When Griefing Wanders into Meatspace

I always find it fascinating when political phenomena born in the geekiest corners of the internet somehow find their way into the physical world. I’ve been planning on doing a long post about this for awhile, but I never seem to get around to it. Rather than keep this post floating around in my “Drafts” queue until I finish my dissertation, I figure I might as well just share things as I find them. Here are a couple links I’ve been turning over in the back of my mind for quite some time now.

Anonymous vs. Scientology: A couple months back, Henry Jenkins hosted an extremely interesting and link-filled post by an unidentified graduate student at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, detailing a group of internet pranksters’ battle against the Church of Scientology.

The group, which was born from sites such as 4chan (itself founded by communities born from Something Awful) goes by “Anonymous” (as in, anonymous forum posting). Such forumgoers were at first content to post LOLcats and throw around some porn, but got into the habit of defacing or shutting down sites they considered stupid. This all came to a head when the Church of Scientology attempted to shut down a Gawker post for featuring an internal video. Despite the lack of any clear leadership, Anonymous focused its energy on attacking Scientology for attempting to suppress free speech on the internet. Their (admittedly successfully frustrating) methods caught the attention of the “Old Guard” of Scientology protesters, who were impressed but saw the pranking as unproductive. Rather than lashing out at this group too, Anonymous actually enshrined one such critic as a meme (“Wise Beard Man”) and refocused efforts on his suggestion of trying to destroy the church’s tax-exempt, non-profit status. This led to some rather colorful, widespread protests (check out some photos).

Just before reading this post, I had come across one such protest myself, here in Philadelphia. (Sadly, I did not have my camera on me.) What struck me about it was just how delightfully geeky the protesters were, decking out their signs (and themselves) in the imagery of video games, comic books, and internet references. Examples from various protests include signs proclaiming Scientology an “ePIC FAIL” and directing passers-by to google a controversial story, and plenty of protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks, as recently popularized by the movie adapted from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta comics (though you do get occasional other kinds of geeky masks). From where I stood, the protesters decked out in costumes and t-shirts bought from Threadless and comic book stores made it look like an unusually rowdy segment from Comic Con International.

The grad student behind the post suggests how this phenomenon offers a number of opportunities for academic research, and offers some additional links and citations for further consideration. Interestingly, the Anonymous members who comment on the post seem to tend to agree that the phenomenon bears study, and offer some additional suggestions and food for thought.

The (Other) Flying Penis Attack: You may remember when the self-proclaimed “Second Life Millionaire” was attacked by (virtual) flying penises during an interview with CNet. But had you heard of the offline follow-up at a Russian political assembly?

It seems that some pro-Kremlin activists attempted to disrupt Garry Kasparov’s speech with a, um, peniscopter, I guess you could call it. Game Politics has a summary and some video, with additional quotes from the Sydney Morning Herald report. Waxy has some side-by side pictures and videos for comparison. That last post raises the question of whether the protesters even realized they were mimicking Second Life, but that seems an oddly specific sort of distractor.

From a personal standpoint, I’m not sure what it is that I find so fascinating about these forms of protest. I mean, people use the internet to organize politically all the time, right? Why is it that these seem to me like a separate phenomenon from making a Flash game to make fun of rival presidential candidates, or using Meetup to organize a rally? Perhaps I see those as events that allow mainstream culture to effectively exercise politics using the internet—but the events noted above feel like “internet culture” bringing its politics (and sometimes shocking flair for the dramatic) out of the niches and into plain sight.

4 thoughts on “When Griefing Wanders into Meatspace

  1. 4chan was inspired by Japan’s hugely popular 2chan. I don’t think SomethingAwful had anything to do with it, although all three are meme petri dishes.

  2. Not only are you right, I feel kind of stupid for having forgotten this, seeing as how I just read a whole article about 2chan’s founder. Well, the thing I linked at Henry Jenkins’s blog seemed to suggest that 4chan members overlapped with or drew from the membership of Something Awful, anyway…

  3. Hmmm…I think in part, this is the internet culture moving toward the non-internet world. It’s a meshing/collusion of world right? A flash game about your political opponent is the political world coming to the internet–a political act as an internet act. These two are internet acts that are moving toward the political (or else social/cultural).

    Anyhow, just a thought.


  4. Although the 4chan concept was taken from 2chan, a lot of the original posters were from the SomethingAwful forums as they grew more and more unhappy with the way the forums were run and the direction they were heading. Moot, the 4chan admin, is a (now ex?) SA goon.

    It’s funny, as the more recent waves of SA posters sneer at 4chan and yet the content that originally made them register at SA probably originated from one of the many posters who overlap between SA/*chan/YTMND.

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