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Lessons in Fluidity
Anonymous and the Communicative
Formation of Organizational Identity
Leonhard Dobusch
Freie Universität Berlin
“We are Anonymous.
We are Legion.
We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
Expect us.”
Dennis Schoeneborn
University of Zurich/
Copenhagen Business School
Essentialist vs. processual views
on organizational identity
Two main positions on organizational identity:
!  Essentialist views: identity as “some entity”
(Goia et al. 2013)
!  Processual views: Shift to identity formation
(Schultz & Hernes 2013)
Two observations regarding this literature:
!  Member-centered explanations prevail
!  Black box of co-evolution between identity and image
(“inextricably intertwined relationship”; Goia et al. 2010)
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
But how is identity formed in organizations with unclear
membership and fluid organizational boundaries?
Boundary maintenance
through communicative
acts (e.g., membership
negotiation)
Past events
(or channels)
as decision premises
Identity formation
through public (auto-)
communication
communication
processes
A communication-centered lens helps
comprehend identity in most fluid settings
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
We investigate the case of the
hacker collective “Anonymous“
!  Organization of anonymous “hacktivists”;
self-description as “collective” or “hive”
!  Emerged as „meme“ in image boards such as „4chan“ in
2006, turned political over time…
!  Several “operations” attacking diverse targets
!  Data Collection
!  Event histories provided by Wikipedia
!  Twitter feeds, blogs, forums, and media articles
!  Interviews with self-declared Anonymous activists
(not yet included in paper)
!  Empirical puzzle
!  Anonymous cannot draw on identity of its members
!  Who cannot speak on behalf of Anonymous?
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
Phase I Phase
II
Phase
III
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
Lately, occurrence of hacker attacks
with unclear attribution to Anonymous
Episode 1 – “Operation Westboro“:
Substitute sources of identity formation
!  February 2011:
!  Spokeswomen of Westboro Baptist Church claims to
have received an open threat letter by Anonymous
!  Anonymous renounces authorship via Twitter
!  Media response:
!  “Why should the second open letter be given any
more credence than the first?”
!  Radio interview with self-declared Anonymous
activist, who hacked WBC homepage “on air”
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
Lacking clear membership, communication channels served
as functionally equivalent sources of identity formation
Episode 2 – “Operation Facebook”: The
performative power of excommunication
!  August 2011
!  Threat to take down Facebook on Nov. 5 2011
!  Tweet that this was some guy's idea of a joke
!  November 2011
!  Initiator of Operation Facebook gets exposed
!  „One skiddy queer chap named Anthony [last name
redacted]“
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
“Excommunication” by revealing individual identity as
“last resort” of communicative boundary maintenance
Contributions to the literature
Organizational identity:
!  Strengthening processual views on identity formation by
emphasizing the importance of meaning negotiation and
attribution of actorhood through communication
Fluid organizational settings:
!  Transcending member-centered views on identity;
communication-centered lens allows to overcome
duality of identity and image
Organizational communication:
!  Excommunication practices at the expense of individual
identity as a means for boundary maintenance
Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
Thank you.

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Lessons in Fluidity: Anonymous and the Communicative Formation of Organizatonal Identity

  • 1. Lessons in Fluidity Anonymous and the Communicative Formation of Organizational Identity Leonhard Dobusch Freie Universität Berlin “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” Dennis Schoeneborn University of Zurich/ Copenhagen Business School
  • 2. Essentialist vs. processual views on organizational identity Two main positions on organizational identity: !  Essentialist views: identity as “some entity” (Goia et al. 2013) !  Processual views: Shift to identity formation (Schultz & Hernes 2013) Two observations regarding this literature: !  Member-centered explanations prevail !  Black box of co-evolution between identity and image (“inextricably intertwined relationship”; Goia et al. 2010) Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn But how is identity formed in organizations with unclear membership and fluid organizational boundaries?
  • 3. Boundary maintenance through communicative acts (e.g., membership negotiation) Past events (or channels) as decision premises Identity formation through public (auto-) communication communication processes A communication-centered lens helps comprehend identity in most fluid settings Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
  • 4. We investigate the case of the hacker collective “Anonymous“ !  Organization of anonymous “hacktivists”; self-description as “collective” or “hive” !  Emerged as „meme“ in image boards such as „4chan“ in 2006, turned political over time… !  Several “operations” attacking diverse targets !  Data Collection !  Event histories provided by Wikipedia !  Twitter feeds, blogs, forums, and media articles !  Interviews with self-declared Anonymous activists (not yet included in paper) !  Empirical puzzle !  Anonymous cannot draw on identity of its members !  Who cannot speak on behalf of Anonymous? Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn
  • 5. Phase I Phase II Phase III Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn Lately, occurrence of hacker attacks with unclear attribution to Anonymous
  • 6. Episode 1 – “Operation Westboro“: Substitute sources of identity formation !  February 2011: !  Spokeswomen of Westboro Baptist Church claims to have received an open threat letter by Anonymous !  Anonymous renounces authorship via Twitter !  Media response: !  “Why should the second open letter be given any more credence than the first?” !  Radio interview with self-declared Anonymous activist, who hacked WBC homepage “on air” Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn Lacking clear membership, communication channels served as functionally equivalent sources of identity formation
  • 7. Episode 2 – “Operation Facebook”: The performative power of excommunication !  August 2011 !  Threat to take down Facebook on Nov. 5 2011 !  Tweet that this was some guy's idea of a joke !  November 2011 !  Initiator of Operation Facebook gets exposed !  „One skiddy queer chap named Anthony [last name redacted]“ Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn “Excommunication” by revealing individual identity as “last resort” of communicative boundary maintenance
  • 8. Contributions to the literature Organizational identity: !  Strengthening processual views on identity formation by emphasizing the importance of meaning negotiation and attribution of actorhood through communication Fluid organizational settings: !  Transcending member-centered views on identity; communication-centered lens allows to overcome duality of identity and image Organizational communication: !  Excommunication practices at the expense of individual identity as a means for boundary maintenance Leonhard Dobusch & Dennis Schoeneborn