Subcultures of the Internet – The Socialites

In the past few weeks, I have discovered a website called reddit.  I had heard of it before, and known of its reputation as “the frontage of the internet”, but I did not have enough interest to actually check out the site until its came time to study for my semester finals (and as anyone who has been through school understands,  most of the time you spend “studying” is actually spent doing anything but studying).  Anyway, I checked out the site, and I was amazed by what I found.  Reddit is a site devoted to discussion of… everything.

The front page is a list of the most recently popular threads, discussing news articles, politics, funny cat pictures, and more.  If your interests are more specific, there are “subreddits” for just about anything, from /atheism and /christianity to /movies and /books to /askscience.  Within each thread, redditors discuss the topic, providing a sometimes sobering revelation on what previously seemed to be an incredible discovery, or sometimes the exact opposite, a discussion on why something which sounds minor is actually a major  piece of news.

In my introduction post to this series, I described a group I then called the Posters.  That was a pathetic attempt to put a name to the group which is the most easily seen and traced across the internet.  A much more apt description of this subculture would be “Socialites”, because this group thrives on discussion and debate.  The major character trait of Internet Socialites is skepticism.  Every time a piece of major news is released, within a half hour there is a post discussing the validity and overreaching meaning of the news.  Nothing is taken for face value.  After all, it is amazingly simple to photoshop a picture so it looks like it was taken at the exact moment a man tripped over a ledge, or write a news article slanted to make a specific group sound like the bad guys.  Because of this, everything on the Internet is “disbelieved until proven true”.

But if the Socialites disbelieve everything they see on the Internet, how can any of them trust each other to give true information?  After all, all of them hide their identities behind usernames, and there is no safeguard against one person creating multiple identities.  As it turns out, this anonymity removes more problems of validity than it creates.  Socialites cannot possibly argue from authority, depending on the rest of the community to simply trust they are correct.  They must instead explain their opinions fully in every post they make, and even then any other person has the ability to point out faults in their argument, which the OP (Original Poster) then must respond to in order to preserve his validity.  This instant feedback is perhaps the most useful tool of the Socialites.

I like to imagine what the world would be like if all of academia was presented in this way.  Currently, a researcher submits his or her research to peer review, and revises multiple times before publishing a “completed” article or work.  But this takes a large amount of time, and how completed is it?  Without a doubt, there is some detail or implication which has been overlooked by the researcher and his peers, or a some discovery in a different field which could effect the publication.  And if it’s still faulty, what can be done about it?  The current system of academic publication worked during a time when it was impossible to get instant feedback from all around the world, but today, a researcher could post his raw data on reddit, for example, and instantly have hundreds of other people analyzing it and discovering trends which would have taken the researcher months to do himself.

I believe the only thing holding academia back from making this step to instantaneous feedback is the fact that it would remove the ability for the original researcher to get all the credit.  The Socialites have no problem with staying anonymous, and as a result, they create a hugely dynamic arena of debate which could eventually prove itself as an example for the rest of the world.

Subcultures of the Internet: Covert (CISPA Update)

Since my previous post a week ago, a bill called the “Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act” (aka CISPA)  has been passed by the House of Representatives despite an enormous amount of opposition by the public, and will soon be voted on in the Senate.  This bill, intended to increase communication between the government and security agencies on the internet, contains vague language which threatens the entire Internet community.

For one, the entire culture of the Covert will be made illegal, because of their use of email encryption and secure networks such as TOR to hide their identity.  In addition, the government will be able, under CISPA, to monitor any and every online interaction without a warrant, and considering how much of my life is posted on the internet through Facebook alone, this fact is what scares me the most.

I encourage each and every one of you, even (and especially) if you currently do not think this concerns you, to read up on this legislation and decide for yourselves whether or not you can live with this stripping of our online privacy, and if not, contact your representatives about your opposition to this bill.  In the wake of the internet’s outburst over SOPA, it seems that people have lost the energy to fight the seemingly inevitable removal of their privacy and freedom.

I can’t say that I was surprised that this type of legislation has recently become more of an issue.  The use of the internet in Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring has resulted in governments realizing that the Internet has the potential to overwhelm their power.  SOPA and CISPA, along with the five or more other pending legislations, are the government’s attempt to curb this shift in power.  I personally hate to see progress halted for the sake of traditional power roles.

Subcultures of the Internet – The Covert

It is difficult addressing the culture of the Covert without calling up images from popular culture.  Anonymous, by far the most well-known of the hacktivists, is probably the first image that comes to many people’s heads, followed closely by the recent articles concerning the crackdown on child pornography.  Not surprisingly, many businesses and governments despise the covert, because their actions cannot be regulated.  As a result, it is difficult to find a place where they are portrayed in a positive light, without using radical resources.  Both there and “official” articles about them are biased accounts, highlighting a particular aspect of the culture.  To evaluate the entire culture would require admitting that, as an unregulated media, it is simultaneously the most useful and the most dangerous part of the internet.

There are many different names for the habitat of the Covert – the Darknet, the Deepnet, the Dark Fiber, the onion network – and each word has a slightly different definition.  The specifics of each of these do not matter much to me, at least for the moment.  In general, the Covert communicate with each other and share files secretly, making use of programs like those that hackers use to conceal their identities.  In fact, to be able to assure their security, many of them are programmers and hackers.

This entire topic is the source of a great amount of political debate.  In fact, CISPA, a legislation similar to (and as many claim, more dangerous to the online world than)  SOPA, is being voted on this week, and if it passes the Covert will be more vilified than ever.  These multiple attempts to put a legal censor on internet communication in America has fairly recently become prevalent, in response to the internet’s involvement in such movements as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

The Covert are the people who organized these events, who communicated with each other to organize revolution at the risk of being prosecuted by the powers they were protesting.  The Covert are shielded from their identity, and therefore have the freedom to speak their mind, to tell others about the oppression they have faced.  The Covert are the instigators of political change.  There are Covert in China, publishing posts and communications against the censors of their government, which would most likely execute them if they were caught.

I personally have never been to the Darknet, because I do not fully understand the legal consequences of it, but I have heard accounts of people who have.  The Darknet can generally be divided into two groups: the illegal and the anti legal.  The illegal include the child pornography websites, the black market sites people can visit to order drugs or prostitutes.  The anti legal include the protesters in oppressed countries, those who are crying out for freedoms the only way they safely can.  Who knows, America could eventually become one of those oppressed countries, if and when CISPA and the further restricting legislation which will surely follow is passed.  To pass legislation enabling the governments to fight the illegal will also empower them to silence the anti legals.

The bright side is that silencing the Covert is like taping a screen to prevent air from coming in.  No matter how much tape you put on, the air will always find its want through the screens.  It will just be more difficult for a time, until they adapt.

Subcultures of the Internet – Hackers

It’s easy to tell in a conversation when a person has not had much experience with the internet culture.  For one thing, when I talk to them about my research into hacking and cybercultures, they will ask me if I know any “hackers”.  Sure, these people may know how to use their email and Facebook, but besides using Google to search for “how to convert miles to kilometers” they know very little about navigating the internet, or about the people who control it.

Nobody on the internet ever refers to themselves or another person as a hacker; it just isn’t considered appropriate.  That isn’t to say that there is no such thing as a hacker.  On some level, every programmer has the ability to “hack”.  But the popular idea of the term hackers is grossly overused.  For example, when somebody claims that their Facebook page has been “hacked”, usually that means that they left their account open and somebody took advantage of a logged in account.  In reality, it is incorrect to say that any profile has been hacked, but rather compromised when a server was hacked, or when their desktop was hacked.

When I talk about the “hacker culture”, then, by that I mean a culture that is very similar in ways to that of computer programmers, though much more corrupt.  While the focus of the programmer culture is creation of software, programs, and systems, the focus of the hacking culture is on acquiring information and data, and using it to gain power.  Because of this, the hacking culture is very secretive, to protect its own secrets from those who could take advantage of them.

“Hactivists”, such as Anonymous, are prime examples of modern-day mainstream hackers, but their methods are unlike most of the hacker culture.  Hackers do not crave attention; in fact, the mark of a professional hacker is that nobody knows he exists.  This becomes problematic when attempting to join the hacker culture; how do you join a community which claims to consist of… nobody?  Even more problematic, how can you have presentations at hacking conventions such as Black Hat and DEFCON without a community that wants to make itself known to the public?

The answer lies in euphemisms.  DEFCON and Black Hat both consist of presentations and papers concerning the security of systems from the point of view of a system defender.  While there is the unspoken assumption that many of the people there are hackers themselves, and may use the convention as a way to learn methods to use in illegal or at least covert operations, present and future tenses are never used when discussing hacking.  This unique trait is the major thing which separates the hackers from the programmers.


Subcultures of the Internet: Introduction

I have decided to begin a series of posts detailing some of the major subcultures of the Internet.  Many of them overlap, as the Internet is a place without any actual borders, but each subculture has its own behaviors and distinct set of rules.  In addition, as each subculture depends on the Internet for their existence, each one is threatened equally by any sort of attempt to control the Internet.  However, their responses to a threat differ greatly.

This post is an introduction to some of the groups I will discuss, although most likely there will be more than just these few.


Gamers:  Gamers are, obviously, the people who use the Internet and computers primarily for games.  Examples of gaming communities include Steam and the “gaming” subreddit.  This group is the most reluctant to address the threats to the freedom of the internet, and will not unless their gaming life is directly threatened.

Programmers:  Closely related to Gamers and Hackers, Programmers include those who create games, operating systems, and other programs.  Programmers are the most knowledgeable of the internet and how it works, along with Hackers, but their efforts are mostly focused on creation, while Hackers focus on infiltration and modification of programs.  The welfare of Programmers is at greatest risk if the Internet is threatened, because a restriction on the freedom of the Internet restricts their capabilities and could affect their career.  Programmers and Hackers are the first to recognize a threat to the Internet, and can understand the full implications of the threat.

Hackers:  The group most stereotypically seen as a danger to the IRL (In Real Life) world.  This group includes online political activist groups such as Anonymous, as well as the other, less well-known groups which work in secrecy.  Hackers focus on working around the rules of the Internet, searching for loopholes or opportunities for profit, which they then take advantage of.  Hackers are the most active in response to a threat to the Internet, taking action by fighting back online.

The Covert:  The actual greatest danger to the IRL world, this group contains the users who browse the Internet using secure, untraceable connections, using the Darknet and networks such as TOR to explore sites which are not reachable by google or other search engines.  A number of these sites contain illegal content, such as child pornography.  There can also be found websites where one can purchase illegal goods, such as drugs or pirated media.  The users of the Darknet are the most difficult to stereotype, because of the security and anonymity they surround themselves with.  Their response to a threat to the Internet is usually either in secret or through the actual identities of these users, usually in another subculture.

Posters: The most interdependent of the groups, Posters use boards such as reddit, tumblr, and blogs to create discussions and communities.  This group is the most prolific, as an enormous amount of information is posted every day, and as a result the most difficult to keep up with.  Posters usually specialize to a specific messageboard or forum.  Posters work with Trolls to initiate a discussion of any threat to the Internet, allowing other Users to be educated about the threat.

Trolls: This group is identified as the users who trick other users or purposefully annoy them.  Creations of this group include the Rick-roll, the “trollface”, and prank websites.  Although his group is often despised because of its disruption of organization, it is nevertheless a great influence on the Internet as a whole.  Trolls would respond to a threat to the Internet by reverse psychology, acting like a radical supporter of the threat and inciting argument by posting as the “devil’s advocate”, letting the Posters create a discussion of the threat and the way to oppose it.

The Passives: The group most often overlooked, this is perhaps the largest and potentially the most powerful group.  Every other group depends on this group, the masses of casual Internet users, to use the internet and “vote” with their views on a page.  In the case of a threat, the goal is to “mobilize” the Passives and create a mob which has the power of numbers to eradicate the threat.


The Internet Nation

If I gave you a piece of paper and asked you to draw a picture of the Internet, what would you do?  Many older people would draw a computer.  But a computer is the tool used to access the Internet, not the Internet itself.  Many of you would draw a network of lines crisscrossing the world.  Closer, I would say, but how does that differ from a depiction of phone lines?

A very few of you, the most clever, would say that I might as well be asking you to draw what it means to be American.  The Internet consists of people, but not their physical presence.  More accurately, it is people’s Minds which inhabit the Internet.  These Minds are what wander websites, leave tracks in the form of comments and page views, and ultimately create the world they inhabit.  It is possible to give examples of the Internet’s effects, to draw symbols, but impossible to draw the thing itself.

The Internet means much more than a tool which is used to transfer information.  Sociologists and psychologists have often commented on how people act differently on the Internet than off.  This is because the Internet is truly a culture, separate from the physical divisions of the world.  And because it consists of people all over the world, it has a power that promises to change the fundamental makeup of our lives.

The vast majority of the Minds on the Internet are peaceful. The real power comes as a result of an understanding of the structures of the world, and a knowledge of how to manipulate them. The difference between the Internet and the IRL (“in real life”) world is this: the Internet was created (and is being created still) by man.

As a result, man can more easily understand and control its structure.  And as technology improves, and people and devices become more and more dependent on the networks which make up the Internet, power over the world falls into the hands of those who can control these structures.  In a way, war has broken out between the “denizens of the Internet” and the power structures of the physical world, whether they be the US government or Mexican drug cartels.

It is possible, right now, for an online Mind to hack into a government official’s email and find records of investigations taking place. The fact that so many people work to prevent it from happening is proof of such a fact.  Alternatively, a Mind could hack into the New York stock exchange and shut it down, causing an economic collapse if done correctly. It has been done before, quite recently in fact. And remember, these do not have to be the acts of teams of Minds. One Mind, with enough preparation and with the right tools, could pull off both of these feats in the course of a single day.  So the government has a right to be afraid and strike back. But war against these Minds is not the right answer. Don’t forget, each of these Minds has a body as well, and if provoked, the Minds could organize an international coup.

Online societies such as Anonymous have made it their mission to become the official “police of the Internet”, and have even proved their ability to be so by taking down extreme illegal sites containing child pornography or violence. They recognize the potential for the Internet, and what they pursue is a free Internet for all people.  That is not to say they are perfect, however. Although they wish to be separate from the physical world, online denizens have hacked into multiple government sites and accounts and interfered with the IRL world.

In some cases, such as when protesting the now-shelved SOPA and PIPA, and more recently with ACTA, they are being forced into action to defend their world, and they have proven their power to do so. However, in cases such as the Arab spring or the Occupy movement, they are motivated by a desire to change the outside world. In no way am I trying to say what they are doing is wrong, but government officials have begun to notice and fear the power that lies in the hands of the minds controlling the Internet.

I am attempting to track what I see as important anthropological events in the new war between what I consider two separate, but hopelessly intertwined cultures.  Some of the things I will write about will appear at first glance to be unrelated to this conflict, but I have found that many of the trends and symbols which have boiled into the public arena can be linked back to origins in online culture.  The Internet is changing the world just as surely as the discovery of the Americas changed the world in the era of Christopher Columbus.  The internet is truly our next “final frontier”.