Ideas are indestructible, and Anonymous was always—first and foremost—an idea.
Once upon a time, the Internet was less a broken mirror of reality and more a diversion from it.
Maybe that's why prior to the era of identity monetization, blue check marks, and self-branding, anonymity was synonymous with power.
In the early 2000s, a group known as Anonymous sprung up across digital platforms, born out of a spirit of loose anarchism and disruption. "Anonymous" or "Anon" is an umbrella term, and like the Internet itself, the group was always slippery and amorphous.
Between 2003 and 2018, Anonymous's loosely interconnected network of digital hacktivists took on everything from Scientology to the Clintons to ISIS to Trump. At some point, they fractured, and it's unclear as to whether they still exist in any context, or if they ever really did. Was Anonymous an idea? A joke? A movement?
To try and answer these questions is a doomed enterprise from the start, because the group is (or was) so decentralized, so scattered, and so complex that it resists exact interpretation.
But perhaps Anonymous can also teach us something about our modern political moment—after all, the group was entwined with many of the major political forces of the past decade, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring to QAnon. Maybe it can teach us something about the art of modern rebellion, especially in a rapidly digitizing and artificial age when information is poised to become the most valuable currency of all.
Welcome to the netherworld of Anonymous, where everyone can be no one together.
Born of Trolls, Hackers Turn to Scientology
The hacktivist network known as "Anonymous" arose around 2003. Springing up on 4chan, the group began as a collective of tricksters harnessing the Internet to pull pranks and seed an ethos of trolling and general disarray.
Anonymous eventually gained global reach thanks to its appealing ethos of decentralized leadership and general anarchical spirit. With memetic virality, it spread thanks to broad, decentralized messaging techniques and an emphasis on both humor and justice.
Today, two images are usually associated with Anonymous. There's the Guy Fawkes mask from the 2006 film V for Vendetta, which follows one activist's quest to end a totalitarian fascist rule in England; and there's the "man without the head" image that symbolizes the group's commitment to decentralized, anti-authoritarian rule.
Early on, the group embarked on helter-skelter actions and pranks, with mixed results. The group targeted the white nationalist figure Hal Turner in 2006, eventually exposing him as an FBI informant, and Anonymous first began to dive into high-profile political activism through an effort called "Project Chanology," a coordinated protest against the Church of Scientology. After the Church removed a video of Tom Cruise because they believed it portrayed them negatively, Anonymous hackers started a campaign to take down Scientology once and for all. They posted a video called "Message to Scientology" and launched a crusade against the church, which included a coordinated attack on the organization's website.
And so a movement was born. Thousands of people showed up in real life to protests around the country. "It was a very bizarre scene," the former hacker Gregg Housh said of the protest he attended in Los Angeles. "Here is a church created by a science-fiction author, being protested by people wearing masks created by a science-fiction author." Reality was bending; the simulation was showing its cracks.
For the next decade, Anonymous would harness the Internet in unprecedented ways, fighting for justice and destruction, for irony and distraction, and for change that would reverberate all the way to the top.
WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring: Anonymous Gets Political
Anonymous quickly shifted focus towards censorship and free speech. They used DDoS (Distributed Denial of Services) attacks to shut down websites they viewed as threatening to freedom. In 2010, they emerged to protest a censorship bill in Australia; and later that year, they collaborated to defend WikiLeaks after Amazon kicked Julian Assange's operation off its servers and Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal stopped processing donations to the group. (Anonymous later separated itself from WikiLeaks, due to Assange's influence over the organization).
Around the same time, a segment of the group decided that they'd collectively become too serious. They needed more "lulz"—LOLs, laughs, the trolling ethos that originally inspired the group. So a group called Lulz Security (or LulzSec) was born. They hacked the CIA's website. The next month, the FBI arrested fourteen Anonymous hackers for the aforementioned earlier attacks on PayPal, and Anonymous began to rise on the US government's radar.
In 2011, when the Tunisian government blocked WikiLeaks, Anonymous launched a crusade to support protestors in the movement that would eventually spark the Arab Spring. One of the more infamous leaders of LulzSec, Hector Xavier Monseguer (or "Sabu")—who would later become an FBI informant—and others also allegedly helmed a DDoS attack on the Tunisian government's websites. Anonymous was also integral to the planning of 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, which were somewhat similar to the organization in that they lacked internal structure and clear leadership and set goals.
Soon, White House staff became concerned that the group could destabilize the US power grids. The group became known as cyber-terrorists and anarchists. Perhaps out of necessity, or because its major players were being taken out or growing up and leaving hacktivism behind, Anonymous fractured around 2015 and 2016, leaving behind conspiracies and a legacy of rupture and chaos.
Still, Anonymous's penchant for social action continued throughout the 2010s. In 2013, Operation Safe Winter fought to raise awareness about homelessness. In 2014, a group called "Operation Ferguson" organized cyberprotests against the police after the death of Michael Brown.
In 2015, Anonymous shifted its focus towards the Islamic State. #OpISIS was a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris; despite being a largely uncoordinated effort, they still managed to make waves. "For more than a year, a ragtag collection of casual volunteers, seasoned coders, and professional trolls has waged an online war against the Islamic State and its virtual supporters," writes E. T. Brooking. But they never lost their irreverence.
"Taking away the free speech from a group that is advocating the end of free speech is delicious fun," a member wrote on a Reddit forum about the Hebdo operation.
"They rise up most forcefully when it comes to Internet freedoms and technology, particularly technology that is being abused in some way," says Brian Knappenberger, creator of the documentary We Are Legion. "They're sort of protectors of the Internet. This is their territory, and if it's abused, they're personally offended."
In the latter half of the 2010s, Anonymous waged war against pedophiles and the dark web. In 2018, they lashed out at QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy group that stole Anonymous's branding despite a complete lack of alignment with most of Anonymous's central ideologies.
Some members of Anonymous may have gone off to join QAnon; it's hard to know. Though different from Anonymous, QAnon shares some of Anonymous's hatred of the government—its "deep state" paranoia echoes Anonymous's fears of totalitarianism.
Today, QAnon members often show up at Trump campaign rallies, and though Anonymous and QAnon have very different ideas about what constitutes freedom and free speech, it's clear they both believe they're fighting for it.
In the wilderness of the Internet, especially when so many layers of irony interlace with each other and when trolls abound, it's easy for ideologies to twist out of form. It's easy for trolls to be mistaken as criminals, too—just as it's easy for trolls to become criminals. On the Internet, at least outside the realm of corporate influence and bribes, identity is as fluid and amorphous as you want it to be. Anonymous members can become Trump supporters who can become Bernie supporters who can become QAnon supporters who can become FBI informants who can then rejuvenate Anonymous.
If the Anonymous movement shows us anything, it's that identity and ideology are not set. They're as fluid as the shifting landscape of the World Wide Web, which might just be a reflection of the shifting tides of the human spirit.
Remembering Anonymous in 2020
If you Google Anonymous, you'll see the question "is anonymous good"? pop up on the search bar.
A short search will reveal that most self-proclaimed authorities on the subject believe that Anonymous is neither good nor evil. Instead, it's a diverse group made up of people from all around the world, bound together by a shared symbol rather than a structure or hierarchy.
Because Anonymous never had a set ideology or leader, there's no one precise way to remember them. There's no way to know what's real, or if Anonymous was ever the super-group that the media made it out to be. Most likely, it was more of an idea than anything else, though it may still exist in pockets. There's also no way to tell if the group has just gone further underground or if it truly has been dead for years.
According to Gabriella Coleman, Anonymous was always about freedom and elusiveness. "They dramatize the importance of anonymity and privacy in an era when both are rapidly eroding," she writes.
In terms of ethos, Coleman argues that Anonymous embodied an ancient trickster archetype, using old ideas about freedom, hedonism, and the randomness of the universe to cope with an increasingly unbearable modernity. "Nietzsche was attuned to the vitality of sensuality, myth, and art. Music, poetry, and even the mad laughter of the trickster Dionysus, who he championed, offer an aesthetic life of pleasure," she writes in her book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. "They are pursuits through which humans can overcome their limits and the tragic condition of life: 'Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!'"
Is Anonymous nothing more or less than an idea, which became a movement and an identity? Was it all just a story? Has the story ended, or has it fractured and bled into other movements and other corners of the Internet?
Someone in a Guy Fawkes mask is out there, laughing.
The Anonymous forum on Reddit is still alive and well. A month ago, one Redditor mused, "Is Anonymous just a legend to teach us that we do not need a name or an organization to use our power?" Could Anonymous have been a myth designed to reveal that 'All of us can anonymously exploit the options that we have (elections, commercial decisions, jobs we chose, freetime activities) to change the world together?'"
Recently, #AnonHasBeenDeadForYears trended on Twitter. Some agreed with the hashtag. Some warned the world that Anonymous has never been dead—instead, it's everywhere.
These are the kind of conversations that Anonymous inspires. Half-ironic, half-imbued with radical visions—zombified, always mutating—Anonymous (or whatever remains of it) persists.
Maybe it persists in part because it, ironically, offered a form of identity, of differentiation, of meaning crafted through collectivity born out of a crisis of meaning. Perhaps in anonymity, there is identity.
"On the street...I am just another person in a sea of faces," writes a (fittingly) anonymous blogger in Dazed, in a piece that may or may not be a parody or a fake—we'll never know. "But in cyberspace we are different. We helped free the people of Egypt. We helped fight against Israel as it attempted genocide. We exposed more than 50,000 paedophiles around the world. We fought the drug cartels. We have taken to the streets to fight for the rights you are letting slip through your fingers. We are Anonymous."
In a way, we're all living in the matrix: moving around within an illusion of freedom when really our lives are dictated by technology.
40-odd years ago, there was no such thing as a cell phone, and the only computers in existence took up entire rooms. Then the World Wide Web was born.
15 years ago, the iPhone was just a seed of a dream in Steve Jobs' mind. But today, if you're reading this, you have access to countless screens and endless amounts of information; and you probably have a phone in your pocket that you can't be separated from without experiencing a cold rush of panic. Like it or not, you live in the digital age.
Everything is happening so fast these days; it's hard to find the time to seriously question how technology has altered the fabric of our realities. But here are four major ways the Internet has made our minds different from how they were before—so much so that we can never go back.
1. We never have to wonder about anything
Once upon a time, if you were sitting at dinner and a question came up about, say, climate change or the effects of a certain drug, you would have to either find someone who knew the answer or wait until a library opened. Then you'd have to go there and parse through the Dewey Decimal System until you found a volume that might be able to provide the answer.
Today, we all have any piece of information, no matter how small or obscure, quite literally at our fingertips. So we should be smarter than ever, right? But all this instantly accessible information is coming at a price. One study found that millennials have even worse memories than seniors; and a recent Columbia University study revealed that if people feel they will be able to look up something in the future, they'll be less likely to remember it.
In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that technology is making us stupider, less likely to think critically and retain the information we need. Part of this is because every time we go online, we are confronted with billions of sources vying for our attention, making it difficult to deploy the kind of focused concentration needed to synthesize and reflect on information.
Also, now that we have endless information at our fingertips, many people have proposed that we may be less curious than ever, less inclined to come up with original ideas. However, curiosity is a fluid entity, and though the Internet offers more resources than ever, that also means that more people are creating content than ever before. And new innovative technologies are cropping up every day, revealing that although the Internet might be making some of us stupider, it's also a fertile breeding ground for incredible, world-changing inventions and unprecedentedly viral content.
2. We're more interconnected—and lonelier than ever
Once upon a time, you had to call someone up to speak to them, but now you can see what any of your friends are doing at any time. Instagram and Snapchat stories make it possible to share intimate images of our lives on a wide scale with huge audiences at any time; and online algorithms make it so that whatever you post will never really be gone from the Internet, even if you delete it. We can see the daily coffee choices and midnight tearstained selfies of our favorite stars; we can hit up old friends from across the globe with a single Facebook search.
Humans have always been hard-wired for connection, desperately looking for kinship and community, and so it makes sense that the Internet has become so addictive. Every ping, alert, and notification provokes the same kind of dopamine rush that comes from an expression of love and friendship. On the other hand, cyberbullying and persistently comparing oneself to others in the virtual sphere can both have very adverse effects in the real world.
Some studies have proposed that social media increases levels of loneliness. One found that heavy Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use can contribute to depression in young adults. Excessive time on Facebook has also been found to be associated with poor physical health and life satisfaction. On the other hand, social media has presented an opportunity for isolated adults and senior citizens to reach out and connect; and online fan and lifestyle communities provide oases for people all over the world.
Image via Business Insider
For better or for worse, the Internet has changed the way we connect. It's also changed the way we love. 26 million matches are made every day on dating apps, and roughly 13% of people who met on dating apps married. And phones allow us to communicate with anyone at any moment of the day, creating whole new rules and expectations for relationships, making them altogether more interactive and involved than they once were. Plus, adult entertainment is fundamentally changing the way we have sex, with
many studies revealing that it's lowering sex drives and creating unrealistic expectations across the board.
It's the same for work: a Fortune study found that the average white-collar worker spends three hours per day checking emails. This comes part and parcel with the gig economy, that staple of Millennial culture built on perpetual interconnectedness and 24/7 "hustle"—a phenomenon that often leads to burnout.
3. We can have more than one reality—or can hide inside our own worlds more easily than ever
The Internet has made it easier than ever to craft false personas and to embody illusory identities. We can use Photoshop to alter our appearances; we can leverage small talents to viral fame and huge monetary gains, and we can completely escape our world in exchange for online communities and ever-growing virtual and augmented reality options.
The Internet is also altering our perceptions of reality. Although people once thought that interconnected online communities would facilitate the sharing of diverse viewpoints, it has turned out that social media allows us to access echo chambers even more isolated and partisan than what we'd see in our real lives.
In short, we're all at risk of being catfished.
4. Many of us are completely addicted
When was the last time you went a day without checking your phone? A week? And do you think that if you needed to, you could quit? Most likely, the answer is no, so you'd better believe it: you're addicted to technology. But you're not alone. A 2017 study found that 210 million people may be addicted worldwide.
There are five primary types of Internet addictions: cybersexual addiction, net compulsions (online shopping), cyber relationships (online dating), gaming, and information seeking (surfing). In recent years, internet addiction rehab has grown in popularity. The majority of people with legitimate internet addiction problems are men in their teens to late thirties, but it's likely that we all suffer from this to some extent.
Image via the Fix
Although the Internet is changing everything about our lives, ultimately, there is no clear consensus on whether these changes are for the worse or the better. But the changes will be growing more extreme over the years. Moore's Law proposes that, essentially, overall technological processing power will double each year, indefinitely—meaning that technology will continue to advance at an unimaginable rate. If the past twenty years have given us iPhones, what will the next twenty bring? The next hundred, if we make it that far without global warming ending everything?
Only time will tell. We won't be the same—but then again, we were never meant to remain stagnant as a species. Change and chaos are the laws of the human race, and as a species, we've always been obsessed with progress.
Some theorists believe that technological progress will only end when we create an operating system more intelligent than we, in a revelatory event called the singularity. If this happens, the AI could decide to eliminate us. That's another story—but until then, the sky is the limit for innovators and consumers everywhere.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.
The President can take control of your home, your money, and—worse—your internet in the event of a national emergency. Well, sort of.
In the past, Donald Trump has threatened to declare a "national emergency" in order to forcibly move forward with his plan for a $5.6 billion border wall. A state of emergency, designated for times of crisis and national instability, is meant to accelerate the government's political process in order to restore stability. When presidents declare national emergencies, the law provides hundreds of provisions that endow the commander-in-chief with "extraordinary authority" to make executive decisions without asking congress for approval.
After the National Emergencies Act of 1976 (NEA), presidents must identify which specific powers they're asking to activate in order to address the designated emergency–which means selecting a few out of approximately 130 laws that grant special authorities to the President. Barack Obama invoked those powers 13 times over his eight years in the White House; similarly, George W. Bush did so 12 times over his two terms. One major dilemma with the NEA, however, is that it does not create a time limit within which a state of emergency must be resolved, allowing for various national emergencies to remain ongoing simultaneously (in 2017, there were 28 concurrent active emergencies). This, of course, allows the sitting President to hold "extraordinary authorities" for an indeterminate period of time.
Another yet greater shortcoming of the NEA is that it doesn't define what constitutes an "emergency," allowing a President to interpret current events–and the laws–in his own way. Alarmingly, the President doesn't operate under many limitations when it comes to defining and declaring a national emergency. Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, says, "There aren't a lot of legal limits on his ability to do that, frankly, even if there isn't a real emergency happening."
Over the course of Trump's first two years as President, he declared three events to be national emergencies, including the H1N1 influenza epidemic and a series of cyber-hacking activities that still technically constitute a national emergency to this day. Recently, Trump has openly called the US-Mexico border a crisis situation, saying, "We have a crisis at the border, of drugs, of human beings being trafficked all over the world, they're coming through . . . criminals and gang members coming through. It is national security. It is a national emergency."
So what happens when a President does declare a national emergency?
According to the Congressional Research Service, there are hundreds of specific provisions codifying what the president is allowed to do–and those powers are far-reaching and invasive into daily American lives. While "the vast majority of them are of the stand-by kind — dormant until activated," a state of a national emergency allows the President to: "seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens."
What It Means:
1. Presidents can control funding
Trump could declare a national emergency in order to fund his wall. As Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, told Vox, "It could be that by putting together a lot of different sources of emergency authority, the president could tap a lot of different funds and at least start." With the above powers to seize property and commodities, as well as regulate means of production and private enterprises, the President could re-direct government funding away from ongoing military projects to fund the border wall. Last Friday, Trump told reporters, "I can do it if I want."
Technically, he's right. If Trump's administration can prove that the border wall is a "military construction," then using military funding would fall under the U.S. code for "Reprogramming During National Emergencies," which states that a President may "apply the resources of the Department of the Army's civil works program, including funds, personnel, and equipment, to construct or assist in the construction, operation, maintenance, and repair of authorized civil works, military construction, and civil defense projects that are essential to the national defense."
New York Post
2. Presidents can control the internet.
Seizure and control of transportation and communication includes controlling all internet traffic, restricting access to information deemed security risks. Today, that could mean "impeding access to certain websites and ensuring that internet searches return pro-Trump content as the top results."
3. Presidents can deploy troops to your neighborhood—easily.
4. Presidents can confiscate your property.
5. Presidents can forcibly relocate Americans.
Among the most notorious and regretful instances of Presidents declaring states of emergency is Franklin D. Roosevelt's use in 1941, months after Pearl Harbour was attacked. The above powers endowed the President to forcibly relocate more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps. To retell it simply, the President instituted martial law along the east coast, forcibly transported U.S. citizens to the camps, confiscated their property, and restricted them from leaving or communicating with the outside world. Meanwhile, Roosevelt deployed the U.S. military overseas to enter World War II. 30 years later, the NEA was designed to prevent sitting Presidents from abusing declarations of emergencies, but with its vague language, much of the law remains to be tested in court.
Equal Justice Initiative
In total, lack of clarity in the NEA gives Trump the legal grounds to argue for emergency powers over the country. However, legal experts, as well as passionate congressmen, have been outspoken about fighting against the president if he were to push that agenda. After all, congress reserves the right to overrule a president's declaration if they can pass a resolution to do so in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, the President would need to sign the resolution; otherwise, congress would need a second majority vote to override his veto.
President Trump is due to give a national address Tuesday night at 9PM. While he is not expected to declare a national emergency, he is expected to urge the American people that the southern border constitutes a "humanitarian and security crisis" that urgently needs to be addressed. To Trump, that means building a border wall, even if it means prolonging what is already one of the longest government shutdowns in history, or perhaps even abusing executive powers.
It's not as scary as you think.
There have been numerous pieces written about the dark web and the dangers it could pose to your personal cyber security. It's also been used in advertisements by Experian, in which they offer "free dark web scans" to help customers find out if their "information is on the dark web." This type of language is deliberately misleading, as is the company's definition of the dark web, which basically describes it as a world full of Internet marauders hunting for your social security number. Ironically, in order to acquire the "free dark web scan," Experian itself asks its customers for their social security numbers.
In a certain light, these ads are hilarious in their deliberate misinterpretation of how the dark web works, but there's definitely something sinister about the way they prey on the wallets of the uninformed. Though it sounds dangerous, the dark web isn't the nightmarish hellscape that cyber security companies would have you believe it is. Before understanding the dark web however, one has to first understand the deep web, and by extension, the Internet as a whole.
The Internet is divided into two subsections: the surface web and the deep web. The difference between the two is simple. The surface web is readily accessible via search engines; the deep web is not. While almost every site you visit is probably part of the surface web, there are certain places on the Internet that are necessarily hidden. For example, research papers, netbanking, and medical records aren't readily accessible to anyone using Google, as the search engine doesn't index these things. Another example, is content that exists behind a paywall, like the New York Times' online newspaper. The dark web can be thought of as a small subsect of the deep web, but while the two are often conflated, they aren't the same at all. It's helpful to think of the Internet as an iceberg, with most of it existing beneath the surface. The surface web encompasses about 4% of the entire Internet while the deep web and dark web, represent 90% and 6% respectively.
Unlike the deep web, the dark web is only accessible via special networks, the most popular of which being Tor. Browsers like Tor render your computer invisible while you browse, using complex encryptions to mask your computer's IP number while you browse, allowing for a truly private Internet experience. Confidentiality is at the heart of Tor's mission, and its developers goal was to create an Internet free of surveillance and tracking. Unfortunately, when they are guaranteed anonymity, many Internet users get into some pretty unsavory things.
The first time the dark web was in the news, was when the online black market the Silk Road became a major player in 2011. Until the FBI arrested Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht in 2013, the site was a forum dealing in illegal weapons, drugs, and child pornography, and the transactions were made via Bitcoin rather than actual cash. Bitcoin itself actually came to prominence in these illicit markets, though it's slowly falling out of favor with online black markets due to the wild fluctuations in its price over the past few years. Outside of the Silk Road and its successors, there has also been tons of publicity surrounding the hiring of hit men via the dark web, though most of these services have turned out to be scams. The most famous scam was run by a company called Besa Mafia, who would take cash from buyers, and then instead of killing the person they were hired to kill, they would report the buyers to the police and get them arrested.
It's not quite this sinister
Realistically though, the dark web isn't nearly as scary as it's made out to be. Yes, there are hackers and illegal activity, but at the core of Tor's project, is privacy. If a hacker wanted to steal someone's social security number or if a pedophile wanted to seek out illicit porn, they wouldn't need to use the dark web to do it. In fact, the dark web only accounts for about .2% of the child porn being shared online. While it's fair to assume that most sites on the dark web are used for criminal activity, it's worth mentioning that the FBI can pretty easily arrest and track folks using the dark web. They've even contracted one of Tor's developers to help them track down cyber criminals.
The dark web's reach with regard to criminal activities has been largely exaggerated by the mainstream media, and there's no real reason to fear it. If you're someone who strongly values the privacy of your browsing habits, for whatever reason, the dark web provides a different type of Internet, one that's far more secure than your standard browser. If you don't care about your Internet privacy, that's fine too. Dark web hackers aren't going to hunt you down and steal all your information in the night, and you're no less safe on the Internet just because Tor browsers exist. There's a strange tendency in this country to conflate others' privacy and anonymity with a lack of personal security. Cyber security firms have a vested interest in keeping you scared and in the dark about how the Internet works. Don't put too much stock into it. The dark web as we know it has existed since 2002, and we're no worse for wear.
We're at the dawn of a second search engine war.
In the early days of the Internet, Google wasn't the biggest fish in the pond. They weren't worth billions. They didn't have a 78% market share in the US. In fact, at the turn of the century, their competitors were numerous and wide-ranging, both in their approach to searching the web, and in their overall style. When the first search engine war began in 2000, it was fought between so many belligerents that it could more accurately be described as a battle royale. Tons of companies, most of which have since lost their claims to legitimacy, were chasing the de facto monopoly Google has today. One by one though, they fell off, mutating, getting bought out, and merging along the way. Ask Jeeves, MSN, Excite, and even Google's top competitor Yahoo, couldn't keep up. Google has reigned supreme for the past decade. Now, almost thirty years after the invention of the first search engine, it looks as though another war is on the horizon.
The cellophane packaging the Internet arrived in has long since been removed and discarded. Nowadays, everyone–from grandparents to toddlers–is online, the novelty has worn off, and people are beginning to pay attention. With the recent news of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it's no longer a secret that tech companies make their money by collecting and selling data. While this practice isn't technically illegal, it certainly rubs people the wrong way, and Google is one of the biggest offenders. From tracking cell phones and search histories, to creating advertisement profiles based on its users, Google has rapidly become the poster-child for the ugly and invasive side of the Internet. Sensing Google's weakness–though whether or not one can call this PR hiccup a weakness is debatable–smaller search engines are crawling out of the woodwork and trying to take a piece of Google's pie by advocating for privacy online.
Should data privacy be the primary deciding factor in which search engine you chose?
Companies like DuckDuckGo and StartPage are attempting to live up to their mission statements, aiming to set a "new standard of trust online" by promising not to profit off of users' personal data. And they've had some pretty huge success so far, shaving close to 10% off of Google's total market share in the past year alone. DuckDuckGo, perhaps the biggest of the private search engines, reportedly averages about 16 million queries per day and has shown steady growth every year since its inception in 2011. In post-Snowden America, Internet privacy is more important than it's ever been, and, barring a massive shift in public opinion, these search engines can only be expected to continue growing.
Even considering DuckDuckGo's meteoric rise, the rest of the Search Engine' War may be a civil one, as challengers certainly aren't presenting a unified front against Google's tech empire. Between DuckDuckGo, StartPage, Wolfram Alpha, Yippy, and the rest, the relatively niche market is saturated with competitors and is starting to look a bit like the original search engine war in the early 2000s. Google on the other hand, is an entrenched power. Averaging 3.5 billion search queries per day and valued at over 500 billion dollars, Google is almost unchallengeable. Google also doesn't have to rely solely on its search engine for income, considering the amount of software and hardware they produce. On top of this, DuckDuckGo's foundational promise doesn't help them make money, considering how valuable a person's internet data is.
DuckDuckGo and Google face off againCurrently, websites that support online privacy simply are not well positioned to overtake Google in Search War II, especially considering that Google owns not only the most popular search engine, but the most popular browser as well. And despite the public's grumbling, congress decided to strip some of our commonsense privacy laws last year, electing to allow Internet services providers (ISPs) to sell users' data to third parties without their consent. While this repeal doesn't directly relate to the search engine battle, it sets an important precedent about Internet privacy; the likelihood of stopping data collection anytime soon is nothing more than a pipe dream. That said, it is important that we commend companies like DuckDuckGo for their groundbreaking business model. These websites are still for-profit corporations, but inasmuch as market trends can be used to indicate our moral valence as a country, it would seem that things are looking a little brighter regarding Internet privacy.
Are you interacting with a real person, or an automated program? Sometimes, it's hard to tell
For years, science fiction writers have been telling us robots are going to take over the world. It turns out they were right.
But, it's we humans who are doing the androids' dirty work. Unless you've been living in a cabin deep in the woods without the internet (and if so, do you have an extra bunk?), you are probably familiar with the scourge of "Bots," even if you don't recognize the invasion. Bots, short for "robots," are automated programs that run over the internet. On social media, bots have made their presence felt through a wave of fake accounts posing as real people, some 48 million on Twitter alone.
Spotting a bot can be tricky.
Many of the accounts look and feel like real people, but it's worth taking the time and effort to weed out the phonies. Fake social accounts can do real harm through the spreading of misinformation. It's important to be able to recognize and eliminate bots, because according to computer scientist Chengcheng Shao who said to MIT Technology Review, "Social bots play a key role in the spread of fake news."
Perhaps you recall that during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Pope Francis shocked the world by endorsing Donald Trump. It was the top fake news story of 2016 and earned nearly a million Facebook engagements. Fake news works, it always has, and it isn't going anywhere. Which is why last January, Pope Francis said we all need to recognize the "snake-tactics" of the "crafty serpent" that go all the way back to the Book of Genesis. When the Pontiff himself declares, "the truth will set you free," it's time to identify and eliminate the bots in our human lives.
Pope Francis addresses the scourge of fake news at the Vatican https://goo.gl/uz6gFJ
Unfortunately, there isn't a single characteristic to help spot a bot, but there are broad identifiable patterns.
First and foremost, no matter the social media site, ask yourself a simple question when you see a post from someone you don't know personally (or more likely a post from someone you do know, reposting some "person" you don't):
Does this account seem like a real human being? Common sense is on your side. Use it.
Let's start with Twitter, where the homepage of a user can tell a lot. If the bio reads like something Rosey from The Jetsons would spit out, it's a flashing sign of online garbage. Real people write real bios. Is the avatar the default silhouette? Is the Twitter handle gobbledygook no human would choose? Do they post all the time, morning, noon, and night? People sleep, bots not so much. Or conversely, do they only retweet and repost, often to multiple accounts? This isn't how humans engage on social media.
These are the obvious ones, but of course, the bot factories are a lot more complex.
Here are a few more telltale Twitter questions to ask: Does the account follow a ton of people with few followers of its own? Has it followed and unfollowed you in a short amount of time? (Google "Who Unfollowed Me on Twitter" for a simple link), Did you get a reply in microseconds? Do the comments, retweets, and reposts appear to be from other bots? Does the Tweet originate not from the web or mobile, but "from API," which is often automated? Are there multiple posts about breaking news within minutes? (The Parkland shooting unleashed a near-instantaneous torrent of Russian bots.) Does the account interact with friends and foes in the same way you do? If not, chances are, it's a bot. Another trick if you're still stumped is to take the avatar photo and reverse image it. If it pops up all over the web, it's probably a stock photo, which isn't necessarily rock solid--mine is currently of legendary Philadelphia Eagles QB Nick Foles--but it's fairly obvious if it matches up with the other giveaway signs. Two other helpful tools to verify Twitter accounts are Botometer and Botchek.
Facebook has one simple built-in bot eliminator, which is that you have to accept invitations from others.
Use the old childhood axiom of not taking candy from strangers. If you don't know the person, or you have no mutual friends, ignore the request. You can also look up the account to make sure.
Other Facebook warning signs include an older pre-Timeline layout, an attractive female model as the profile picture (men are such easy marks), an empty wall or one with few personal updates and responses, or an enormous amount of "likes" that have seemingly zero in common. Again, does the account look like yours? The Facebook Help Center has a tool to show what bots you followed, but it's limited to bots you directly followed, not your friends, and it doesn't go that far back. Consider it a starting point.
But what about bots on other social platforms?
The New York Times just ran a fascinating story on combatting Instagram bots, which pointed out the most obvious ones, those following 7,500 accounts, the maximum allowed, without a single posted photo or profile picture. Other fishy things to look for are: Accounts with a lot of followers, say 25,000, and little engagement, say two likes, on a photo, an account with a giant inorganic spike in followers, or an account following many more on the 'Gram than it has followers.
Beware of instagram accounts with thousands of followers, and no picturesPhoto by Ben Kolde
Spotting and blocking the fraudulent is key to a healthy social media existence.
But remember, bots aren't the biggest problem. We are. A new study by three MIT scholars found that on Twitter, most fake news is spread by humans, at a speedier rate, and at a much higher volume. Fake news stories are 70% more likely to be spread than actual news stories and reach 1,500 people six times faster. Why? The scholars theorize it's a combination of human impulses. Fake stories, often with insane too-good-to-be-true headlines, seem novel, so we share them to be "in the know." Bullcrap also triggers "surprise and disgust," whereas accurate stories engender sadness, anticipation, and (gasp) trust.
You can train yourself to spot a bot, but it's not enough. Check yourself first. Otherwise, when the robots do officially take over, we'll only have ourselves to blame.
Tech is changing the way we use maps and get to our destination. Are we better off?
The first time I was part of a cross-country drive was in a '78 Oldsmobile station wagon, often from the rear-seat vantage point looking backward out on the open road. It was 1980, the family trekking from our Billings, Montana home to sunny Southern California. I still remember so many anachronistic details: Billy Joel's The Stranger on 8-track, ashtrays in the armrests, and a glove box stuffed with fold-out gas station maps. The very maps that, once unsheathed, would never return to their original rectangular origin, and were known to drive anally-retentive drivers to the brink of madness.
Throughout my younger days, I criss-crossed the United States multiple times. I eschewed the fold-outs for the handy-dandy Rand McNally Road Atlas, the first of which, known as the "Auto Chum," was published in 1924, when a Model T could be had for $290. As cars became commonplace, the road trips soon followed. Getting the motor running and heading out on the highway became a staple in pop culture be it Nat King Cole, Jack Kerouac, or Clark W. Griswold. Going out looking for adventure is an American rite of passage, and it used to mean always having a map at the ready.
In 21st-century America, road atlases have been replaced by the smartphone. It's useful, but it isn't a map. Typing in an unknown address for Siri's soothing guidance on a quick A-to-B trip can be a godsend, but unfurl a bigger picture view, and it's plain as an Interstate how much is lost without the cartographic complexity of a map. There's the obvious reason maps are superior, nobody ever says, "My atlas is about to die." Maps don't require batteries, plugs, roaming charges, Wi-Fi, or any level of "g" connectivity, and they aren't ruined if dropped on the blacktop, or in a toilet.
There are also deeper reasons, both intellectual and spiritual, for putting the technology where the fold-outs used to be. For one, maps are literally making us smarter humans. "Spatial Orientation" is the brain's ability to help its owner "move around in an environment using an innate sense of direction." It's an essential skill for navigating through unfamiliar territories - as well as the literal dark - so we, as a species, can keep moving forward. Learning to read and understand maps is a primary way to build spatial orientation. Neural pathways are formed as more mental maps are created, so the brain is actually getting bigger. Map reading is a hugely important but underutilized skill for kids as well. A 2013 National Geographic report concluded, "A student who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills is at an advantage in our increasingly global and technical society."
Kids recognize something else grown-up drivers tend to forget: maps are fun. An atlas contains endless possibilities, whereas a GPS is strictly a means to an endpoint. Maps open up the world and give the sense of vastness, screens shrink it down to a route that only matters to the driver. As Guardian writer Thomas McMullan notes in this astute essay on maps giving way to GPS, is that now, "we are by default the center of the world." It's yet another example of the collective being lost to the individual. Scale is reduced to only the path of the blinking blue dot, which means people will only get where they need to go. Wanderlust, the strong desire to travel, will still exist, but to wander lost may not.
One of the innate joys of maps are opening them up and eyeballing alternate routes. Not for efficiency, for beauty. The roads less traveled offer the wonderment of having no particular place to go, and maps will help get you there. The chance to tool around aimlessly, free of the omnipresent technology shackles, among this country's pastures, forests, deserts, mountains, plains, shores, and cities is one of life's greatest pleasures.
Today I live in Brooklyn, haven't owned a car in nearly two decades. When I feel a bit of wanderlust, even if it's only in a daydream, I pull out my tattered dog-eared cover-falling-off Rand McNally Road Atlas. GPS is the destination; Maps are the journey.