Everywhere and nowhere: the Anonymous kind of organising
The Occupy Movement. Anonymous. The Tea Party. The Arab Uprisings.
They couldn't be more different. What they have in common, however, is that they're all mass mobilisations of people joined by similar, related causes, operating in an apparently leaderless way and relying heavily on digital communications technologies to organise and mobilise themselves.
Information technologies have made new kinds of networked public spaces possible, where action doesn't rely on direction from a single leader in a top-down manner – instead, the network directs itself.
Micah Sifry discusses this in the context of the Occupy Movement in the US, saying that such highly networked movements can “[be] built through the multitude of lateral connections between all the points in the network, so if any hub fails others can pick up the slack. And thus today's networked movements are not only highly participatory, with many leaders instead of just one, they are also much stronger than movements of the past that could be stopped or stalled by the discrediting, arrest or killing of their singular spokesmen.”
The Tea Party, also in the United States, operates in a similar fashion, where individuals can set up independent parties to organise action around their own chosen issues, without necessarily being affiliated to any central leadership. While the Tea Party's actions and politics may be quite different to that of the Occupy Movement, this aspect of leaderlessness is something they share.
The global online network Anonymous is one of the most well known examples of decentralised, leaderless, online organisation. Anonymous doesn't have a singular or official web presence. It has no organisational website, Twitter handle or Facebook page (although plenty have been created by fans). It advocates the principle that freedom, power and responsibility should be distributed, not restricted to a few individuals. Anonymous welcomes everyone and doesn't expect any specific technical skills of its members. There is no need to register, sign up, have a password or a profile picture, or fill in captchas. While there is a core group of security experts and hackers within Anonymous, many join because they feel a sense of kinship with the group's ideals.
Anonymous is especially interesting because although it may be new as a global formation, it draws on older symbols, ideas and elements in its tactics and politics. This provides a counter to the widely-held idea that digital and online organising or activism is all about the latest gadgets, platforms and the certain kind of modernity that these things have come to symbolise.
The oldest symbol Anonymous uses is the Guy Fawkes mask. Members of Anonymous ('Anons') wear the mask - and are masked online through the use of handles – to actively and symbolically resist the cult of celebrity and individuality fostered by social networking. Anons are not supposed to reveal their identities or take credit for the group's actions in any way. Anonymous's use of both the mask and another graphic symbol, a suited human figure with a question-mark for a head, point to an interesting question: is the anonymous individual just a powerless fraction of an equally powerless, faceless mob, or does the anonymous individual have a greater opportunity to act precisely because she or he cannot be identified and through this anonymity add strength to the larger whole?
While Anonymous is leaderless, the one form of structure that does exist is in the group's Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chatrooms, which is where Anons convene and organise online. IRC is one of the oldest platforms for online chatting, dating back to 1988. Anonymous organises online and offline events events rapidly, apparently without clear lines of command, and in a responsive and fairly ad-hoc manner. Felix Stalder puts the success of Anonymous's operations down to "social swarming", explaining: “A social swarm consists of independent individuals who are using simple tools and rules to coordinate themselves horizontally into a collective effort....As all the people in the swarm are volunteers — they are there because they think the swarm can be a vehicle for change in an area they care about — the only way to lead is by inspiring others through action.”
In another example of leaderless organisation, the Facebook group We Are Khaled Said is credited as being a catalyst for the uprisings in Egypt in 2011. Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian living in Dubai, posted pictures of Said's corpse (brutalised by police) on his blog and called for a protest on January 25 2011, which eventually snowballed into mass revolution in Egypt. A number of initiatives to organise protests, share information, provide services to protesters on the streets and document the revolution sprang up. Individuals and small groups were proactive, creative and responsive in the way they related to the movement they were all a part of. Once people started demonstrating they began to use a number of platforms to connect, mobilise and share information: social media, mobile phones, sometimes even taxi drivers, or simple person-to-person communication.
The strength of the network was tested when then-President Hosni Mubarak shut down all digital communications service providers; yet people within the network still found ways to communicate with each other, in some cases even holding up handmade banners and posters calling for Mubarak's removal from office or simply spreading information about the location of the next protest or rally.
This a significant indication that the internet – and particularly Twitter -- did not fuel the revolution (nor those in other Arab regions), as is widely believed. It is also a testament to the long years of on-the-ground organising and mobilisation by Egyptian activists.
What happened in Egypt is perhaps a good example of what Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom refer to as "starfish" behaviour. Their book 'The starfish and the spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organisations argues that organisations fall into two categories: traditional 'spiders,' which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary 'starfish,' which rely on the power of peer relationships. If a spider loses a leg or its head, it is either crippled or it dies; but a starfish that has an arm cut off just grows a new one.
All the movements discussed here: Occupy, the Tea Party, the Arab Uprisings and Anonymous, resemble starfish, as do other peer-to-peer initiatives like Wikipedia. Contrast this with an Indian movement started in 2011 called 'India Against Corruption', built around the identity of a single individual activist called Anna Hazare. Hazare went on indefinite fasts to try and get Indians to push for a bill that would introduce an Ombudsman to check public corruption. He was, largely, unsuccessful, and came under much criticism. The India Against Corruption group soldiers on, but their movement has failed to spur the public into action and the Indian parliament has refused to be moved by Hazare's fasts.
The idea of a distributed, leaderless group working globally challenges the idea that centralised authority and responsibility are necessary for mobilising and coordinating action on a large scale.
Some suggest, however, that terming these movements "leaderless" is misleading. Ilyse Hogue, a progressive activist who was on the staff of MoveOn for many years, proposed re-naming this kind of organisation as "leaderfullness":
"We should all strive not for leaderless movements, but for leaderFULL movements. The former trends towards autocratic loudest voices dominating. In their best manifestation, the latter creates equitable space to raise up all voices, create mechanisms for group decision making and accountability, and to catalyze self-responsibility and empowerment."
What seems to have changed, then, is how networked publics imagine what it means to be responsible for the change they want to see in their societies. Authoritarian, war-operations-style top-down chains of command are being rejected in favour of networked communications which allow the very nature of power to change; for it to become more diffuse, and shared.
David Graeber: On Playing By the Rules - The Strange Success of Occupy Wall Street, Naked Capitalism, 2011.
What does Leaderless Organising Look Like? Waging Nonviolence,2012.
Egypt’s 25 January Revolution: The Role of the Internet and Mobile Technology in Social resistance and Public Demonstrations, Leila Hassanin, 2011.
Felix Stadler on swarming, and how Anonymous organises globally, InterActivist, 2012.
Gabriella Coleman on how Anonymous organises, The New Significance, 2012.
What Happened to the Occupy Movement, Al Jazeera, 2012.