Thursday, February 21, 2008

Debunking John Gabriel's Greater Internet Theory: An Evolution in Internet Vigilantism

If you roamed the streets of Vancouver on February 10th, 2008, you might have been treated to a physical manifestation of an internet rant to the melody of 200 people wearing V for Vendetta masks protesting outside the Church of Scientology in downtown.

Aside from the usual slogan shouting, pamphlet distributing, and sign waving customary for protesters, this group, calling themselves "Anonymous", also indulged themselves in Rickrolling, image macros, and other internet memes that would have you scouring wikipedia for hours trying to catch up with the times. One of the participants of the protest in London, UK noted that only half of the crowd really got the joke at any given time. However, it is the other half that would carry the momentum until the next inside joke is shouted.

One of my favourite quotes from the event: "Ideologically speaking, how do you fight a crowd who is enthusiastically shouting that you should "DO A BARREL ROLL! DO A BARREL ROLL!"

I won't talk too much more about Project Chanology as I'm no expert. There are many other reports about it that you can find with a quick search on Google. What is noteworthy in all of this is that this event signifies that internet vigilantism has reached a new level of drive and focus. People are no longer hiding behind computer screens, but are willing to allow their opinion of right and wrong to dictate their physical actions in the real world. The internet, instead, acts as a breeding ground for ideas, opinions, and organization.

In the case of Project Chanology, the source is, a seething cesspool of derogation and general ill-repute (author claims nothing to be his own opinion). This open forum is a nightmare to navigate, leading to hours of browsing with little to show for it. That, in itself, is a feature of the site as there is rarely anything substantial to be found on 4chan save for obscure thoughts that may one day spread like wildfire throughout the internet in the form of a meme, such as LOLcats did.

In the early and adolescent days of 4chan, John Gabriel's Theory holds true. Anonymity and desire for attention did lead a good number of "normal" (this cannot be tested or checked) people to become, pardon my French, bastards. In fact, there is a special section in 4chan, labeled as /b/, where there are no rules and people can be a politically incorrect as they please. If you're a light gamer and often wonder why other gamers find it difficult to avoid homophobic or racist remarks, part of the problem is 4chan.

However, in recent times, the collective direction of 4chan has shifted. No longer does Anonymous harass people over the phone and mail. These activities can be interpreted as juvenile: similar to how children may react violently to negative opinions, 4chan typically replies with DOS attacks on websites, notably news media websites. Instead, 4chan seems to have grown up, taking a stronger stance against pedophiles, even contributing to the arrest of a child pornographer.

While they may not necessary shrug off their dickwad behaviour, the target of said behaviour makes all the difference. You can think of them as a politician that makes things happen rather than the jock next door with a dead end job. In this case, John Gabriel's theory fails as Anonymous is gathering positive attention and, dare I say it, respect. They may be dickwads, but not total dickwads.

The focus of Anonymous' energy this time around is the entire church of Scientology, whose reach is quite broad. There is even a booth for them in my university where they offer stress tests and sell L. Ron Hubbard's book. If you are interested in Project Chanology, I'll leave it up to you to research on the many reasons why they are targeting Scientology and what they hope to accomplish with their actions, on the internet and otherwise. The important thing to note, for the sake of this ramble, is that internet vigilantism is evolving.

There is still anonymity, as the protesters hide their identities with masks, paranoia, and other methods. There is a larger audience, as Anonymous is trying to bring enough media attention to Scientology in order to garner the desired official actions. However, there is a palatable lacking of asshatery as all the protests across the world have been peaceful and polite (at least to the police). Anonymous stayed within their legal boundaries and whenever mob mentality started brewing, it was quickly quashed from within. For example, a brasher protester started shouting profanity on a megaphone, but did not find any support. Instead, he was booed and shouts of "Epic Fail!" were heard.

At times, people might worry about vigilantism as it can get out of control. As with anything, who watches the watchers? In this case, Anonymous has a built in self-checking system. This is mainly due to the fact there is no systemic unity or cohesiveness in Anonymous. Rather, they are joined by a roughly similar sense of justice and callousness. Anonymous consists of individuals, not members. They can turn on each other at any moment and are eager to do so. There is no leader, no immunity. And yet, as is the beauty of the internet and social networking, they somehow can organize and work together efficiently and effectively. The call to action for Project Chanology was in late January and by the end of the February, there will be three global protests already.

So what is fueling this evolution? My supposition is fairly simple, it's age. In a way, you can compare this evolution to that of Alex in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and by that, I mean not the movie. Both the movie and the original American publication of Burgess' work are missing the true ending that reveals Burgess' thoughts on criminality and juvenile delinquency. Essentially, Alex, after leading a life full of crime and ultra violence, finds himself oddly yearning for a quiet, peaceful life with a nice wife and child. I would even go as far as saying that he wanted to positively contribute to society. The message here is clear: criminality is but a phase and eventually people move on to become participants in society.

Naturally, that isn't always true, if you think of crime as a job, you either take it up a notch and get "promoted" to more organized forms of crime or you become discouraged by the high risks and low rewards and "quit" to rejoin society. But with that aside, this idea is applicable to debunking John Gabriel's Theory. Eventually, people will stop being dickwads with little outside influence. In a word, they'll get bored of it and will start acting like normal, decent people again.

In the case of Anonymous, this means that the users are maturing. Even if there continues to be a huge influx of young and new participants in 4chan, the original core group is already moving onto bigger and more constructive things, like political lobbying. These actions will have a huge impact on the next generation of 4chan users and, as a whole, Anonymous will grow up.

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