This is an Opinion piece by a longtime participant in Anonymous, who wishes to be identified only as “an Anon.” We are pleased to present this meditation on media, minds, Anonymous, anonymity, social media and the hype cycle. With the recent kerfuffle about the alleged “Anonymous endorsement” of a new social media platform (which media clusterfuck we avoided like the proverbial or even actual plague) we thought it was time to examine the field. Activists have long needed a secure social media platform on which to come together and collaborate, but is Minds a million mask miracle, a flash in the pan, a pig in a poke, or a guy in an FBI van wearing a headset and typing? Time, and possibly embittered Tweets, will tell.
Pass the strategy and hold the social
This happens every summer. Someone gets excited about a new social network they want to set up. They may have a friend who knows about the dark Internets. Anonymous gets name dropped. Media goes wild. People take time away from clicking cat pictures and find it full of holes or broken promises. Everyone blinks for a bit and the clicking resumes. Sigh. The drama is so unnecessary.
We know people get excited. That’s what we do! Exciting things. Some of us are a bunch of trolls with an activist hobby. Others in our loose ranks are activists with a troll hobby. We’ll play ball for great justice or epic lulz. But for lulz’ sake get the promotions right. Everything people might know of marketing products to consumers is nearly useless when it comes to engaging with activists.
Minds‘ team stumbled. We don’t expect a product to be perfect when it launches. But we will check it out when wild claims are made. Marketing is a funny form of witchcraft. There’s a lot of things to get out the door. Will people remember your domain or what your product does? Will the buzz last past the first week? Marketing is the art of setting up media storms so you can explain things later.
Clickstrophiliacs, er consumers, need the shiny to even care. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can filter out poorly thought out ideas or good ideas backed by teams who are not organized. There is no glory in starting an IKEA project when you haven’t mastered building a pyramid. But in activist communities there’s a deep disgust toward hyping shiny when a product isn’t ready or safe to use.
Who got it right
Twitter is a massive success. #BlackTwitter took it from its quote bot and foodstagram beginnings to a place where unwritten etiquette about respect for virtual spaces gave people a way to express themselves. People can say what they think without having to appease and censor themselves for payola media portals like CNN. They can receive feedback or just have people spread their ideas.
Twitter got it right. Microblogging allows people to bypass the media’s approval filter and their need for attention deficit inducing content. It also allows people to question the dominant religion of social change: achieving critical mass through professionalism and reputation management. People can be angry and block hysterical critics. They can make mistakes, dust themselves off, and move on.
Letting users to be human makes Twitter revolutionary. #BlackTwitter created spaces before they created change. They only needed to connect with each other and share common stories. There was no false moralizing about how people use their voices or whom they should listen to. Those who object now already had a voice. Left behind, they shun trigger warnings and invade timelines.
This is where every Minds, What Is The Plan?, Anon+, and Diaspora that comes along seems to falter. A social network shouldn’t tell people they can be larger than life. They shouldn’t dictate how people interact. Plugins and free software licenses are great, but organic growth is better. If people want a social network, they should get rid of the idea it has to be massive. Let it grow and evolve.
So what went wrong?
What Is The Plan? was a website that came along during the Occupy movement. It promised that people could discuss topics and organize for change. That is, provided they gave a blood sample. Anons saw symbols they associated with used to spread identity culture. To read threads one had to log in. The culture behind WITP was also very public and dependent on rallies rather than action.
Anon+ was a response to Google’s real name policy, but it quickly lost its appeal when it seemed it was a social network for Anons, not a network that respected the anonymity of activists. It too also had plugins. It anonymized routing and content. It could have been a new kind of Tor or I2P. We’ll never know because a combination of media impulsiveness and promotions gave the wrong idea.
It’s interesting though, that in the case of Diaspora* and I2P, we don’t know if they were successful or not. Ignore the fact that Diaspora* didn’t replace Facebook as some had hoped. It does its job. It connects people. Maybe it looks like it failed because it let users leave the womb of current social media. Maybe ruby rails was too much for journalists to set up on their own. But it appears to work.
The short version with Minds is media-hyped: a Facebook posting no one on Twitter saw. Twitter is ridiculously perfect for public outreach. Facebook is social email and games. It works when people are bored and because it was the first of its kind. The Twitterverse sticks together when people get angry or excited. Minds kicked off like Anon+, claiming to have support when few people heard of it.
[ed. note: the media ate it up, although as longtime Anonymous-coverers here we avoided the party line. Anonymous does not, generally speaking, endorse brands, and one Facebook page does not speak for Anonymous]
Can it be salvaged?
The team behind Minds marketed it like McDonalds marketed an overpriced Britney Spears single. There’s potential behind the technology, but the approach was flawed. Not long ago there was buzz around a new network called Ello. No one talks about it lately. The truth is, there are already a lot of social media choices. Check your favorite mobile app store. The real problem is old media culture.
New media ventures have the same misguided ideas as the rest of us. We think we need to scare or wow people into submission. What we really need is a new social media protocol, much like how HTTP replaced gopher and FTP. Email is a zombie where everything new and amazing is twisted out of shape to fit a vertigo column of spam and flowery backgrounds. We need a new social web.
New technology can’t save Minds. New technology can’t make up for the idea anything less than a call at 3 AM can’t promote a useful product. When media do reports on new technology, they need to follow up. Minds has vulnerabilities and this is common for new products. Products have bugs. If media were so excited about our supposed support, they’re not so eager to report things breaking.
A similar thing happened with Mega. But to Kim Dotcom’s credit, Mega was open to people looking at the technology. There were questions about their system, but there was communication with the public. Plugins don’t make the network. People do. Hype only creates excitement. People generate their momentum by using it. What matters is how the creators of a social network treat their users.
How to market to activists and active people
Part of Twitter’s appeal is they resisted in the face of subpoenas for Occupy tweets. They admitted their response to abuse was not good enough for a mass network. It might be necessary to cause a riot in the middle of town to sell a new gadget, but that will only make activists wary. Active users do not like being treated like easily distracted pets. They want to know how your technology works.
Minds is encrypted. Great. Minds is open-source, free software. Fantastic. The website is made of swiss cheese. Wait, what? Don’t harass activists with shiny. Let active people learn how your tools work. The media bears some responsibility and possibly the Anons on Facebook have knowledge they could’ve shared. The media shouldn’t assume Facebook and Twitter Anons know each other [ed. note: or the holdouts in IRC and OTR].
Anonymous likes shiny things. Anonymous does not like hype. OP must deliver or the consequences will never be the same. Anonymous supports technologies. Anonymous doesn’t support any brand or product. It’s a line that’s blurred with what we can achieve when people don’t attach names to work that everyone is doing. The old media rarely get this right and it might be unfair for the Minds team.
But the Minds team bears responsibility too. They were excited by their own hype and didn’t have anyone to back them up on the claim that Anonymous supported Minds. When Mega was raided, there was unmistakable support for their project. 24% of Internet bandwidth was taken up by huge Internet rage. Anonymous allows its name to be used freely but does respond to claims of support.
Suggestions for the future
Minds could be a hit. It probably has a hopeful team. What the team could do is host a hackathon and invite people to test its software. They should invite people to develop plugins. As with Mega, who at one point cooperated with federal witch hunts, unlike say, Qwest, Anonymous will support even people who have questionable ideas and/or commitments. Being human is the last revolution.
But it takes time to build something on this scale. Don’t make promises. Make people proud to use the tools you’ve built. Be the kind of team people will rally behind, when something goes wrong. We may soon have to work with whatever we can get, if the TPP 7-layer taco of evil passes. We won’t have access to perfect. We’ll barely have access to passable and compliant with new export rules.
There is a culture problem, even with users. Openssl and Truecrypt got few donations and little support until something broke. It wasn’t the Truecrypt team that got donations recently: it was the team that checked its vulnerabilities. The media’s fear of technology is partly responsible. Technology writers once claimed anti-virus customers didn’t need to know the difference between trojans and viruses.
How will people support nuanced projects if the media treat them like idiots? Will companies invest in very specific tools if people don’t even know the issues exist? The media must help users move off old systems. Hype scavenging doesn’t help. Consumers need research. Activists need details about privacy architectures. The media need to stop compartmentalizing audiences for the clicks.