For the LulzCory Panshin on March 3, 2011
A few weeks back, I commented in passing on the devastating attack recently directed by hivemind group Anonymous against internet security firm HBGary.
Despite that stinging humiliation, HBGary planned to go ahead with a presentation it was scheduled to deliver at a major security conference — until the presentation team arrived to find a sign in their booth reading, “Anon . . . In it 4 The Lulz.”
At that point, the team packed up and left, complaining, “They decided to follow us to a public place where we were to do business and make a public mockery of our company.”
Mission accomplished, at least as far as Anonymous was concerned. But I’ve been wondering ever since about that mocking sign and the strangely cryptic word “Lulz.”
For those who are just coming in on the story, Lulz is a noun derived from the exclamation LOL — as in lolcat — which is, in turn, an internet acronym for Laughing Out Loud. If you look it up in online dictionaries, you’ll find doing something “for the lulz” defined at doing it for laughs, often at someone else’s expense.
But although saying “I did it for the lulz” can certainly be used to justify bad behavior, its application to the HBGary situation suggests something deeper.
I’m reminded, for example, of traditional trickster stories, in which Anansi the Spider, Mantis, Raven, or Coyote does something bizarre and arbitrary for no apparent reason beyond his own private amusement. Sometimes the trickster’s antics backfire on him badly or cause harm to others, but he can also appear as a culture-bringer who steals fire for the benefit of humankind or even a creator who sets the moon in the sky.
It might not be unreasonable to conclude that Anonymous is deliberately assuming the trickster role, as suggested by the Joker-like nature of their signature Guy Fawkes mask.
But there’s an aspect of Anonymous that goes well beyond the trickster persona. They’ve always been known for their hatred of oppression and exploitation, especially when it’s directed against those who are unable to fight back, and it seems as though their core members are now taking that part of their job description with increasing seriousness.
One blogger who has been observing Anonymous closely for the last several months recently wrote, “From what I’ve seen it looks like Anonymous, or really those calling themselves Anonymous have matured a lot. Even over the past month or two I’ve seen tone and level of thought in the server change visibly for the better. Sure Anonymous may seem immature to some with their culture of ‘for the lulz’ i.e. trying be funny whenever you do something. Where do some cross the line, that’s up to individuals to decide. The point is though, it would be a mistake to take the actions, opinions and ideas of a few in Anonymous to speak for the whole.”
There’s a fair amount of insight in these remarks, but I think they fall short on one point. Going by Anonymous’ latest statements, it appears that their culture of lulz, rather than being merely a childish indulgence, is itself being upgraded and taking on a deeper significance.
A couple of weeks ago, a rather bombastic “open letter” went out under the name of Anonymous to the Westboro Baptist Church — the notorious proprietors of “God Hates Fags” — calling them “an assembly of graceless sociopaths and maniacal chauvinists” and threatening to target their websites.
The WBC quickly fired back a reply, taunting Anonymous and challenging them to “Bring it!” At that point a far more thoughtfully-phrased Anonymous press release appeared, which denied having sent the original letter and politely turned down the challenge:
You thought you could play with Anonymous. You observed our rising notoriety and thought you would exploit our paradigm for your own gain. And then, you thought you could lure some idiots into a honeypot for more IPs to sue.
This is not so foreign to us; as you may have heard, we trade in Lulz. You just do not have enough to offer right now.
While Anonymous thanks you for your interest, and would certainly like to take a break and have some fun with you guys, we have more pressing matters to deal with at the moment.
But, we will keep this application on file, and will certainly contact you if any openings become available in future. …
In closing, let us assure you: We are not BAWWWING sissies, nor are we afraid of your false god; we’re just really busy. Stay tuned, and we’ll come back to play another day.
“We trade in Lulz.” What a fascinating and enigmatic self-description! Not only does does it come across as a lot more self-aware than the relatively primitive “in it for the Lulz,” but it does so by warping the English language into strange and unfamiliar patterns.
The key to this linguistic warping is the shameless appropriation of the word “trade.” That’s a term that comes directly out of the vocabulary of capitalism and the free market, but it’s being used here in a way that subverts the assumptions of both.
In a world where everything has a price and is for sale, Anonymous is saying, “The only coin we recognize is our own amusement.” Or, to take the implication a step further, “We can’t be bought because we serve a higher purpose.”
This is a very peculiar and even dangerous attitude in these times when true higher purpose has vanished from public discourse. But Anonymous is so sure of themselves that they are able to casually tell the WBCers, “Nor are we afraid of your false god.”
That’s another statement which is peculiar enough to demand attention. If you think for a moment about what kind of character in a story might say such a line, it wouldn’t be a militant atheist looking for believers to affront. This is language more appropriate to some Dark Ages monk or 19th century missionary, cheerfully smashing idols in the knowledge that he is protected by a truer faith.
To use the language of an earlier era, the conflict between Anonymous and its enemies is a war that is being fought in Heaven as well as on Earth. And since Anonymous seems to habitually capitalize the word, one can only conclude that “Lulz” is the name of the deity on whose behalf they act and from whom they draw their power.
But to return to the earthly plane, what are we to understand “Lulz” as meaning in mundane terms? I’m not foolish enough to attempt a precise definition, but I can offer a few observations.
A good starting point might be with the question I raised in the previous entry: What were our highly intelligent and innovative ancestors finding to occupy their time during the 190,000 years that passed between their appearance on Planet Earth and the point when they were overtaken by the pressing need to to work their butts off for a living?
I answered my own question by pointing to a number of the outstanding accomplishments of prehistory, but on further reflection, I believe that was an inadequate response. The real answer has to be that they were doing things for the Lulz:
Throwing rocks in the fire to see if they had changed when they fished them out again. Spending lazy afternoons devising novel string figures. Calculating their exact relationship to their mother’s mother’s cousin’s nephew three times removed. Munching on unfamiliar plants to learn whether they would taste yummy, give them a buzz, or just make them barf. Blowing delicately into hollow reeds, bones, or shells to discover what musical notes would come out the other end.
The end result of all that experimentation, of course, was our present-day civilization. But at the time, it was all being done for the Lulz. No wonder they loved trickster stories.
But there’s a further implication, which is that in comparison to the Paleolithic, the last 10,000 years or so since we started slaving in the fields and the factory have been greatly Lulz-deprived. The development of an aristocratic class in the late Neolithic temporarily served to plug the Lulz gap — but handing one small group the authority to pursue Lulz at the expense of everyone else quickly becomes a license for decadence and cruelty.
The result is that we are rapidly depleting the priceless cultural reserves built up over hundreds of millennia, contributing far less to them than we take out. That makes it a matter of some urgency to move away from our destructive profit-based economy and replace it with a more creative Lulz-based system.
Several proto-countercultural groups are already argung against the structuring of society around matters of ownership and profit — but so far they don’t seem to have any useful alternative to offer, aside from the satisfaction of Doing the Right Thing. That’s all very noble and high-minded — but we know from the failure of communism that it can’t work as a long-term motivation.
The simple truth is that we humans need to have our pleasure centers tickled if we’re going to stay interested in anything for more than 15 minutes. Cold hard cash can serve that function, though in a limited and ultimately hollow manner. So can the kind of prestige that accrues in a gift-exchange society. But Lulz are ultimately superior to either.
This is why the idea of trading in Lulz has to be taken seriously. It may even turn out to be the essential key to recovering the secret of balance and unified action that we tossed away 10,000 years ago to chase after material possessions, power, and reputation.
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