Recognizably Anonymous

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[Hello. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you.]

Roman Mars:
First off, we should describe what “Anonymous” is.

Rob Walker:
It’s not an organization. It is a non-organization.

Roman Mars:
A sort of ever-changing band of individuals.

Rob Walker:
Sometimes described as hackers or hacktivists or free-expression zealots, or just internet troublemakers.

Roman Mars:
You can’t even call them a group.

Rob Walker:
I tend to call them a phenomenon.

[We are Anonymous.]

Roman Mars:
And for someone who writes extensively about brands and brand identity, Rob Walker became intrigued.

Rob Walker:
My name is Rob Walker. I am a contributing writer for the “New York Times Magazine” and for “Design Observer.”

Roman Mars:
Because this non-group called Anonymous somehow created its own visual identity.

Rob Walker:
It was so compelling and immediately recognizable.

Roman Mars:
Which is a task that corporations or political campaigns-

Rob Walker:
Spend millions and millions of dollars to achieve. And these people seem to have done something very effective without any organization or any budget, or even any coherent plan.

Roman Mars:
There are two basic images used for anonymous. One is a logo.

Rob Walker:
A headless figure in a suit juxtaposed against a kind of world map that’s very blatantly derived from the United Nations globe logo, with a question mark where his head should be.

Roman Mars:
The other major visual image is a mask.

Rob Walker:
That is a sort of stylized visage based on Guy Fawkes, although no one really recognizes Guy Fawkes.

Roman Mars:
It’s the mask worn by the protagonist in the graphic novel, and then movie, “V for Vendetta.” The original mask design was by the artist David Lloyd. And it comes in handy when you’re trying to stay anonymous in the real world.

Rob Walker:
And that has sort of reached over into just street protests in general.

Roman Mars:
Street protests like the non-affiliated “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

[Protestors chanting: “We are the 99%.”]

Roman Mars:
Anonymous has its roots in the anonymous postings on the /b/ message board on 4chan.org

Rob Walker:
I would openly discourage your listeners from visiting the /b/ message board.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Some things you just can’t un-see.

Rob Walker:
It’s really pretty harsh.

Roman Mars:
But Anonymous came together as a kind of movement when they decided to take on the Church of Scientology.

Rob Walker:
There was an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise that people were posting and people representing the Church of Scientology were taking it down.

[Tom Cruise: “We are the authorities on getting people off drugs. We are the authorities on the mind.”]

Rob Walker:
And people associated with Anonymous had a problem with that, because of their kind of general free expression point of view. And they decided that they would band together and keep reposting that video. And then that sort of escalated into, “what else can we do to basically cause problems for the Church of Scientology?”

Roman Mars:
It was an ominous YouTube video produced by a small subset of Anonymous, where a more unified voice began to form.

Rob Walker:
I was absolutely blown away by this video. It’s directed to the Church of Scientology. It’s not directed to the world at large. It just sort of says, “Attention Church of Scientology, we are Anonymous and here’s what we have to say and we’re coming after you. And we recognize you as a formidable opponent but we’re going to take you down.” And the visuals, it’s just sort of rolling clouds over buildings. And there’s this kind of ominous music playing in the background and the voiceover is this robot voice.

Roman Mars:
Which turned out to be an online AT&T text-to-speech translator.

Rob Walker:
But it sounds really creepy.

Roman Mars:
There are a few notable moments and turns-of-phrase in the video, but the first one to grab Rob’s attention said-

Rob Walker:
“We are Anonymous. And we are going to do this for the good of your own followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own amusement.” Which just sort of really encapsulates this sort of ‘we’re righteous and we just sort of feel like doing this right now because we find it fun.’ Which is really kind of a scary combination of ideas.

Roman Mars:
The video ends with what has become the Anonymous tagline.

Rob Walker:
And parts of this tagline, I learned, had been kind of floating around on 4chan at /b/ board.

[We are Anonymous. We are a legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.]

Rob Walker:
“Expect us” is so, like… you know, you just almost immediately want to sort of freeze up at your keyboard and look over your shoulder to see if they’re there.

Roman Mars:
Around the same time as this video, the aforementioned “headless suit man in front of the UN flag logo” was created. Again, using elements that have been floating around the /b/ board for quite some time. They also created a website, and all this because a media-savvy member of Anonymous warned the others that if they didn’t brand themselves, someone else would do it for them.

Greg Housh:
You need some sort of solid identity to present to the press. Because they’re going to come up with their own if you don’t, and you want to control that message.

Roman Mars:
Rob Walker got the inside story of the early days of Anonymous from Greg Housh, who was part of the early planners of various Anonymous actions.

Greg Housh:
You could say “directing the action,” but you know, with Anonymous, everyone knows that you can only make suggestions and if they’re good enough and people like ‘em, they’ll do it. But they could have easily been ignored.

Rob Walker:
In the process of being as bombastic as they could towards Scientology, they sort of accidentally created this ominous self-image that is simultaneously scary but also very attractive, I think.

Roman Mars:
So this video that they did took off. Currently, it has over four and a half million views. And they decided that the next logical step was street protest.

Greg Housh:
We decided right then and there, that’s what we’re going to ask everyone to do. We’re going to send the internet outside! People are leaving their mothers’ basements!

Rob Walker:
But by this point, there was kind of legal stuff in motion, where the Church of Scientology was really going after Anonymous.

Greg Housh:
The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh crap, we’re going to need to cover our faces.”

Rob Walker:
So we need a mask. What mask should we use?

Greg Housh:
And we built a shortlist of, you know, the V mask.

Roman Mars:
He means the “V for Vendetta” mask.

Greg Housh:
That’s kind of symbolic. A Batman mask. The actual one that came in second in our voting that night was old school masquerade masks. Where you would actually hold the little stick and hold it up. And we came up with like 5 or 6 masks.

Roman Mars:
And then they got really pragmatic about their choice.

Greg Housh:
We called around to comic book shops and costume shops in most of the major cities in the world from Paris to London to New York to LA. I mean, everywhere. And we asked, do you have any of these and, you know, what do they cost? And the one thing we found was that nearly every costume and comic book shop on this planet had that “V for Vendetta” version of the Guy Fawkes mask for six to ten dollars, depending on your local currency. And it was, “Ok, here we go! It’s available, it’s cheap, and it’s in every city in the world. Not only do we like it, but it’s the right choice.”

Rob Walker:
And basically the upshot is enough people went along with that, that the day after these Scientology protests happened there were photos and videos of people wearing this mask all over the place. And it just caught fire. It was a powerful thing that people sort of saw it and said, “That’s anonymous.”

Roman Mars:
Another quality of the “V for Vendetta” mask is that it has its own twisted version of a Mona Lisa smile. You can’t quite figure out if he’s laughing or mean or laughing at you in a mean way.

Rob Walker:
And I think having fun and menace… you know, it’s not really that surprising that those two ideas would be linked. It is a statement of anonymity, of personal privacy. But it’s also a statement of wild freedom of expression and absolutely through a combination of mirth and menace.

Roman Mars:
So when I ask Rob Walker why he thinks these two images, the headless suit man and the “V for Vendetta” mask work, he gives two basic reasons. One is that they’re just graphically pleasing.

Rob Walker:
Sometimes what hangs people up is like, what is your empirical proof that this is good. And it’s like well I don’t really have any empirical proof. What I have is, I look at it and say “that’s awesome.”

Roman Mars:
And the second reason is that the two symbols are easy to manipulate.

Rob Walker:
With a very simple graphics program, you can put the Guy Fawkes mask thing over the suit guy, or you can manipulate these things in any number of ways. Which is a strategy that a traditional, say, corporate brand or political campaign wouldn’t… maybe not be so into. But in this case, there was no creative brief, there was no set of brand standards. People just seemed to intuitively know that you can play around with these things and draw on the power of them but make them your own. And in the making them your own, you’re doing it in a way that rebounds back to the original images and makes them even stronger.

Roman Mars:
And that’s just like the message board meme culture that spawned Anonymous to begin with. You can make the images your own and be one of them or use it for your own purposes and have nothing to do with Anonymous at all. No one will know the difference. And these icons and Anonymous will live on.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Rob Walker and me, Roman Mars. It’s based off an article that Rob wrote for “Slate.” We’ll have a link on the website. This program is made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. 99% Invisible is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org.

Our program intern is named Sam Greenspan. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook. You can follow me on Twitter @romanmars or you can just join us at the website, 99percentinvisible.org.

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