Reading Diary: Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman and This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips

Gabriella Coleman's Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is largely a laudatory history of the Anonymous hacker activist movement with some anthropological and political analysis. Whitney Phillips' This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture on the other hand, is much more geared towards an analytical and philosophical analysis of past and present (and even future) of how online trolling relates to contemporary culture.

Neither book is perfect, and both tend to falter where it comes to how closely the author identifies with the community being analysed, but both are very solid entries into two very new areas of study.

The best parts of Coleman's book is the detailed description and account of the Anonymous movement/phenomenon. For sure, there are numerous misconceptions about Anonymous, some understandable since the movement itself is so diffuse and decentralized, some which seem to be more a case of willful misconceptions on the part of media and political classes. Coleman's step by step history of many of the various Anon campaigns -- like the anti-Mormon church one, for example -- really clarify that there is no one Anon, just a loose aggregation of fellow travelers. There was some central control at the beginning but as becomes clear, that also began to be harder to enforce as the movement gained in size and popularity. Coleman's anthropological and ethnographic approach also served to humanize the movement. What might have been a simplistic "angry dudes in their parent's basements" we see in mainstream media was complicated and clarified by Coleman, both in terms of demographics and motivation.

On the other hand, the way she embedded herself in Anon communities and built personal relationships with activists -- and her own identification with the kind of activism they were doing -- sometimes left me with the feeling that she could have been a bit more detached in how she approached the ethical and legal implications of how Anon operated. There were a couple of spots where I thought she might dive into those sorts of issues at the end of a chapter or section, but then the story just continued on as before. She certainly deals with a lot of those sorts of issues at the end of the book, and deals with them fairly well, but dealing with those sorts of issues as they arise would have been better.

That said, overall I quite enjoyed the book and learned a lot about a topic I thought I already knew a fair bit about. There were some parts that could have been edited a bit for length, but that's a small complaint. I would recommend this book for any academic or public library collection that deals with the social aspects of technology or the interface of technology and politics.

By contrast, Whitney Phillips' book This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture could have suffered from the same ills as the Coleman book but it didn't. In fact, a recurring theme in the book is Whitney's struggles to distance herself from her anthropological/ethnographic subjects and not be tempted to identify with them. Is she completely successful in distancing herself from the trolls, of not identifying herself and sympathizing with them even a little bit? Not completely, but she is very aware of the temptation, especially as it relates to some trolling tendencies in her own family.

Phillips' main point is the book can be summarized as this: "Trolls are asshats. But they way they are asshats and how their asshatery manifests itself in our media-drenched contemporary society is useful for understanding that society." It's clear that she has no love for trolls but rather seeks to understand them as a way of understanding the society they reflect. And while it would be nice to think that the reflection is a carnival mirror reflection, one that is untrue or exaggerated, Phillips I think really wants us all to understand that what trolls represent in a genuine and authentic part of our society. As ugly as that reflection is, it's more true than we would like to acknowledge.

Trolls are the symptoms of a mean, cruel, misogynistic, racist, exploitative society, not the disease itself. And while treating the symptoms is unquestionably important, the underlying disease is even more important to recognize.

I have no hesitation recommending this book to all libraries that collect in technology and society. Any academic library would find this useful and probably most public libraries as well. Even high school libraries could find this a useful addition.

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York: Verso, 2014. 464pp. ISBN-13: 978-1781685839

Phillips, Whitney. This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Boston: MIT Press, 2015. 251pp. ISBN-13: 978-0262028943


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