When brought together in real life, people who interact mostly online spend a lot of time glancing sideways, trying to recognize each other from blurry Twitter avatars and Instagram photos. About 80 of those people gathered on Monday night at a fundraiser in midtown Manhattan for Barrett Brown and Jeremy Hammond, two imprisoned Anonymous hacktivists, and I felt the gaze long before I got the tweet. "@adrianchen IRL… LOL," tweeted @an0nyc, an Anonymous twitter account with over 20,000 followers the proprietor of which, I assumed, was looking at me at that moment.
The room was full of potential @an0nycs, snacking on cheese plates and drinking wine and beer in solidarity with Brown and Hammond, who have both been charged with various computer crimes connected to Anonymous' 2011 hack of the private intelligence contractor Stratfor. Was it the guy in glasses with the cropped hair whose resemblance to an older Edward Snowden was amplified by his Edward Snowden t-shirt? The tiny woman with ripped jeans and a "Talk Nerdy to me" t-shirt? We were in the lobby of the 15th-floor office of ThoughtWorks, the corporate consultancy that employed the virtuoso young programmer Aaron Swartz, who killed himself in January while fighting federal charges for downloading a bunch of journal articles. In an act of solidarity, ThoughtWorks provided the venue free of charge.
Asking around, I learned @an0nyc was the unassuming young guy in a white shirt and tie collecting entrance fees at the door. "Did you tweet at me?" I asked him. He was briefly startled, then smiled and began slowly shaking his head.
"I just wanted to let you know I hate you, man. I really hate you," he said.
"What'd I do to you?" I said, but I knew he was probably not a fan of my previous coverage of Barrett Brown, the hero of the evening, in which I'd called him a "fameball," a "bubble bath webcam star," and less kind things.
"Oh, I hate a lot of people," @an0nyc said. "Don't feel special."
This guy clearly took his clues from the old-school Anonymous, the "Internet Hate Machine" of utterly decentralized nihilistic fuckery that was the Web's biggest villain before the so-called "moralfags" took over. The latter have turned Anonymous into effectively an online political action committee, specializing in campaigns against rape culture and copyright law, as many do-gooder causes as there are hashtags, and, now, that ultimate engine of mainstream political expression: the fundraiser.
I ran into Gregg Housh, a 36-year-old computer consultant with floppy salt and pepper hair from Boston who has seen first-hand more of Anonymous' history than pretty much anyone. He was quick to remind me that he was in the room for the planning of the first real-life Anonymous protests against Scientology, back in 2008, which, by most accounts, was the Ground Zero of Anonymous' transformation into gonzo crusaders for Truth and Justice.
"I still have that Guy Fawkes mask from that night," Housh said, "when we were choosing what mask to use before we put out the video calling for the very first protest against Scientology. I went out to Newbury Comics and bought to see how it fit and try it on and show the others online."
Housh was one of the first Anonymous associates to come out under his real name, and since then he's become sort of the Zelig of online activists, materializing whenever a journalist or documentary crew needs to put a face to the Network, seeming at home in as many contexts as the now-omnipresent Guy Fawkes mask itself. I'd last seen Housh in 2011 at a South-by-Southwest party hosted by Silicon Valley Bank where venture capitalists had urged him to write a guidebook for key influencers based on the lessons he's learned from Anonymous. Housh actually did land a big book deal that year, along with Brown, for an account of their time with Anonymous. The project should be even more interesting now if Brown, who faces up to 105 years in prison, is freed this century, and if the feds return the laptop containing large chunks of the manuscript.
Housh helped plan the night's fundraiser over email and conference calls with a group of other activists over a number of weeks, facilitated by networks forged during Occupy Wall Street between Anonymous and more traditional types of activists. It is a lucky coincidence that the causes Brown was most passionate about are currently dominating the public consciousness. Aaron Swartz's death, Edward Snowden's NSA disclosures and the ham-fisted government response, and even the shocking death of Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings—a friend of Brown's—have helped catapult the new hacker crackdown from tech blog outrage into national magazines like this month's Rolling Stone, which features Brown's case.
The broad concern was reflected by the fact that there was a lot more than Anons in the room—local anarchists, civil libertarians and Occupiers all turned up. The hacktivists have been increasingly aided by heavy-hitters like veteran civil liberties activist and Wikileaks general counsel Michael Ratner, who delivered the most powerful speech of the evening and brings a grizzled, New Left gravitas to a world of digital activism that seems always one tweet away from imploding into pointless flamewars.
"Snowden gave Barrett an uptick because people were putting them together, with similar ideals," Housh said. "There's just a lot of other stuff going on that has put this specific type of person in the press. Barrett's there, so they're picking him up as one of the guys they're talking about, which is great for us, and for him."
In attendance was one of Brown's most respectable boosters, Northwestern University philosophy professor Peter Ludlow. In a piece for The Nation, Ludlow lauded the 32-year-old Texan as a heroic truth-teller smashed by the surveillance state for getting to close to the truth. It made much of Browns' work on "Project PM," a crowd-sourced wiki on national security matters that Brown created to sift through the massive cache of documents stolen in the Stratfor in the hack. Today, Project PM languishes as an inscrutable cauldron of website links and dossiers on security contractors and their personnel.
I told Ludlow that I thought his article glossed over the fact that Barrett Brown is also a megalomaniacal troll. Not to mention a real asshole. As the self-appointed Face of Anonymous, he put as much bad information in the public sphere as good, once starting a bogus "war" with the Zetas drug cartel for attention. Yeah, some of the charges against Brown give me shivers as a journalist. But it has been amazing, the way the story of Barrett Brown, the truth crusader, has been whitewashed to fit into the Information Martyr mold.
But Ludlow, philosopher that he is, was concerned with the bigger picture.
"Trolling was also a big element in the ’60s, too," Ludlow said. "Think of Abbie Hoffman for example, basically all he did was troll, you know, levitating the Pentagon and stuff. I think that's an important element in all this. Everyone wants to categorize people into heroes and villains. I think that's a mistake. Is Snowden a hero or villain? I don't know, he did one heroic thing, for all I know he tortures puppies in his free time. For all I know Barrett tortures puppies in his free time, all I can worry about is—"
But in ThoughtWorks' conference room Kevin Gallagher, the 27-year-old Boston systems administrator who founded Free Barrett Brown, was about to deliver the first speech of the evening. We hurried in and Gallagher began, flanked by photos of Brown and Hammond on flatscreen displays.
"In some respects, Barrett is now regarded as a prophet of surveillance dystopia," Gallagher said. "A person who knew what was going on before the rest of us did. Someone who has been massively vindicated and redeemed."