Collective Identity of Anonymous: Web of Meanings in a Digitally Enabled Movement

Uppsala Studies in Media & Communication No. 12

By: Sylvain Firer-Blaess
August 2016
Uppsala University
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789155496029
220 Pages, Illustrated
$67.50 Paper original


The present dissertation explores the collective identity of the Anonymous movement. This movement is characterised by the heterogeneity of its activities, from meme-crafting to pranks to activist actions, with a wide range of goals and tactics. Such heterogeneity raises the question as to why such a diverse group of people makes the decision to act under the same name. To answer this question, the concept of collective identity is applied, which describes how participants collectively construct the definition of their group.

This dissertation is based on a three-year ethnography. The main findings show that the collective identity of Anonymous rests on five sets of self-defining concepts related to: 1) Anonymous’ counterculture of offense and parrhesia, 2) its personification into two personae (the ‘trickster’ and the ‘hero’) that have differing goals, means, and relationships with the environment, 3) a horizontal organisation and a democratic decision-making process, 4) practices of anonymity and an ethics of self-effacement, and 5) its self-definition as a universal entity, inclusive, and unbounded. The collective identity construction process is marked by tensions due to the incompatibility of some of these concepts, but also due to differences between these collective identity definitions and actual practices. As a consequence, they have to be constantly reaffirmed through social actions and discourses.

Not all individuals who reclaim themselves as Anonymous recognise the totality of these collective identity definitions, but they all accept a number of them that are sufficient to legitimate their own belonging to the movement, and most of the time to be recognised by others as such. The different groups constituting Anonymous are therefore symbolically linked through a web of collective identity definitions rather than an encompassing and unified collective identity. This ‘connective identity’ gives the movement a heterogeneous composition while at the same time permitting it to retain a sense of identity that explains the use of a collective name.