NYU professor Gabriella Coleman opened this profoundly profanity laced academic talk with a question: why have internet enthusiasts been drawn to denounce Scientology so vehemently for two decades? Scientology, she explained, has provided a perfect nemesis for geekery.
To the geeks, freaks and hackers of the net the Church of Scientology subverts the idea of technology to be about control instead of the freedom they cherish. Scientology has a long history of intimidation and litigation against its detractors and former members, which is abhorrent to the wilder ends of the internet. No end is quite as wild as 4chan, and it was out of 4chan's endless quest for the lulz that online organized resistance to Scientology would emerge. After the infamous Tom Cruise video on his own experience of being a Scientologist and the church's attempts to get it away of public scrutiny, Anonymous emerged from 4chan, a non-organization hellbent on the Church of Scientology's absolute destruction. Anonymous started out harassing the Church online, but eventually translated to sometimes hilarious street protests, and disgusting pranking. "They decided to emerge form the internet bunkers and hit the streets," says Coleman.
Coleman had a member of Anonymous come speak in her class, who talked about going from ultra-coordinated internet motherfuckery to confrontation with the church, including "Faxing my bare arse to them."
Anonymous had real consequence on Scientology. "It pierced the media," says Coleman,
"People were more willing to be critical to the church post anonymous." This included Coleman herself, who had studied Scientology for years but never felt free to come forward with her research. She talked about parallels between Anonymous/4chan and the trickster archetype in mythology, the trickster often not being a very clean and savory character, but perhaps vital for social renewal.
Brunton opened his part of the talk by saying "If anyone wants to start a band called ultra-coordinated motherfuckery, I have a tambourine." He went on to speak about what he called "lulzymedia" in general, touching on shock, humor, and action taken under collective pseudonyms by artists, writers, protestors and others. In particular he talked about protest media done under the name Luther Blissett by authors and social protests, largely independent of the net.
Despite there being particular able groups in this kine of lulzymedia like the Yes Men, it's by definition out of control, and eventually collapses to a 4chan-likes state of non-control or goes quiet. People trying to tap this creative force to get what they want invariable end up with plenty they don't want. "There's this friction between a coherent message, and a lulzy process," says Brunton
Ultimately media for the lulz is outside organizational control, and has very specific traits of being exploitable, pleasurable, and full of spectacle. Sometimes it turns into a viable political force, which is the specific phenomenon Coleman and Brunton are beginning to study, but it just as easily falls away. Brunton explains that socially, lulzy groups are like the universal solvent. "Nothing can contain them."
Coleman and Brunton plan to publish their ongoing work and tools for attempting to exploit the lulz for poltical purposes at lulzymedia.com.
The Hackers on Planet Earth conference is an outsized 2600 meeting that happens every two years in New York. It's come a long way in its time, ideas of hacking expanding from software to hardware, society, food and even sex. Quinn Norton is reporting live throughout the weekend.