Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The many Faces of Anonymous: a review

When I received Gabriella Coleman’s “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The many Faces of Anonymous” in the mail, my initial reaction was shock – this book is big. With a whopping 481 pages, including copious citations and references, Coleman has produced the single most in-depth, well-researched text on the nefarious organization known as Anonymous.

By the second page of chapter one, I was enticed. Unlike other “bullshit academics,” Coleman personally connects with the hackers and trolls behind Anonymous, as seen by her conversation with notorious troll Weev, Andrew Auernheimer. I half-expected at this point to be pulled into a dramatic chain of events with most circumstantial or situational evidence to back up lofty claims, however, Coleman continually brings the text back to its core: researching and understanding anonymous, even reminding Weev that she knew more about him that he thought.

Coleman consistently follows up her personal anecdotes with hard facts displaying the incredible power and sizable hierarchy of the loosely organized organization. Her immersion into the murky world of Anonymous seems to give her an understanding of the organization no one else has quite grasped.

Even so, Coleman’s biggest downfall, in my opinion, ultimately comes from her attachment and vested personal interest in the story. The text itself doesn’t remain purely academic, as one may suspect, due to her close proximity to subjects she writes about. It’s in this way that some of the passages lack and begin blurring the ethical lines. At times, Coleman seems more interested in staying on the good side of her sources rather than remaining unbiased.

However, it’s important to note that Coleman’s connection with her subject is often what got her the exclusive information found in the text, such as her conversations with anonymous-hacker-turned-informant, Sabu. By sharing these secrets with her, her subject showed trust in her, and gave her information other academics and journalists didn’t have access to, such as their private, very personal histories that ultimately led them to the Anonymous world.

But, still, It’s difficult to think of the content as a super-credible, academic source when Coleman describes her emotions while interviewing subjects. “I waited for what felt like an eternity for his response,” she writes while describing a conversation with the now well-known Anonymous kingpin, Sabu. “To me it seemed like the world had stopped, the sweat drops freezing halfway down my back. But in reality, he replied almost instantly.”

Overall, the text was an easy read and presented complex issues in a conversational, sometimes downright funny tone. It’s impossible to say Coleman’s commitment to her research isn’t impressive. However, sometimes, her close proximity to her subjects blurred the ethical lines for a supposed anthropological text. While I personally enjoyed her first-hand accounts and emotional investment in her research, I can see how this could be jarring for readers looking for a cut-and-dry Anonymous report. I definitely would recommend the read to a friend, but with a small disclaimer.

Going Underground host Afshin Rattansi speaks to Coleman about her research:

Also see: Gabriella Coleman’s other texts, and Reddit AMA.

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