The loosely affiliated and ever-changing band of individuals who call themselves Anonymous have been variously described as hackers, hacktivists, free-expression zealots, Internet troublemakers, and assorted combinations thereof. By all accounts the group has no clear hierarchy or leadership, or even any internal agreement about what exactly it is. And yet, as you’ve encountered news and speculation about Anonymous—maybe from reports about coordinated denial-of-service attacks on financial institutions that stopped doing business with WikiLeaks last year, or the group’s more recent association with Occupy Wall Street—you may also have noticed its memorable logo: a suited figure with a question mark where his head should be, set against a U.N.-style globe. You’ve also likely seen the visual symbol that’s made its way onto the streets: a Guy Fawkes mask borrowed by Anonymous from the V for Vendetta graphic novel and movie for use in real-world protests. So how did this chaotic, volunteer-driven, non-organization manage to create a visual identity stronger than many commercial brands?
Anonymous traces its roots to the infamous /b/ message board on 4Chan.org. Much of the communication on the board takes place in the form of rapid-fire, freewheeling, and often blatantly offensive images and remarks from legions of individuals posting anonymously, riffing on, insulting, and trying to top each other. The most familiar (and misleadingly innocuous) meme to emerge from this iteration-obsessed corner of the Internet is the lolcat phenomenon. 4Chan has been around since 2003, and it’s hard to pin down when and to what degree some of the people posting as Anonymous began to think of themselves as a de facto entity of the same name.
That said, some of the images and phrases now associated with the group were clearly circulating on 4Chan by 2007, when a rather sensational local Fox News report depicted Anonymous as “a hacker gang,” and offered a scary assessment of wanton Internet cruelty and destruction. The segment included a disguised individual declaring: “We do not forgive, we do not forget,” a phrase that’s since become familiar to anybody conversant in Anonymous rhetoric, and ended with a visual of that headless-suit guy on a motivational-style poster bearing the message: “Because none of us are as cruel as all of us.” (This visual was doubtless grabbed from /b/, where the headless image had been posted and riffed on since about 2006.) The Fox story inspired a theatrically obnoxious video response from someone purporting to speak for Anonymous: “We are the face of chaos and the harbingers of judgment,” it declared. “We mock those who are in pain.” This early video traffics in some of the elements (visuals, as well as what Ars Technica has called a “florid bombasticism”) of what would become the Anonymous image.
Those elements really coalesced in early 2008, when some “Anons,” evidently incensed by the Church of Scientology’s efforts to keep an embarrassing Tom Cruise video off the Internet, began congregating via Internet Relay Chat to organize a response. Gregg Housh, then an active participant in Anonymous activities, was part of this group. At first, he says, the effort involved recruiting people to keep re-uploading the video faster than the Church could take it down. But one participant who had some experience with the media argued that Anonymous needed “a solid identity to present to the press.”
Six or eight people, Housh reckons, hashed out a press release. It read like the script to a movie trailer, so somebody proposed turning it into a video, combing Archive.org to dig up images of rolling clouds and ominous background music available under a Creative Commons license. They kept fiddling with the ending of the script, using Anonymous-associated phrases already in circulation. Another contributor proposed a conclusion: “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget.” Pause. “Expect us.”
“Everyone in the channel erupts,” Housh recalls. “Like ‘Oh my god. You’ve done it. You have done it! We win this game.’ ” The script was fed into AT&T text-to-speech software, and became the video’s creepy voice-over. Next the group created a Web site. For a logo, they considered imagery that had been floating around 4Chan and elsewhere, including the headless suit-man. Someone—Housh says the person wishes to remain anonymous—suggested imposing that image over a U.N.-style globe logo. Then a question mark was added where the figure’s head should be. In what seems like a missed opportunity, the Anonymous logo did not appear anywhere in the video. “We weren’t branding experts or anything,” Housh explains.
Fair enough, but the video really is a fine bit of propaganda—with 4.6 million YouTube views—mixing the snotty but intimidating “hacker gang” vibe with rhetoric that not only transcended the nihilistic, but sounded rather righteous. Excited by their surprisingly large audience, participants in Anonymous’ anti-Scientology efforts decided to organize in-person protests—a challenge, since they were already being accused of various illegal activities. (The Church of Scientology eventually outed Housh, and pressed a variety of criminal charges against him; those were ultimately settled pretrial, but today he describes himself as “an internet activist who observes Anonymous”—not a member.)
The need to remain anonymous at live protests led the group to adopt its now-familiar mask depicting a highly stylized visage of Guy Fawkes, an early-17th-Century British figure who was executed following a foiled plot to assassinate King James I. Though Brits have long used effigies of Fawkes in their Guy Fawkes Night celebrations, this particular, cartoonish representation comes from the 1980s comic-book series, V for Vendetta: A vigilante character wore such a mask while overthrowing a totalitarian British government in an imagined dystopian future. In 2006, the series became a film. Also in 2006, the mask began to appear in a popular 4Chan meme called Epic Fail Guy. According to Housh, the suggestion to use the Fawkes mask as protest gear was almost immediate. But some Anons weren’t convinced that the Fawkes mask was right, so they made a short list of alternatives: a Batman mask, classic masquerade masks, a few others. “Then we called comics and costume shops, all over the world,” Housh says, checking availability and price, and the V mask won out: “It’s available, it’s cheap, and it’s in every city.” (The actual Fawkes had “nothing to do with it, for us,” Housh says.)
Thousands of people in various cities subsequently participated in a day of anti-Scientology street demonstrations, plenty of them wearing the mask. “Videos and images and photographs circulated almost immediately,” says Gabriella Coleman, the incoming Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University and author of the forthcoming Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. “It was just so powerful.” And it cemented Anonymous as, paradoxically, a recognizable phenomenon.
Why has this particular set of signifiers stuck? For starters, the visuals simply look cool—headless-suit-guy and the Fawkes mask are both stark, simple, and vaguely ominous in a way that’s compelling. The suit-man juxtaposed against the U.N. map is also a cleverly subversive, and ironic, appropriation and exploitation of paranoia about Big Brother-style faceless power. Particularly when paired with Anonymous’ over-the-top rhetoric, it suggests that the most powerful entity on earth isn’t a corporation or a totalitarian regime: It’s something so amorphous that the person next to you on the subway could be part of it. And the Fawkes mask, with its hard-to-read expression and mild air of menace, extends that idea into the public sphere; at a time when privacy seems under threat, it’s a tool for mixing free expression with personal secrecy—which might be one of the few propositions that participants in the Anonymous phenomenon agree upon.
Today the headless-man/U.N. globe logo appears on the widely followed @AnonOps Twitter account (and blog). The image also showed up for a time on the Web site of Syria’s Ministry of Defense—apparently hacked in an Anonymous effort that resulted in an incendiary anti-government message briefly replacing the official content. @YourAnonNews (and a related Tumblr) uses the Fawkes mask, as does @GroupAnon. And of course the mask has been worn by street protesters who supported WikiLeaks last year, and by many participants in this year’s Occupy Wall Street actions. Versions of both symbols also appear in this recent Spanish-language video as well as in the trailer for a forthcoming documentary on the Anonymous phenomenon.
These examples reveal that the iconography of Anonymous is highly accessible: If there is a Grand Conspiracy, you don’t have to fear it—in fact, you can join it! But both Housh and Coleman underscore a vital point about the visual identity of an entity with no real structure: All these examples borrow from the same set of images and tropes—but almost always tweak them in some way. “With Anonymous,” Housh says, “you can only make suggestions.” People will pick up and riff on the stuff they like—and ignore whatever they don’t.
“It’s very meme-like,” observes Coleman, who is now researching a book about Anonymous and has studied its distinctly nonhierarchical decision-making process. (Housh also reportedly has a book in the works.) Coleman has argued that Anonymous’ visual branding has enhanced the group’s power—and may even have been essential in binding together people who resist being bound to anything, or anyone. It’s impossible to say whether any given person wearing a Fawkes mask to an Occupy event is “part of” Anonymous, which after all has no official membership structure. Possibly some wearers aren’t even familiar with Anonymous. But even that ambiguity seems to play to the strength of this visual identity. Participants in Anonymous who Coleman has interviewed don’t seem put off by seeing their symbols go mainstream; instead, she describes their attitude as a kind of proprietary pride with an irony of its own: “That’s me.”