I am out of here heading to a dental appointment (fun, fun, not). Happy to answer questions later so leave any here and I can get to them tonight!

Hi everyone,

I am Gabriella (Biella) Coleman! I am trained as a cultural anthropologist and I research, write, and teach on computer hackers and digital activism. My first book on Free Software, “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” has been published with Princeton University Press and I have just come out with a second book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous out with Verso. I give a lot of talks on hackers, digital activism,open source production and intellectual property law.

I am looking forward to all of your questions related to my work and research so ask away!

Social Media proof https://twitter.com/reddit_AMA/status/544887378469732352

Comments: 347 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

Richard-Rider71 karma

I have a few questions that mostly interest me regarding the groups structure:

Activists of anonymous always claim the group has no internal hierarchy. Is that true and if so how is it possible to plan actions and to coordinate group efforts?

I often think that groups like anonymous are comparable to society as a whole since joining such a group also imposes a certain feeling of conformity on the individual joining it. Would you agree or disagree and why?

biellacoleman84 karma


There are three words I like to use to describe Anonymous: prolific, multitudinous, and unpredictable. They are decentralized but there are poolings of power in various ways and this is one of the issues I address quite a bit in the book. Many of the hackers have stabilized into teams. There are those who run the infastructure. So yes, there is a hierarchy but there are multiple ones so there is no single point of control and command. I like to describe Anonymous as a hydra to get at is social organization. And yes, there are informal rules and norms that guide behavior, the most notable of these being an anti-celebrity ethic.. But there otherwise it is a very permissive culture and since there is no single mandate, Anonymous has gotten involved in many distinct types of political ops.

Disophy42 karma

Thank you for your book. I found it very informative and enchanting. It's an interesting coincidence that Barrett Brown's sentencing hearing is going on at the same time as your AMA. Any thoughts on Barrett Brown's case?

biellacoleman91 karma

Out of all the legal cases, Barrett Brown's is the MOST disturbing and shocking. I simply cannot believe he has been in jail for over 2 years for sharing a link, cavorting with the hackers, and threatening an FBI agent. I expected him to be put in jail for a few weeks and released on bail until a trial that would have found him guilt of threatening the agent but with a minor punishment. This is totally excessive and frightening and all journalists and activist along with the public should be concerned. Let's hope he gets time served.

paultag33 karma

What were some of the biggest surprises during your time researching Anonymous?

biellacoleman80 karma

Woah a Paul Tag appears! Well first, the fact that Anonymous became an activist force in the world was durnnnn surprising given the business of trolling they were into--though with some time it makes sense.

I was surprised that the hackers in specific and Anonymous is more diverse than people assume. A lot less middle class folks, a lot of Europeans, and ethnically quite diverse as well. I think that to me was a big surprise. It is more diverse than say open source software development.

SoltanPill31 karma

Is Adnan guilty?

biellacoleman30 karma

Naww. He ain't a hax0r.

-lateralus-30 karma

It's interesting that defending human rights is often a goal of hacktivism, as evidenced through wikileaks etc. However, actions such as DDoS can be seen as exercising human rights, as acts of protest. In the courts it is rarely mentioned that protesting online can be governed by the same human rights conventions as the right to protest IRL. Why do you think that this is the case? How can we work to dismantle the knee-jerk reaction of criminalising DDoS outright, rather than also appreciating that DDoS attacks may be a legitimate form of protest?

biellacoleman45 karma

My student Molly Sauter has written an awesome book about this very topic which really provides the best answer http://www.amazon.com/The-Coming-Swarm-Hacktivism-Disobedience/dp/1623564565

But generally there is so much fear and misunderstandings about DDoS it is frightening. One of my students this year likened a DDoS to setting a hotel on fire--even after a few lectures about it! I had to remind the student that while it is ok to disagree with its use and it does cost companies $ and resources, the fire analogy does not work and is rather alarming. So one big step would be just get people to understand what happens during a DDoS attack/campaign.

kajjoo24 karma


biellacoleman51 karma

Thanks! I don't think every Anonymous op has been squeaky clean: that is mistakes were made but the same sort of mistakes (misidentifying people for instance) has occurred with journalist (like with the Newsweek Satoshi story). But generally, they have for the most part made a positive difference in so many different operations and given how so many folks are apathetic or cynical, it is great that some folks are deciding to get off their asses and do something.. That is what I find most hopeful about Anonymous.

DanceExMachina20 karma

How important do you feel ethics are in computer science? Who are the big voices in that topic at the moment?

biellacoleman27 karma

They are hugely important. Every CS major should take some sort of ethics class but not in a moralizing way but more in a "look software is implicated in everything in our lives so lets think about its effects sort of way." Ed Felten among a few others is the CS prof who rocks the ethical house in this department.

mrfuzzylips42015 karma

What do you think about the recent leaks with sony?

biellacoleman34 karma

So I am not so into the business of predicting but I do on occasion like to throw a few ones out there. Soon after the craziness spurt of hacking at the hands of lulzsec and anticsec in 2011 and 2012, I figured we would be seeing more of these types of public acts of sabotage/hacks at the hands of various hackers and Sony is case in point. I am still rather perplexed as is much of the world as to WHO is doing it.. Government hackers? Hactivists? It seems really hard to tell but we will be seeing more of these types of hacks in the future given the shitty state of Internet security.

ucantsimee14 karma

How do you keep your email/iCloud etc secure?

biellacoleman41 karma

If I told you I would have to... you know.. :)

Well I don't own a cell phone, I use Linux, and for sensitive emails I use PGP. I encrypt my computer as well.

aliasinventati11 karma

Very compliments for you writing, btw the question is not a critique but it could seems like if: lots of people in the community realized something wrong with Sabu, for evidence about his "attitude" since ever reading his "chats" time before his FBI's work. Lots of anon and not anon kept off by him also if communicating with him. Being an anthropologist, with a huge experience in anon chans and social engineering, what's your conclusion about what went wrong in evaluating him?

biellacoleman15 karma

Thanks and no problem about your question. It is spot on. There were at times some questions and rumors about him but he was brimming with such a revolutionary attitude it was so hard to see him as anything but dedicated to the cause. I also think the fact that another person was accused much of the time deflected a lot of the attention of him... He was also super adept at manipulation and he rather careful about not being pushy, which I think helped keep the heat off of him.

suqdiqs15 karma

a question in line with this one,

do you think there is a solution for the "snitch problem" in anonymous?

since there is no trust and no previous relationship, how can trust emerge from a purely anonymous relationship?

could the possibility of infiltrators (LE or otherwise) be the single most important factor in the on-going "stasis" that "serious-hacktivism-ops-or-groups" have felt?

everyone could be a Sabu, so Anon is dead by mistrust.

biellacoleman27 karma

I have thought a lot about this question and have come to the conclusion that Anonymous/anonymous online organizing is better equipped to deal with snitches compared to offline kinds. Take the instance of Michael Kennedy (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/undercover-with-paul-lewis-and-rob-evans/gallery/2013/jun/24/undercover-police-spies-unmasked-in-pictures) an undercover cop who freaken had a BABBBY with an activist while informing for the government. Holy Gross. How are you ever supposed to question a person when they are making babies with you? It is rather hard. At least in Anonymous you never get to that point or you should not. In the end, you actually don't need to trust anyone but your own operations security. It is damn hard but possible to be militant about it and avoid getting caught which is impossible offline. And while Sabu helped round up numerous hackers, many who had weak security, many never got caught and I believe folks are far more careful today.

suqdiqs11 karma

indeed, key is that activities and operations can be structured in a way that isolates people that don't have "need-to-know".

whatever happens in the mean time, is a risk participants must take. such as having a baby and so on... anyway i get why you underline that this problem is better handled online than AFK.

thank you for your comments on this.

biellacoleman19 karma

Sure thing. But people have to be aware and it is a bit sad, in some ways, that you get so close to folks, and you can't trust them. It is a big internal problem in all movements and why I find snitching so troublesome. It tears of the fabric of human trust.

suqdiqs11 karma

yes, it's against our nature and creates a cognitive dissonance that usually only IC field-operatives experience ;)

that is why most ops should be timed and have a specific end date to reduce 'operative' stress.

also why it's never a good idea to make friends in ops or anonymous in general, albeit completely unavoidable since many times "these people" aggregate by (deep personal) affinity.

and so, after trusting, only "hope" can save us.

biellacoleman14 karma

These are great points: about "limiting" the ops. I think you can become friendly but you just have to be militant about keeping your life out if and I agree, leaving for periods of time is also smart.

formulate10 karma

Nowadays, people bandy about the word "hack" with reckless abandon. Depending on the source it can mean quite a few different things, even outside the common interpretation of technical or social engineered infiltrations. What do the words "hacking" and "hackers" mean to you?

biellacoleman13 karma

So this might be a cheating a bit but here is a definition I recently sent off to the author of the wonderful book Hackers by Steven Levy

"Hacking in its different manifestations is where craft and craftiness converge: building a 3-D printer that can replicate itself; stealing a botnet—an army of zombie computers—to blast a website for a political DDoS campaign; inventing a license, the copyleft, that uses the logic inherent to copyright itself to instead guarantee openness of distribution; showcasing a robot that mixes cocktails at a scientific-geek festival devoted entirely to, well, the art of cocktail robotics; inventing a programming language called Brainfuck which, as you might guess, is primarily designed to humorously mess with people's heads; and the list goes on. The alignment of craft and craftiness is perhaps the best location to find a unifying thread which runs throughout the diverse technical and ethical worlds of hacking. You can see some cool definitions here https://medium.com/backchannel/what-is-a-hacker-51257cad8b54

account_for_asking_q9 karma


biellacoleman12 karma

Intrigued: harm in what way?

account_for_asking_q2 karma


biellacoleman16 karma

I don't think Lee Knuttila did any of that. He read posts and analyzed them. It is standard humanities research in his case.

suqdiqs9 karma

on page 341 of the Sabutage, you immortalize a group (revolusec) that explicitly asked for it not to be known.

  1. how do you feel about that?

  2. could you elaborate more on your relationship/research with the revolusec people (if any at all)?

thank you for the great book

biellacoleman7 karma

So the revolusec info was included as I knew the chatlogs from Hammond's case were leaked and going to be reported on (http://www.dailydot.com/politics/hammond-sabu-fbi-stratfor-hack/). However, I said very little about them and my relationship was pretty minimal as I knew only a few of the folks. There is still a lot of mystery around them.

yopoyo8 karma

Hey Biella! Visual/media anthropology grad student here. How did you overcome the challenges of integrating yourself within a culture that requires such secrecy as hacking? Very curious to hear about that whole process. Doing ethnography in online communities can be difficult enough as is!

biellacoleman7 karma

The first Anonymous political wing, Chanology, was not secretive as they engaged in street protests. I was able to get to know folks and I started to give talks about the collective. When the more militant wing came into being and I joined up, secrecy was everywhere and basically some folks had seen my talks and liked what they saw and that helped. I was also put to work and taught many journalists who to find Anonymous and when you help out you tend to be more accepted. Finally, time. Lots and lots of time. I think the book gives a good sense of these dynamics but in the end there was still a lot I never accessed which is why the master metaphor of the book is a maze.

account_for_asking_q6 karma


biellacoleman6 karma

For the activist wings today, there is much less of a link but the stalwart anti-celebrity ethic was really indebted to 4chan and many of cultural codes and offensive senses of humor come from there as well. But the political ops branched off pretty significantly from there sometime in 2011 but there is no reason they can merge once again in the future.

Mantisbog6 karma

What's better? Shake Shack or In 'N' Out burger?

biellacoleman7 karma

Damn tough question.

RavenRavinoff6 karma

Hey Biella! Loving the book.

Couple of questions:

Do you still visit any IRCs to keep up with folks?

You spent literally YEARS following anonymous. What's your next project?

Thanks and see you on the Twitters : )

biellacoleman6 karma

I am permanently on IRC. I don't think you can study geeks and hackers unless you love that medium. I have been on one IRC channel now for 14 years in fact! I am still on some open source chans, some Anonymous channels, and some random ones. That said, I simply cannot keep up with all of them like I once did. In fact I am so behind with work right now so I should should should log off all social media and IRC. But I will likely be an aged shriveled granny on IRC :)

nilnz1 karma

Which IRC network do you frequent?

biellacoleman4 karma

freenode, anonops and some others.

playblacksabbathat785 karma

Have you ever considered writing a children's book? Anonymous and Snowden and Assange et al are modern folk heroes, and there are a lot of parents out there incorporating them into basic education about civic responsibility. The 'Anonymous Publications' book "the Parade with the Drums" was great for what it was, but the world needs more.

biellacoleman3 karma

I thought of doing a graphic novel based on my book which many would hit more of a pre-teen market... I have never thought of a children's book but now that you mention it, that could be quite a cool project.

primitivelifeform5 karma

What do you think about gamergate? Are the ethical issues raised legitimate? Are you pro-censorship of social media in order to prevent harassment?

biellacoleman24 karma

GG is a damn Gordian knot.. that is really tough to untangle. I thought it was actually going to be a time when trolls upset that the name Anonymous was used for activism were going to reclaim the name and was shocked when that never happened. I don't know as much about game journalism but given the general state of journalism, I am sure there are some ethical issues that need to be called out and discussed. It is too bad that those interested in ethics did not change the name as Fruzsina Eördögh had suggested. The name had become too polluted and associated with the harassment of women--harassment that seemed to be both genuine and then also fanned by trolling groups seeking to cause a shit storm.

playblacksabbathat785 karma

Did you Occupy Montreal (or anywhere else)? As an antropologist with seemingly relevant interests, what were your thoughts on that scene?

biellacoleman9 karma

I was living in NYC then and I did Occupy. It is in the book in some detail. I generally thought it was an important movement that was cut short after the police crackdown but am thrilled to see it live on in the Rolling Jubilee...

nilnz4 karma

Are there any stats on the percentage of females participating in Anonymous or other hacktivist groups? What about stats on age? Some preceive they are very young but I think some could be older (like in their 30s or 40s)

biellacoleman9 karma

Statistics are really hard to come by but here are some guesstimates. First among the hackers there were no females but this is not all that surprising. In 15 years of studying hackers, I have never met a female blackhat, that is a hacker who intrudes and owns systems. I am sure they exist but there are not many of them. In the wider Anonymous arena, there are quite a few woman and I would put the number at 25% which again is a total guess given who I know. It is a higher percentage than many other hacker spheres.

In terms of the age, it seems like most are in their 20s but there are some who were in their teens, and definitely those in their 30-50s. It attracted folks too from pretty diverse class backgrounds as well.

Epivalent3 karma

i herd u liek mudkips??

biellacoleman6 karma

Yummm Kips of Mud!

missperovaz3 karma

Salut Biella, how do you portrait them power of social media in politics and activism in the future? How do you see the intersection between hacktivists and street activists, I mean, will these strategies going to join each other one day?

biellacoleman4 karma

Salut. Social media can be an enabler in certain situations and also change the way journalist cover an issue as well. I think we saw that dynamic quite vividly with the Palestine/Israel conflict over the summer of 2014. Palestine has not receive much coverage in the mainstream western press but after the flood of social media accounts and pictures, they were forced to. Obviously, this social media presence won't lead to the second coming of democracy but generally has been a good leverage point.

Hackers have long work with street activists so it is a binary I don't buy into. Indymedia was started by hackers who were street activists and a lot of Anonymous' ops were also in conjunction with street activists as well. That said, there are moments and times when their operations will solely be online but they do often intersect with street and social movements more generally.

CreeperAgent2 karma

Have you noticed themes of anonymous and hacktivism in pop culture, such as tv shows? Do you think "Vigilance" from the tv show Person of Interest is inspired by this culture?

biellacoleman6 karma

I never saw that show but it influenced House of Cards directly and know of a few other pop culture artifacts in the work that were influenced by Anonymous.

al_eberia2 karma

Do you still keep an eye on anonymous, or have you just been focusing on Anonymous since they are in the media much more often and more visible on places like twitter and irl?

biellacoleman6 karma

Since studying Anonymous amounts to a full time job and since I have to work I can't follow them as closely any more. I am also going to move onto a different project that is not as event based.

CeterumCenseo852 karma

Dear Biella, your work has been one of the triggers that made me realize that my passion for the analysis of internet culture and phenomena could actually become part of my academic studies.

I focussed on Chinese internet censorship in my BA thesis, while my MA thesis analyzed the "structure" and motives behind Anonymous. I had to turn down my professor's offer to do a doctorate because I couldn't afford working unpaid. Still, I really want to follow my passion. Right now I'm in a marketing job unrelated to my studies that, while paying well, is really not what I want to be doing long term.

Do you have any advice for me? It's this "I think I've got great expertise on this subject, but don't know how to really apply it" tricky situation.

Thank you. Here's a happy racoon for you! :-)

biellacoleman3 karma

The US and Canada has decent PhD funding. Where are you applying. Thanks for the Raccoon but they scare me a little ;-p

nilnz1 karma

Really enjoyed meeting you and attending your linux.conf.au keynote in 2010.

  1. Would you be attending the next http://linux.conf.au in Auckland from 12 to 16 Jan 2015?
  2. Did you know there's a mini-DebConf (10 + 11 Jan) and a Debian miniconf at lca2015 this year? CFP closes on 21 Dec 2014. http://http://nz2015.mini.debconf.org/

biellacoleman2 karma

Thanks, nice to hear!

I would love to go but I am teaching in Jan so it will be tough to make it down under!

Frajer1 karma

What's your take on the Sony hack ?

biellacoleman2 karma

I answered above.

komododr1 karma


I've read a lot of your work and it seems as if you're very close to being a journalist, but maintain the idea that you are not and are only an anthropologist to shift away from having to have ethics in your writings and disclosures. It also feels to be that you coddle to a certain side of the general story of Anonymous - siding with certain forces, rather than questioning the entire story academically. So I'm really confused as to your point.

My question is: Do you really think that giving people one side of the story is effective?

Second question is: Have you tried reaching out to certain people in the story like Sabu to get their actual perspective, or is that not politically correct in this day and age?

Finally: Where does Anonymous the idea go from here? Is it essentially dead? Will a new stronger movement arise from the ashes of this current one?


biellacoleman2 karma


The book is a hybrid: part journalistic, part academic and it is one reason I did not publish with an academic press. In terms of showing one side of the story-- I have a bias and am explicit about it and I think it is better to be honest about it than to have it come out through the cracks. That said, I included a lot of ugly sides to Anonymous. I did not get rid of them so that folks could arrive at their own conclusion that might be different from mine.

As per Sabu he is in the book and I did relay much of his perspective. He is currently on a media tour talking about his thoughts and he would give me the same exact story so I don't see any reason to reach out to him at this point.

Anonymous and its ideas are alive and kicking in many parts of the world today