Anonymous, Student Blogging, Batman and Online Vigilantism

February 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

why are you so serious

This term I’m trying something new with my Hacker Culture class, thanks to NYU’s transition from Blackboard to NYU Classes. Instead of having students write weekly reading responses, I’m having them blog their responses, and respond to each other’s posts. That way I’m able to check out/contribute to whatever ongoing conversations — which I can then integrate into my lesson plans, particularly if certain recurring themes or conversations emerge.

One of these themes has to do with the ethics of hackerly vigilantism, and whether or not Anonymous in particular is the real life analogue to Batman. Several students posed this question, as well as the question of why certain people are so drawn to vigilante justice. Here is my response:

Ultimately, I think the appeal of these sorts of vigilante interventions appeal to people because the internet can be such a chaotic, frustrating place. Worse, there’s often very little we can do to address these frustrations. For example, someone’s being an ass in the comments section of your favorite blog? Too bad — you can either leave or try to choke down all that bile. Somebody is saying rude things about you or someone you know on Twitter? You can block them, but that doesn’t make them or their tweets disappear (just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there). Someone being horrible on Facebook? Have fun waiting for 6 weeks while Facebook decides what to do about it. People are constantly talking about the level of control people have on the internet, and to an extent that’s true. But there are also lots of things –and they are almost all negative things– that people can’t control.

Vigilantism offers an opportunity to right these sorts of (perceived) wrongs, often much more efficiently than anything the legal system or on-site moderation policies can offer. Because unlike these more official channels, vigilante justice is (at least can be) as swift as the people exacting whatever revenge. Furthermore it provides an outlet for knee-jerk gut-level reactions. These kinds of reactions can be extremely satisfying, even cathartic, especially when emotions are already running high. You could call it the online equivalent of punching your worst enemy in the face. The problem is, people are not always at their fairest or most discerning when they are lashing out in anger, frustration or pain. In those moments, tunnel vision often rules. So although you might initially feel justified in punching your worst enemy in the face, there’s no guarantee that the feeling will last as soon as the adrenaline stops pumping. At that point, you might just realize that you acted rashly, and wish you could take it back. 

Online, these stakes are even higher, because when people react rashly –especially when the information they’re going on is rushed and incomplete– the things they do risk following their target forever. Sometimes the resulting stigma is entirely justified. There are certain things –and I suspect this is the rationale behind the Steubenville vigilantism– that people shouldn’t be able to wiggle away from easily (they are called consequences, and people should have to face them). Sometimes, however, the resulting stigma is either disproportionate to the crime, or is based on faulty information and therefore unwarranted (not that Google cares; their search engine isn’t interested in what’s true or fair, their search engine is a search engine). 

So, while vigilantism might feel good in the moment (everyone wants to be Batman, right? or at least watch Batman from the sidelines and nod approvingly because JUSTICE), it might not be the right thing to do. In fact, it might just prove to be the worst thing. Because what if Batman has his facts wrong? What if Batman isn’t thinking straight? What if Batman is a troll? This line of questioning is certainly applicable to the Anonymous-as-Batman theory — I direct your attention to one Jessi Slaughter. This is why it’s not a good idea to make any broad claims or assumptions about Anonymous. Sometimes people operating under that mantle do horrible things. Sometimes people operating under that mantle do wonderful things. Ultimately it is the people doing the things that you should react to — not the mass noun that subsumes all of them. 

I love that these are the kinds of issues the students are raising — and it’s only Week 2. This term is going to be the best.


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