“You can get a mask and join the fight, too! But I heard the costume store is sold out until Friday.” – ‘Anonymous’ member (New York Times)
As supporters of ‘Anonymous’ once again take to the streets — and platforms — around San Francisco’s BART rail system, frustrated commuters might find some amusing reading in the pages of today’s New York Times.
Confirming what most of us with half a brain have known for months, Nick Bilton reports that every time someone from Anonymous buys one of those smug Guy Fawkes masks, they line the pockets of Time Warner…
“Stark white, with blushed pink cheeks, a wide grin and a thin black mustache and goatee, the mask resonates with the hackers because it was worn by a rogue anarchist challenging an authoritarian government in “V for Vendetta,” the movie produced in 2006 by Warner Brothers. What few people seem to know, though, is that Time Warner, one of the largest media companies in the world and parent of Warner Brothers, owns the rights to the image and is paid a licensing fee with the sale of each mask.”
Plenty has been written about the curious double-standards of Anonymous: hiding behind masks while running roughshod over the privacy of anyone who they perceive as their enemy; objecting when journalists talk about their leadership (“anyone can be Anonymous”) but crying foul when someone threatens physical harm in their name (“they’re not with us!”); bitching about The Man curtailing their freedoms, while simultaneously disrupting thousands of ordinary San Francisco commuters.
What hasn’t been adequately discussed, however, is how creatively bankrupt the entire endeavor is.
Given that the group started life on 4Chan, the ground zero of memes, it’s should be no surprise that everything about Anonymous is deeply derivative. Indeed, that was the whole point. The group’s use of the Guy Fawkes mask can be traced back to, of course, V For Vendetta; the Warner Brothers movie that was adapted from an Alan Moore comic book series. But movies and comic books are old media. As Bilton explains, it took a dumb viral video of “Epic Fail Guy” — seen peering into a trash can and emerging wearing the “V” mask — for members of 4Chan to remember the movie and come up with the idea of adopting Moore’s imagery of their own.
The hero in V For Vendetta, you’ll remember, encouraged the whole of the UK to dress up in those exact masks, in order to form a huge faceless army to overthrow an oppressive government. (He also assaulted and imprisoned a terrified Natalie Portman, but whatever.) Being largely of a generation accustomed to copying and pasting other people’s ideas as their own, the members of Anonymous didn’t hesitate to adopt the mask for their real world pranks, using it first to protest the Church of Scientology — and now to protest just about anything else. (For Moore’s part, he says he’s delighted that Anonymous is using his character for their protests. And so he should be: if any writer represents the appropriation and reuse of existing characters for fun and profit, it’s Alan Moore.)
Of course, mass protests have always relied on shared slogans and motifs. Lots of people had deep concerns about nuclear proliferation but it took the phrase “Ban the Bomb” and the ubiquitous CND symbol to unite them into an appreciable movement. The sound of a thousand people chanting “we will not be moved” is always going to be more powerful than those same people simply singing or chanting whatever comes into their heads. For all of those reasons, the Guy Fawkes mask is prima facie (sorry) an ideal rallying symbol. But whereas “Ban the Bomb” was coined by protesters for their specific cause, the key difference with Anonymous is that almost none of their defining images, slogans or methods was actually created, coined or conceived by members of Anonymous.
V For Vendetta wasn’t an actual protest, it was a pastiche of a protest, as presented by a bestselling comic book and blockbuster movie. Similarly, by adopting the “V” mask, Anonymous risks appearing less as a genuine grass-roots movement than a parody of one — a carbon copy of something that some kids saw in a movie and decided to mimic because it looked cool. A meme.
It doesn’t help that in almost all cases, the attacks carried out in the group’s name — DDOS attacks, exploiting well-known holes in SQL — are of the most bog-standard, point-and-click variety. A lack of creativity and original ideology percolates throughout the entire organisation. When Anonymous protesters claim they’re doing something “for the lulz”, or simply parrot whatever snippet of an idea they’ve heard that day (“uh, it’s because of the war in Iraq and racism in Arizona and… something bad Sony did…”), they create an appearance of not really knowing why they’re protesting at all. It’s just that — well, everyone else is putting on masks and, um, I saw it on the Internet and it looked cool — and, hey, fuck you! We are legion! Expect us!
Given the staggering lack of original thought that has been permitted to infiltrate Anonymous, it’s fitting that many of those protesting tonight in San Francisco would prefer to pay The Man for the use of his merchandise — the equivalent of protesting McDonalds by hurling cups of Starbucks coffee — rather than spend ten minutes coming up with their own symbol.
Sadly — or fortunately, depending on your view — that same laziness will likely put a short shelf-life on Anonymous’ popularity. Memes get old, fast; it’s takes original ideas to achieve genuine longevity. Time Warner should enjoy the windfall while they can.