AnonOps operators were quick to respond that they were no such thing. “Ryan seems to be mistaking ‘leadership’ with people who actually get of[f] their ass and do stuff,” his former fellow admins posted at the new site. And by “stuff,” a follow-up thinq_ report seemed to clarify, they meant the routine business of keeping the network running—“network maintenance, server issues, floods, attacks on us and how to counteract them, etc.”—and nothing like the “behind-the-scenes string-pulling” Ryan denounced. Anyone could start an operation on AnonOps, said one regular: it was just a matter of creating a new channel and drumming up interest for it. “If Anonymous really wants to do something, no one person can stop them,” said the user. “Nobody can control the hive.”
For an outsider, of course, the exchange of claims and counterclaims does little to resolve the question seemingly at issue: Is Anonymous in fact the undiluted anarchy it purports to be, or is that anarchy just a fiction masking the familiar inner power structures of any coordinated group? The real answer seems to be more nuanced than the question. Gabriella Coleman, a professor of anthropology at New York University, has been studying Anonymous up close for over two years, and she’s found elements of truth in both sides of the argument. Certainly, she points out, as Anonymous has grown from its trolling roots into more sustained political action, the need for organizational resources like AnonOps has given those who control these resources a degree of outsize influence within the group. As an example, she notes that the AnonOps admins can ban users not just for violating network integrity but for adopting particular tactics—like DDoS attacks on media organizations—that the admins happen to oppose.
Still, that is just one drop of concentrated authority in what Coleman describes as an unusually fluid organizational dynamic. “In Anonymous, there’s this constant pooling and dispersal of power,” she says, with much of that dispersal driven by a fiercely enforced subcultural ethic of “lulz”—which among other things marks for ruthless ridicule any group members caught taking themselves seriously enough to act like leaders. As a result, she adds, anybody seeking to locate Anonymous’s inner circle of power—and there are those who’ve tried—is most likely on a snipe hunt. Anonymous may not be a perfect anarchy, but it’s enough of one, with its circles of power sufficiently numerous and disconnected that even its most dedicated members can’t see it all. So while the drama unfolding in and around AnonOps this week may have opened a rare window into Anonymous’s inner workings, it’s unlikely anyone will ever get a glimpse of exactly how—or even why—Anonymous does the things it does.
And that may be the main reason even Anonymous itself has difficulty bringing Anonymous down. “Our inability to truly understand what’s going on [with them],” says Coleman, “is part of their power.”