My profile of anthropologist Gabriella Coleman in The Chronicle of Higher Education opens with a scene from the New York City memorial service for Aaron Swartz in January:
The forces that seem to have hastened Swartz’s death were very much haunting the room. In the audience was a mischievous, greasy-haired hacker known as “weev,” who faces as much as a decade in prison for embarrassing AT&T by publicizing a flaw in its system that compromised users’ privacy. A member of Occupy Wall Street’s press team handed out slips of paper about the case of Jeremy Hammond, an anarchist and Anonymous member who was in prison awaiting trial for breaking into the servers of the security company Stratfor. There was Stanley Cohen, a civil-rights lawyer representing some of Hammond’s fellow Anons, and there was a T-shirt with the face of Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with passing classified material to WikiLeaks.
Just behind weev sat Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist, occasionally jotting notes in a notepad. She teaches at McGill University. Coleman first met Aaron Swartz when he was just 14, and over the years she had come to know many others in the room as well. Even more of them were among her 17,500-strong Twitter following or had seen her TED talk about Anonymous. Part participant and part observer, she began fieldwork on a curious computer subculture while still in graduate school. Now, more than a decade later, her work has made her the leading interpreter of a digital insurgency.