RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The online group Anonymous was in the news last week when it threatened to unmask those it said were collaborating with a powerful and murderous Mexican drug cartel. Anonymous had already taken on California's Bay Area Rapid Transit system and doxed - that's its word for releasing hacked documents. Doxed - personal information for law-enforcement officials. These are just the most recent of the attention-grabbing exploits by a group that is as mysterious as its name. Journalist Quinn Norton has a profile of Anonymous on Wired.com today. She's followed the group from its beginning - as she puts it, as a kind of foreign correspondent.
QUINN NORTON: A foreign correspondent - I - a foreign correspondent reporting from the Internet.
MONTAGNE: So - but in order to observe Anonymous up close, without being a member of Anonymous, one has to do and know what?
NORTON: Know where they are online. So that does mean Twitter, knowing the particular Twitter accounts they use a lot. There are Web chats and corresponding with people in e-mail, once you get to know them. But probably one of the most important places is, in particular, a posting board called 4chan. And the slice of that posting board called /B, which is where Anonymous took its particular birth.
MONTAGNE: What do they do, though? I mean, how do they pick their targets? And is there any - are they at all cohesive? I mean, is there any larger philosophical connection?
NORTON: There's a shared set of values and anesthetics, more than anything else. I mean, I like to call Anonymous a culture. It's pretty easy to say that Anons are pro free speech. It's pretty easy to say that they're anti-censorship. And it's easy to say that they are bound together by a certain sense of humor in most of what they do. From there on, you get amazing diversity in philosophy, in execution, in the desire for execution, and in the particular goals that a set of Anons will choose to go after.
Anyone can be Anonymous. All you have to do is decide you're Anonymous. So if you are anyone, anywhere, in any strata of society, and you decide that you are Anonymous, that's it. You've joined. What you do from there is your decision.
MONTAGNE: This is very much anarchistic. Anonymous is something and nothing, all at the same time.
NORTON: Absolutely. And again, this goes back to being like a culture. Cultures can have different forms of governance inside them and still be cultures. For Anonymous, governing structures form and melt all the time. This, of course, makes it extremely hard for people to understand how to speak to Anonymous, how to enforce law against Anonymous, any number of other things because you can never say to Anonymous: Take me to your leaders.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: You describe Anonymous as a culture. Ultimately, what does that mean?
NORTON: Anonymous is a culture that's bound together by people who are looking for companionship and enfranchisement. They're people who have often felt powerless in their regular lives. And as part of this culture or subculture, this collection of people doing things, they're able to find needs met that they can't get met anywhere else.
There's a real misunderstanding of why Anonymous is anonymous, in particular. Yeah, there is a degree to which some of them are doing illegal things, and they need to be hidden to avoid consequences. But the bigger cultural value there is that who you are individually is not important. The message that you bring, the actions that you do, participating in the culture is what's important.
And, in fact, putting your name out there can get you punished by other Anons; can get you shunned in some ways because you're putting yourself above them by assuming your regular identity.
MONTAGNE: Quinn Norton, thank you very much for joining us.
NORTON: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: Quinn Norton has been following the activities of the online activist group Anonymous. Her series, Anonymous: Beyond the Mask, will appear on Wired.com today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.