Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
“Hello. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you.”
RM: First off, we should describe what Anonymous is.
Rob Walker (RW): It’s not an organization. It is a non-organization.
RM: A sort of ever-changing band of individuals.
RW: Sometimes described as hackers or hacktivists or free-expression zealots, or just internet troublemakers.
RM: You can’t even call them a group.
RW:I tend to call them a phenomenon.
“We are Anonymous.”
RM: And for someone who writes extensively about brands and brand identity, Rob Walker became intrigued.
RW: My name is Rob Walker. I am a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and for Design Observer.
RM: Because this non-group called Anonymous somehow created its own visual identity.
RW: It was so compelling and immediately recognizable.
RM: Which is a task that corporations or political campaigns
RW: 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.
RM: There are two basic images used for anonymous. One is a logo.
RW: 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.
RM: The other major visual image is a mask.
RW: That is a sort of stylized visage based on Guy Fawkes, although no one really recognizes Guy Fawkes.
RM: 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.
RW: And that has sort of reached over into just street protests in general.
RM: Street protests like the non-affiliated Occupy Wall Street movement.
RM: Anonymous has its roots in the anonymous postings on the /b/ message board on 4chan.org
RW: I would openly discourage your listeners from visiting the /b/ message board
RM: Yeah. Some things you just can’t un-see.
RW: It’s really pretty harsh.
RM: But Anonymous came together as a kind of movement when they decided to take on the Church of Scientology.
RW: There was an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise that people were posting and people representing the Church of Scientology were taking it down.
“We are the authorities on getting people off drugs. We are the authorities on the mind.”
RW: 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 well, what else can we do to basically cause problems for the Church of Scientology?
RM: It was an ominous youtube video produced by a small subset of Anonymous, where a more unified voice began to form.
RW: 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, 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.
RM: Which turned out to be an online AT&T text-to-speech translator.
RW: But it sounds really creepy.
RM: There are a few notable moments and turns-of-phrase in the video, but the first one to grab Rob’s attention said
RW: 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 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.
RM: The video ends with what has become the Anonymous tagline.
RW: 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.”
RW: “Expect us” is so, like… you know you just immediately want to sort of freeze up at your keyboard and look over your shoulder to see if they’re there.
RM: 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 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 (GH): 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.
RM: 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.
GH: 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. They could have easily been ignored.
RW: 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.
RM: 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 a street protest.
GH: 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!!
RW: But at this point, there was kind of legal stuff in motion, where the Church of Scientology was really going after Anonymous.
GH: The first thing that came to my mind was we’re going to need to cover our faces!
RW: So we need a mask. What mask should we use?
GH: And we built a short list of, you know, the V mask.
RM: He means the V for Vendetta mask.
GH: 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.
RM: And then they got really pragmatic about their choice.
GH: 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.
RW: 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 saw it and said: “That’s anonymous.”
RM: 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.
RW: 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.
RM: 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.
RW: 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.”
RM: And the second reason is that the two symbols are easy to manipulate.
GH: 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 maybe wouldn’t be so into.
RW: 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.
RM: 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 (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.