I decided to let nostalgia take the reigns and I dug up some old assignments from college and high school. This turbid look into my old self will hopefully motivate me to continue changing, hopefully for the better.
Class: Political Campaigns and Social Movements, December 9th, 2008
Analyses of Two Hacktivist Messages
During the life of a social movement, certain messages resonate as time-tested memories in the minds of its followers. These messages may be prominent words or phrases, specific quotes from a key member, or even nonverbal symbols. No matter where the origins of these messages derive, their use has no question as to the impact of their meaning to its audience. Certain words become standard vocabulary; phrases become idioms and eventually cliché; quoted speeches no longer retain its original speaker’s voice. The language of a social movement slowly generates its own power in shaping the members’ perception of reality. Eventually a social movement will require all messages, no matter how small, to use this new sublanguage. Depending upon the use of such language, different functions and characteristics guide the social movement members to react, associate, act, and retain according to the message’s intent. These characteristics are identification, polarization, tactics, narrative, and transcendence. There are several classifications within each of these characteristics to further describe a social movement’s communication strategies. Hacktivism, for example, uses all of these characteristics to some degree in order to convey similar, consistent communication throughout the entire movement, no matter who is creating the message. Two examples of this kind of message creation will aid in understanding how all of these characteristics must cooperate in order to effectively communicate. In one instance, a prominent figure in the hacker community, Paul Graham, writes an essay to fellow hackers on how to become a great hacker and plan one’s future. In an incredibly different approach, another message created by a hacktivist organization, The Cult of the Dead Cow, highlights the characteristics revealed through one of their hacking programs. Both messages reveal the hacktivist social movement’s use of identification, polarization, tactics, narrative, and transcendence.
“Undergraduation”, an essay by Paul Graham, renowned hacker
Graham never explicitly refers to the reader as a “hacker.” Instead, he naturally assumes that whoever is reading the essay is curious about hacking. As a result, Graham identifies himself with his readers preemptively. He introduces his essay by stating, “I was certainly a hacker, at least.” Not only is he pronouncing his role as a hacker, but including the phrase, “at least,” implies that being a hacker should be a standard. This one simple sentence both creates a common ground and uses specific language to create some form of identity. To further supplement his point, Graham later states that, “…hackers at every college learn practical skills, and not by accident.” This statement also creates a common ground among all hackers, saying that each one intentionally seeks knowledge that is beneficial to function in society. Therefore, if a hacker wants to learn how to infiltrate a database, he will do so by actually infiltrating a database. To a hacker, there are no hypothetical situations, only opportunities to practice. In this respect, this same sentence also functions as a way to appeal to common attitudes and beliefs of hackers. There are other points of identification within Graham’s message. For example, he generally refers to universities, professors, and career paths as legitimate and necessary. However, these same institutions are also “the system.” And as Graham cleverly points out, a system will always be vulnerable to a hacker. In other words, he does not rely on the system but refers to it. An institution is a tool, and a hacker is the craftsman. Take away the tool and a craftsman remains; take away a craftsman and nothing remains. This mentality resonates throughout Graham’s essay, which further creates a common ground, utilizes an implied “we,”, and creates groups and group actions. In creating this implied “we” Graham effectively submits to utilizing Polarization.
The concept of polarization requires messages that categorize people, ideas, beliefs, groups, and any other ideas. One of the most effective forms of polarization is identifying the devils of a movement. To a hacker, the established order offers a large group to be considered as their devil. In Graham’s essay, for instance, he mentions that, “…In your own projects you don’t have to worry about novelty (as professors do) or profitability (as businesses do).” Graham slams two groups in one swoop. He accuses professors of being too institutionalized and misguided, while businesses are simply a cash-in/cash-out operation. Graham even goes on to say that Computer Science (his own field) is too caught up in trivial exercise and should implement more interesting, difficult problems. He says that video games require more from the student in creation, but little production for the university. Therefore, menial tasks, like database creation and implementation, are preferred, since the university could use it. The only solution Graham offers is that the individual hacker must be able to seek out his own projects and interesting problems. In other words, Graham polarizes hackers from institutions, the former relying on intellect and aspiring for challenge, and the latter misusing and misunderstanding their greatest asset (the hacker). Graham’s favorite method of polarization must be the use of ridicule. No other section is more relevant than his stint on social sciences versus natural sciences and math. Graham states that, “…the social sciences are also fairly bogus because they are so much influenced by intellectual fashions.” This bold statement ridicules over half of the legitimate fields of study in college, yet comes off with ease. Graham neither reconsiders his stance nor defends it. He treats it as a fact, thus polarizing math-based hackers from the bogus scholars, all by using ridicule. The method of using ridicule is not limited to Polarization, but is an effective language Tactic in social movements.
The two main tactics Graham uses in his essay are Ridicule, as previously mentioned, and Labeling. In general, Graham uses ridicule only to the point of accusing other parties as being inept and or stupid, which is merely the third level of ridicule. As mentioned in the previous section, he already used ridicule to claim that social sciences are inept and stupid, calling them, “bogus.” Another instance of ridicule occurs when Graham speaks about finding the right professors. He claims that most professors are too busy writing books about trivial subjects nobody cares about. This gross generalization is ridicule in its second stage: illogical and irrational. Graham generalizes that most professors illogically will work on novelty riff-raff instead of working with great hackers, such as the implied readers of Graham’s essay. But ridicule is not the only tactic present in Graham’s writing. He also uses Labeling quite frequently. Although most instances of ridicule in Graham’s essay could also be considered labeling, there are still cases of labeling used throughout the message. For example, Graham offers some advice as to whether or not his readers should go to grad school, to which he states, “…grad school is professional training in research, and you shouldn’t go unless you want to do research as a career.” This statement misses a lot of points in reality, but does a great job at deflating the image of grad school as an institution. Remember, hackers work to tear down the image of corporations and institutions as taking over human lives. Each individual is worth something, and each case is special. This point is more clearly defined through Narrative, as Graham so aptly utilizes.
Narrative is effective in any social movement in order to chain the members’ experiences, recollections, and retentions. An excerpt of a small narrative from Graham’s essay reads as follows:
This is why, when I became an employer, I didn’t care about GPAs. In fact, we actively sought out people who’d failed out of school. We once put up posters around Harvard saying “Did you just get kicked out for doing badly in your classes because you spent all your time working on some project of your own? Come work for us!” We managed to find a kid who had been, and he was a great hacker. When Harvard kicks undergrads out for a year, they have to get jobs. The idea is to show them how awful the real world is, so they’ll understand how lucky they are to be in college. This plan backfired with the guy who came to work for us, because he had more fun than he’d had in school, and made more that year from stock options than any of his professors did in salary. So instead of crawling back repentant at the end of the year, he took another year off and went to Europe. He did eventually graduate at about 26.
There are several key values Graham touches upon in this short narrative. First, he delegitimizes the institutional system, claiming that ignoring GPAs and failing from school are requirements rather than deterrents. He pushes the idea that being a great hacker does not directly translate to being one other university student. This is another form of polarization. In the end, of course, the hacker achieves his goals and becomes the poster child for all hackers who do not care about grad school or the institutional norms. Stories of hackers achieving the ultimate goals in life through non-institutional means are examples of fantasy themes. Most other messages within the social movement of hacktivism work to create an idea of a society without institutional and corporate control. Hackers have the ability to cheat and defeat the system, and this ability should lead to the destruction of that system. It is not a matter of trivial personal gain, but rather an important step in saving society. This, of course, transitions into Transcendence.
Graham takes notice of what is important and what is unimportant to the lives and futures of hackers. He refers to these two groups in such a way that the hacker will no longer see the social movement as a task. Rather, it is a duty. Because of that characteristic, Graham transcends hacktivism from merely and activity to the duty of hackers in society. He does this by using the Argument from Value. For example, when Graham speaks of the social sciences, he claims that all fields outside of math are fairly unimportant. More specifically, he states, “…The worthwhile departments, in my opinion, are math, the hard sciences, engineering, history (especially economic and social history, and the history of science), architecture, and the classics.” This is only the first step for a hacker to transcend the institution to being a great hacker. After learning under one of these fields, a hacker must actively seek hard problems and solve them alone. No matter what institution may fall from the product of these experiments, a hacker must do it to learn. Remember, expulsion from the system is a gift, not a curse. The ends justify the means if the values exceed the costs. The cost, as Graham so aptly outlines, are minuscule in comparison to the reward, which is the obtainment of knowledge.
Goolag Scanner, a program built by The Cult of the Dead Cow
It may seem odd to consider a program to be a well-constructed, value-laden message to a social movement. However, hacktivism is at the forefront of revolutionary reform by means of technology-based tactics. With this in mind, it is important to recognize a program as the identity of a hacker, if not his very soul. Therefore, even though the language is not explicit in defining what the Goolag Scanner is, the function of this program is essential in understanding how the identity of a hacktivist movement is clear. The Goolag Scanner allows a user to search a specified domain for sensitive data. The automated hacks associated with the program each exploit vulnerabilities with the Google server. The existence of this software speaks loudly of the manifesto of a hacker: “down with the system.” However, more explicit statements of identity do exist throughout the use of this program. For instance, upon installation, the program automatically displays an introductory statement, known as a “splash page.” The statement first reads, “Goolag Scanner is a Web auditing tool.” This is a cyberspace form of “flipping the bird” to any institution wishing to sue the Cult of the Dead Cow. This one statement successfully fulfills two functions: legally protects the Cult of the Dead Cow for creating software used by administrators for security detection, and annoys corporate America. This adheres to the fifth function of Identification by using specific language. All hackers will know why that sentence is there. The statement also instigates the creation of groups and group actions. As a program, the Cult of the Dead Cow tries to recruit new members, which falls within the third tier of Identification. The Goolag logo also mimics Google’s logo, creating a visual symbol to further anger the institution and group hacktivists together. The most important element of Identification for the movement and this software is the User Interface, or simply UI. The UI is beautifully easy to understand and navigate. As a result, anybody willing to learn and join the movement will have a smooth transition. This easily creates a common ground, as most hackers request a lot of individual coding and work, which could deter people away. The UI also adapts content to a specific audience; the simplicity is meant for a broad group of people, not just the select few in the Cult.
The immediate impact of the splash page already addresses who is the devil and who is the savior. Google, of course, is the main target here. By identifying Google as the devil through its parody logo and directly linking to Google’s Terms of Service, the Cult of the Dead Cow also polarizes by using ridicule. The ridicule continues on their splash page when stating, “We would like to thank everyone who contributed, especially Google, without whom this fearsome software would not be possible.” Also, it is important to note the actual function elements of the software while considering polarization techniques. The inclusion of such functions as searching for credit card information, corporate database structures, network outlines from major corporations, and brute force attacks on passwords all target corporate America. No automated hack is included that would destroy or hinder smaller groups. Everything is meant to inflict harm upon corporations and dismiss the legitimacy of Google. Ridicule, however, is still their strongest tactic.
Really, the only tactics used by the Cult of the Dead Cow is ridicule. An argument could be made for labeling, but this is simply redundant in mentioning the definition of the devils and expressing the “symbolic reality” set up by the Cult of the Dead Cow. Focusing on ridicule, however, clearly exposes this hacktivist group’s most widely used tactic. Aside from the former mentioning of Google’s logo parody, linking to Google’s Terms of Service, and the blatant attack within the splash page, there is one more major element of ridicule utilized by the group. It rests within the group’s own definition of created terms. What they call the individual hacks within the program is, “dorks.” These “dorks” were dubbed by a famous hacker and borrowed by the group. Although the use of this term more accurately mirrors the use of identification through language, the implications of its meaning is a direct attack at Google’s mistake of building a structure upon weak grounds. The hacks to security are so obvious that the hackers call them “dorks.” In other words, hackers feel socially inept (dorks), but use that slur to call others technologically inept (dorks). Every instance of ridicule by this group through the Goolag Scanner falls within the third level of ridicule, claiming the outgroup to be inept and stupid.
The Narrative this group decided to use is actually a link to a very important document in hacktivism. The GNU License (2007) reads as follows:
The Free Software Foundation, founded in 1985, is dedicated to promoting computer users’ right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs. The FSF promotes the development and use of free (as in freedom) software—particularly the GNU operating system and its GNU/Linux variants—and free documentation for free software. The FSF also helps to spread awareness of the ethical and political issues of freedom in the use of software.
There are obvious references to the values of all hackers in this short message. First, they refer to the use of the program in any way as a “right.” That is to say something with which humans are born to have. Second, there is an obvious definition of the word “free” directly in the text. This clarification alludes to other so-called “free” software, where the user does not pay for the initial software, but would eventually have to pay for the use, and severely pay for the distribution (since it is illegal to do so). Also, this license may have been chosen for its showcasing of elitism. Linux has always been considered the Operating System for hackers. This license was born under the same umbrella. In fact, the letters “GNU” is a recursive acronym meaning, “GNU’s not Linux.” The general public is not meant to understand, but the license is meant for the general public. Another example of how hacktivism relies on elitists for the masses at the masses’ expense. Because this license is well-known among the hacker community and distributed widely, it should be considered a key narrative of the movement. Both overt and subtle statements to the movement’s values are present, providing function to its users.
Again, this is not an explicitly stated characteristic of this software, but the implications of its use justify the meaning behind the message. The Cult of the Dead Cow warns that they only created the software and do not govern its use. Google has even claimed they would ban IP addresses of those who use the software. It is dangerous, malicious, and potentially harmful to many corporations. Because of those characteristics, the Cult of the Dead Cow is arguably employing the Argument from Quality form of Transcendence. Because the methods to which these actions are taken seem evil, the group must convince its users that corporate America and Google are a greater evil. If you must have a future, in other words, that future better be worth having. The Cult of the Dead Cow sees a future of the hacker destroying corporate take-over and re-implementing self-control through the use of this software. Otherwise, we are doomed, so-to-speak. This could also be the Argument from Value, since the ends do justify the means, no matter what.
The essay by Paul Graham works on several different levels. As a social movement message, it aids in giving an outsider a clear picture as to how individuals within hacktivism communicate and construct messages. Also, knowing the specific language strategies of its leaders aid in understanding the thought processes of its followers. The polarization techniques help to reveal who the hacktivists fight against, and also for what reason. There is no doubt as to how much of this communication can be manipulative, misinformed, and fantasy-based. Even seemingly malicious messages, such as the literature associated with the Goolag Scanner from the Cult of the Dead Cow as merit in the hacktivist movement. However, the effectiveness of this communication rings true with its followers. The evidence of its structure in light of Stewart, Smith, and Denton’s Persuasion and Social Movements (2007) reveals how all social movements share similar strategies, even if the language changes.
Cult of the Dead Cow (2008). Goolag Scanner. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from http://
Free Software Foundation (2007). About the Free Software Foundation. Retrieved December 5, 2008,
Google Terms of Service. Google.com. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from http://www.google.com/
Graham, P. (2005). Undergraduation. PaulGraham.com. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from
Stewart, C.J., Smith, C.A., & Denton, R.E., Jr. (2007). Persuasion and Social Movements
(5th ed.). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.
I think this essay is a great example of how everything leading up to my final semester was a complete blur. I hardly remember writing this. The name of the file I saved this as was “Comm 260 Final”, which means that I had no idea what the class was actually called.