointed about that. Maybe I’m speaking too soon, though.
In the book you point out that 4chan wasn’t always anchored on the premise of anonymity. Why and when do you think that shifted?
It’s important to remember that 4chan was originally intended to be a place for anime geeks to talk about anime with each other. It wasn’t always a hellhole of anti-social behavior. It was a combination of people getting braver about posting stranger and more extreme content on 4chan and they wanted to be anonymous. It doesn’t explain why it was the default. I think when you’re allowed to have a name, it takes the focus away from the content itself and puts the focus on you as the creator of that content. They wanted to get rid of that egoism that comes with that.
You talk in the book quite a bit about the importance of 4chan in shaping the online communities and the culture of the Web. Can you elaborate on that, especially as big companies like Google, Facebook and Apple become more pervasive and knowledgeable about the people using their services?
I’m not going to make the argument that the social dissidents are hanging out or sharing info on 4chan, but I see it more as a symbolic win for anonymity. It’s not a place where people under repressive governments are organizing but it’s still important for it to be around because of freedom of speech.
There needs to be a place for people to be horrible as well as wildly creative. I’ve seen threads where homosexual kids are asking questions and saying things like if my parents found out, they’d kill me. Randi Zuckerberg [Mark Zuckerberg’s sister] is always saying we should abolish anonymity on the Web. I don’t think she’s taking that into account, that there might be some things you could never talk about on Facebook. It allows people to do things that they would never do in real life and be who they really want to be. That was the promise of the Web in the beginning and it’s heartening for there to still be a place for it.
Since you finished the book, Anonymous has become a household name. Do you think they’re the future of activism and civil disobedience or Web-based pranksterism that will blow over as soon as the world and Web adjusts to the tactics?
I think it’s a little of both. Anonymous serves as an inoculation to their tactics. If a real hacker group wanted to go after MasterCard, they’d break in, steal millions of dollars worth of data, then leave and you’d never know. Anonymous, on the other hand, tends to congratulate itself on Twitter seconds after a breach and doesn’t really do very much damage. I think companies will adapt to their tactics and people will get better about improving their passwords.
But I think it will have a lasting effect. The power of Anonymous to generate media attention to a certain idea is way more powerful than their actual attacks. I think people will look back on the Anonymous era and see it more than just a way to generate interest and outrage around a certain social phenomenon or social injustice than the hacks that they are currently known for.
How has the media attention impacted or changed the culture of 4chan?
It’s definitely changed Anonymous. It’s become so large that they’re barely recruiting on 4chan for major operations. The media attention has encouraged them to go after more lofty goals. 4chan has grown definitely, but I don’t think it’s changed a lot from the media attention. People conform to the culture more than the culture conforms to them. People either think it’s repulsive and get out of there or think it’s interesting and stick around to see what they can get out of it.
Has 4chan jumped the shark? Considering all the current media attention on Anonymous and 4chan?
If anything, 4chan will go back to the way it was before the Anonymous movement blew up in 2007. I think there’s always going to be something like 4chan. It might take place at a different URL. But there’s always going to be interest in a place where anything can happen.
4chan is home to the type of content that no other venue is designed to hold. People post stuff like “I’m on my phone and I just broke into my neighbor’s house. What do I do?” It’s not storytelling, its not like reality TV. It’s a new kind of entertainment and discussion around a real-time and collaborative thing. It’s so spontaneous because of the anonymity and the fact that nothing is archived. You never know what you’re going to get.