Is Anonymity Becoming More Valuable Than Fame?

I recently spoke on the phone with both author Parmy Olson, and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger. I was quite moved by what they told me. I think it’s impossible to take a perspective because so little is known in these early days of the group’s existence, so I’m attempting to provide the insight I was given so that you may make an informed decision. I ask questions that occurred to me after speaking with Ms. Olson and Mr. Knappenberger. I think these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked right now so the general public may become more informed about what Anonymous stands for.

Surely you’ve heard about their recent attack on the folks at Westboro Baptist Church for the church’s intention to picket the funerals of those killed in the blasts during the Boston Marathon. This isn’t the first time they’ve been attacked either. Read on to learn more. I hope that it will do you good and shed some much needed insight on Anonymous.

Picture the early days of the Internet as pre-conquest America. Its vast, undiscovered frontiers are simultaneously awe-inspiring and daunting.

People are finding ways to get by. They are organized and flourishing. They live in balance with their surrounding ecosystems and have an unyielding respect for that which sustains them.

If this vision of a virginal, pristine land is the Internet, then I posit that hackers are the natives. Their survival skills are rooted in a deep understanding of and connection to the ecosystems which sustain them. However, like any collective, their cultural norms can be varied and difficult to interpret. We see in them only what our perceptions allow us to.

In her book We Are Anonymous, author Parmy Olson is at once journalist, anthropologist and documentarian, recording and recounting primary interviews with members of the hacker collective responsible for several high-profile online attacks over the last few years.

Parmy Olson                               we are anonymous                           we are legion

Beginning in 2003 and recently working to ban an alleged pedofile from Twitter, Anonymous has targeted the U.S. Department of Justice, the Chicago Police, India’s Supreme Court and Congress, the Church of Scientology, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Westboro Baptist Church, Sony, Fox’s The X Factor, PBS, Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), British tabloid The Sun, the CIA, and oil companies Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP. With such an impressive list of successful attacks to its name, it’s no wonder Anonymous made it to the top of TIME’s Top 100 People public poll.

But who comprises Anonymous? How is this collective structured? And how were some of the hackers caught?

Olson tracks the group’s rise and fall by delving into the online and offline lives of the major players and underlings who fill out the ranks. She pinpoints its genesis on 4chan image boards and traces its many splinter groups like AntiSec and LulzSec.

“I’ve always been fascinated by secret cultures and societies, underground groups of people, parts of our civilization that are not spoken of that much or understood that well, but can be a driving force in things that happen in our lives,” Olson explains to me.

Olson highlights one of the shining stars of Anonymous and LulzSec, Jake Davis. Before his arrest and unmasking, he achieved almost mythical status. Using the screen name Topiary, his clout gave him the platform to assert his beliefs about online ethics, digital culture and what the Internet should be — often in front of thousands of adoring online fans.

Through personal interactions with Davis, Olson learned that his coding and hacking skills weren’t as good as some of the other notable members. Instead, it was his writing prowess, raw wit and natural ability to create narrative propaganda that catapulted him into a leadership role. From the get-go, the group fully grasped the importance and power of well-crafted communication. They saw it as integral to recruitment and the dissemination of their ideals and plans.

“Jake Davis would probably be fine at a PR company or advertising firm somewhere, but he found it more fulfilling to use his talents for something original instead of doing it somewhere behind a desk,” Olson tells me. “Simply put, he didn’t want to work for the man.”

Davis and the other hackers associated with LulzSec instead felt more comfortable roaming the primitive lands of the Internet on image boards like /b/ on 4chan and the vast array of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks. But, even escapades on the Internet cannot escape the adage, “what goes up, must come down.” Davis eluded American and European authorities for months, but was finally caught in his home in the Shetland Islands of Scotland.

Details are still emerging about what ultimately led to his capture. It could have been the culmination of a few tiny mistakes or a former friend’s betrayal. It could have been something as seemingly harmless as allowing his real name to appear briefly in an IRC chat, or a connection error with one of his many VPNs (virtual private networks) — all mistakes that would allow authorities to pinpoint his location. Rumors have also surfaced that a past friend may have recognized his voice during his notorious video prank of the Westboro Baptist Church, or that a former hacker colleague-turned-informant offered Davis up to lessen his own punishment.

“Among the things Jake noticed during his interviews with detectives was that the police seemed to see Anonymous as an organized criminal group. When the detectives questioned Jake, they seemed to want answers that fit that point of view. Jake tried to explain that Anonymous was not a group, was not organized, and did not have a structure. It was more of a culture or an idea than a group,” Olson writes of Davis’ experiences once arrested.

Olson continues, “[H]owever, hackers are known to occasionally share nicknames to help obfuscate their identities or even flat-out lie.”

Since Olson herself admits that the information given to her during interviews may be suspect, it’s important to corroborate the ideas disseminated from members of Anoymous to gain a better picture of their intentions and what they stand for.

Security strategist and researcher Joshua Corman essentially agrees with Davis’s assertion.

“Anonymous should be thought of more as a brand or a franchise. It can be used for good or it can easily be corrupted and used as a veil to disguise other unrelated hacks,” Corman explains. “In today’s day and age, it’s startling how much power is assigned to the individual. We’ve never experienced this sort of unbalance assigned to someone that may just want to see the world burn. The flurry of attacks over the last year or so from Anonymous and all its splinter cell groups should serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If we don’t do something to secure and educate ourselves, it could be only the first wave of online backlash towards a system that is viewed as corrupt.”

Some who follow Anonymous are concerned that the correct information isn’t reaching the public. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is trying to change this in his documentary We Are Legion.

“I think of myself as a foreign correspondent,” Knappenberger says. “They’re a community and I think it’s worth looking at them as a culture. There are plenty of aspects to them that you don’t hear about.”

Olson again. “Hackers don’t own the Internet, but they feel a sense of ownership of it. More and more people feel like a citizen of the Internet than they do a citizen of their own country. I think perhaps this only applies to a minority of people, but I think that number is growing. The internet is connecting so many of us that there is a real sense of belonging to it and a real sense of community. And Anonymous is a great example of that sense of community.”

During a recent hiking trip, I reflected on Olson’s book, and it occurred to me that my urban and digital survival skills are much better honed than my wilderness survival skills. A person living in New York City need only venture into the great outdoors overnight to remember the power of unbridled nature.

“That’s the main thing about life,” Davis wrote in a letter to Olson. “People think we are superior to animals. And they’re looking for this missing link, but what if we are the link to animals and real human beings haven’t evolved yet? It’s pretentious to think we’re superior in the universe because we can communicate with each other.”

Upon realizing the woods could gobble me up without hesitation, I felt a burst of deep respect and reverence for the unknown, and for those who thrive in nature’s organized chaos.

Maybe that same sense of reverence should be offered to hackers, or should I say, digital natives?

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The Power of Human Connection – Kasasa Gas Giveaway

Kasasa Gas Giveaway from Brandon Smith on Vimeo.

Campaigns that help people connect with one another are right up my alley. When I first got in touch with Jenna from CSG PR in Denver, Colorado I knew this would be a great fit for my skill set. Jenna and her team were very well-organized and made capturing the mood and tone of the event a breeze. Plus, watching folks learn that they were going to be getting twenty bucks worth of free gasoline was quite a joy.

Since I already knew the strategy behind the piece, I just had to execute it on screen. It had to be lighthearted, but it also had to show the power of using face to face meetings in a branded way to create a memorable experience for potential consumers. I think the combination of warm smiles, a sunny day and upbeat music struck the right chord.

I shot this using my new Canon 5D, Mark iii set up and I enjoyed every minute of it. The workflow is easier than I’m used to with the Panasonic HMC-150 and the picture just jumps off the screen.

Do you need a video like this? Call me, let’s chat. I’m sure we can make it happen.

Long Form Content Is Finally Hip

A while back, my friend Kym Perfetto approached me about doing a demo reel for her. I’ve done demo reels for myself before, but never for someone else. Kym has an array of talent and the potential to become a household name before the next tachyon violates causality. I was excited about the possibility of furthering someone’s career that I believe in. It would also be an opportunity to promote the fusion of digital strategy with documentary-style editing, a style that I wish to see more of in the world. It looks as though it’s a trend that is catching on, too. Both Forbes and Tech Crunch have recently featured stories about the rise of long-form content on the web.

It’s no secret that the question of how to captivate an ever-diminishing public attention span keeps digital media strategists awake at night. The same can be said for an actor trying to break through. The public has never been more saturated with content and I’ve heard directly from friends in the PR industry that casting directors know exactly what they’re looking for before they even start sorting through video reels. If they don’t see “it,” they’ve often moved on before the video has even finished loading.

If that’s the case, what difference does it make if the reel is two minutes long or eight minutes long? Not. One. Bit. So, I chose to approach Kym’s reel in a radically different way. I chose to go long form and create a more comprehensive, artistic profile.

During a Q and A session after a screening of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris mused “If you already know the answer to a question, then why ask it?” If talent scouts and agents are looking for something in particular, then why do people even go to the trouble of creating reels? It seems like a futile effort at addressing a question the powers that be already have an answer for.

For comparison’s sake, check out these examples of reels that are available on the web:

Savvy websites have taken this cue by creating a place where they write and produce work for you to show. Nevermind the weird binary lighting that strikes the subjects with harsh blues and reds and the other low-rent production values. The second part of Jonathan Ohye’s reel(second, above) where he speaks with a heavy, unidentifiable Asian accent is reprehensible and works to perpetuate stereotypical casting that we should be moving away from.

This style of reel doesn’t fit Kym’s current career arc. Kym has been on shows that these actors are trying to break into like The Wire and Homicide. She also has an ever-expanding list of credits on IMdB including a role in a major production called Premium Rush starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She’s trained many notable A-List celebrities with her own brand of fitness at Soul Cycle and her band, No Way Josie had over 40,000 downloads of their debut EP in its first week.

So positioning her is tricky. She’s got mainstream experience in supporting roles, but she’s looking for something where she’s featured more prominently. If I was going to present her as the next big thing, I had to be bold. One of the boldest things about going long form is eschewing the present day standard of bowing to the almighty page view. While I think this metric is a great way to measure resonance, I don’t believe that quality is determined by page views alone. I’m not the only one looking for different ways to measure quality. Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann championed forging new paths during a panel discussion at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin last week.

“I think it was my days at Google that inspired my audacity of thought. I was inspired by their boldness.”

I share Ben’s idea that quality is something that you achieve by tinkering endlessly before you feel comfortable that you put the best product forward. Quality is something that gives you a sense of pride about your own work. Quality is telling great stories in a way that connects with an audience.

“The idea of communicating who you are doesn’t get old and shouldn’t be randomly accessed. Every company cuts it’s own path but there’s always a lot of pressure to look like the last successful company. It’s hard to have the boldness to be different,” Ben added.

So with that in mind, I offer you Kym’s reel. My guess is that it’s drastically different than the other reels floating around Los Angeles right now. Who cares? I think it tells Kym’s story. And if you’ll indulge my boldness, I believe that you won’t mind spending a little bit of time watching it.

Think I’m off my rocker? Let me know in the comments below.

Internship Recap – charity: water

I applied to be the charity: water multimedia production intern for two reasons. One, I’m very passionate about doing whatever I can to solve the water crisis because of my experience drilling water wells in Bolivia with the US Peace Corps. Two, I’ve studied digital media and filmmaking extensively and I wanted the opportunity to be able to use my skills in a professional setting that would be both challenging and instructional. The charity: water staff ethos towards working with interns was exactly the experience I was looking for. I instantly felt like I was a part of the team and was given responsibilities that challenged me.


The first video I made while at charity: water highlighted a particularly noteworthy campaign that took a very creative approach to bringing awareness to the water crisis.

My first few days were spent working on an ambitious project to personally thank 250 past and current donors. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort. Each staff member was assigned a partner and together they were assigned 8-10 videos to make. The results were amazing and continue to fuel viral views on the web and spark conversation about an organization that is willing to take on this sort of herculean task just to say thanks.


The second video I put together followed my friend — and charity: water graphic designer — Greg as he attempted to complete his own fundraising campaign by embarking on a quest to eat 101 sandwiches.

After the Thank You Campaign was “in the can” so to speak, my main task shifted to fueling charity: water’s blog with posts about notable mycharitywater campaigns. It was a true joy to be able to communicate with the folks that were out there raising awareness for the water crisis. From learning about the trials and tribulations of Whitney Henderson’s run across the US to getting insight into a couple’s love for photography to meeting a boy with the compassion of ten thousand men, I was given hope that if we all do our small part, we can change the world for the better.

I also had the distinct honor of photographing the Fall 2011 Intern class, a group that I got to know well over the course of the semester. It was a blast asking them a bunch of questions — ranging from serious to absurd — and then curating their answers into one massive post. Not only were they an incredibly photogenic group, but they were all very kind and I’m proud to call them my friends. I’ll always reflect fondly on our days across from each other at the “Intern Table.” I wish them all great success in whatever path they take.

The culmination of my experience was the privilege of shooting the charity: ball, an event that raised more than $2.5 million in a single night for clean water initiatives around the world.

Witnessing the collaboration and dedication from all of the employees and the willingness from volunteers and interns to go the extra mile made it apparent that charity: water is here to stay. Scott Harrison, the CEO and founder of charity: water, had an immediate and mathematically resolute response when I asked him if the water crisis could be solved. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a matter of money and will.” It’s incredibly motivating to work along side a man so dedicated that he can see past the malaise of challenges certain to challenge him over the coming decades and straight to the end-game.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mo Scarpelli, my mentor during the internship. She taught me a great deal about div tags and f-stops. We had great conversations about media ethics and editing strategy. Mo, you are a true joy to work for and with. Cheers!

Check out Scott’s story about why he does what he does in an interview with Tech Crunch here>

Viagra and Semiotics — Reading a Cultural Artifact

An effective television advertising campaign aims to encourage a potential customer to become an actual customer. Advertising agencies enlist many different types of strategies to become catalysts in this effort. Because television advertising is confined to very short timeframes — usually one minute or less — these agencies are wise to be mindful of using symbols to quickly convey messages in order to facilitate faster delivery of their intended message.

Viagra’s recent ad campaign airing on network and cable television as well as the Internet features rugged men that confidently avoid difficult situations with ease. These men fit an archetypal denotation of the American cowboy as popularized by John Wayne. Using this coding structure as a basis for study, I’ll examine two of the ads from the campaign in detail. One advertisement found relative success, while the other seems to have all but disappeared. This is most likely due to a failure to accurately encode the intended message, thereby sabotaging the entire effort.

“Every visual sign in advertising connotes a quality, situation, value or inference, which is present as an implication or implied meaning, depending on the connotational positioning.” (Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg 168)

The implied meanings and qualities of the John Wayne-like actors of the Viagra ad campaign can be summarized as toughness, confidence, and grit. The ads feature men close in age to the characters that John Wayne played in movies and associate themselves with outdoor ruggedness. Furthermore, the campaign employs correlating symbols that embody sturdiness and reliability such as well-worn pickup trucks, horses, sports cars, mountains and cowboy boots and hats.

little blue pills

Why have these images been chosen above all others to sell a chemically engineered supplement that requires a doctor’s prescription and whose sole purpose is treating impotence? Putting aside the ethical dilemma of inserting a paid advertisement between doctor and patient, the link becomes clear. Because the penis is inherently the most symbolic aspect of the male experience, any decline in its natural, biological functionality would lead to an impairment of feeling “manly.” Because our society places a great deal of importance on behaving in a way that adheres to mainstream gender roles, this impairment could have devastating effects on men, which could lead to any number of psychological ailments in addition to their physical condition.

A burgeoning population of the “baby boomer” generation and a statistical rise in divorce rates in the United States equates to men — and women — leading sexually active lifestyles later into life than before, which places a greater value of being able to perform in the bedroom even though the body may not be physically capable. Because American society has a sense of entitlement even in the face of natural decline, products like Viagra have become wildly successful.

Since the topic is still somewhat taboo, advertising agencies must be selective and resourceful when using imagery to convey feelings and beliefs about impotence. And because they have very little time to convey these feelings and beliefs, they must use symbols, codes and myths that are easily recognizable and “downloadable” to their target audience.

Thus it makes sense that the agencies have chosen the cowboy archetype as inspired by John Wayne because this is an image that is so deeply embedded in the minds of men that grew up watching him on television and in theaters. John Wayne himself has become inextricably linked to the characters he played in movies.

“Certain codes may, of course, be so widely distributed in a specific language community or culture, and be learned at so early an age, that they appear not to be constructed — the effect of an articulation between sign and referent — but to be ‘naturally’ given.” (Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg 167)

Viagra bulge

So it is only natural that in order to portray manliness, the agency sought out an actor that would instantly resonate with audiences as such. After the symbols are presented in the early moments of the ads, the audience has already decoded the meaning, which allows the brand to associate themselves with the visual representation of the feeling of manliness. The actor, while “only possessing some of the properties of the thing represented” (Charles Pierce, Speculative Grammar) is sufficient to trigger this response. It promotes the idea of individualism and that problems can be solved most efficiently when only one person is there to make the decisions.

“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.” (Roland Barthes, “(i)Operation Margarine;(ii)Myth Today” 2nd principal figure, Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg. 101)

From this imagery a few questions arise: Does the cowboy have a Viagra prescription? If so, is the viewer in the target audience to believe that if it’s okay for the cowboy to take Viagra, then it’s okay for him to take it? Or is it saying, look at this idealized version of manhood. Are you matching up? Are you a problem-solver? Do you take challenges head on? Are you able to actualize the most primal urge of humanity?

The television medium can be associated with narrative works, but also has been increasingly associated with “reality-based” shows that feature real people. Clearly, the ad company has agreed with Viagra that they are best served by featuring a “real man.” Again the representation is far from real, the scene is constructed and shot with cameras also found on Hollywood movie sets and it uses an actor that fits a profiled definition of attractiveness and grittiness.

Multiple advertisements for Viagra were produced as a series with the same cinematic language, color tint, and semantic ideology.

The next ad in the series follows the exact same pattern, but the John Wayne archetype is thrust into the world of solo-sailing. This time, Viagra stumbled in their attempt at authenticity and ruined their chance to connote an effective coding so as to transmit any tangential association that would trigger purchase. Sailing forums lit up with myriad critical assessments of the ad. The error was so offensive that sailing enthusiasts flocked to the blogosphere and Viagra wisely removed it from the airwaves before more negative press assailed it. (No pun intended.) Would they have pulled the ad if they thought these sailors were not part of their target demographic? It’s an interesting debate.

The point is that the men in these commercials are actors. They are playing a part that is intended to perpetuate myths about the capabilities of wise, older men like that of John Wayne’s fictional, tough-guy characters. It is the advertising agency’s job to ensure there are no holes in the play that would deflate the myth and thus leave the viewer/consumer on a cold, empty plateau of their mind without any symbology to decode and identify with.

If the series of TV ads are to be taken as a story or object that is part of the fabric of reality as the pharmaceutical giant intends, then the final paragraph of Barthes’ writing sums it up best:

“The fact that we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present alienation: we constantly drift between the object and its demystification, powerless to render its wholeness. For if we penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it; and if we acknowledge its full weight, we respect it, but we restore it to a state which is still mystified. It would seem that we are condemned for some time yet always to speak excessively about reality. This is probably because ideologist and its opposite are types of behavior which are still magical, terrorized, blinded and fascinated by the split in the social world. And yet, this is what we must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge.”(Roland Barthes, “(i)Operation Margarine;(ii)Myth Today” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg. 106)

So what do you think? How do these archetypes affect your self image?

Image courtesy of Coloribus

Alexis Turns 30 — A Social Experience

The table was set. The N’Harmonics knew their cue. They would all be dispersed around the entrance to the bar and when I went up to Alexis and wondered aloud if anyone would be willing to help me sing “Happy Birthday” to her, they would… well, just watch and I think you’ll understand.

Leading up to Alexis’ 30th birthday I was very perplexed about what to get her. Gradually a plan began to evolve in my head. I wanted to take her to the Book of Mormon, but once I looked at ticket prices, I knew that was out of my range. Or was it?

Since I was successful using a Fundrazr campaign to solicit gifts — funds to help me get to my friend’s wedding in Wyoming — for my birthday earlier in the year, I thought the same formula could be used again. It had a somewhat oblique application to mine, but I thought it would still be respected. I would ask Alexis’ friends from near and far to donate to her birthday to help buy her ticket to the show and I would pay for my own.

In order to do this, I would need to take over her Facebook page so that I could appeal directly to her friendship network. After consulting with the tech support folks at Fundrazr and really delving into Facebook’s privacy settings, I knew that was my only option. Fortunately she relented pretty easily. Once the page was active, donations began to steadily stream in. I know Alexis has a lot of really good friends, many of whom I count among my own friends, but it was impressive to see the generosity up close and personal.

Now that the tickets were in the works, I started to think about how to say thanks to the people that helped to fund the birthday present and also how to deliver the tickets to her. I knew that she really like a cappella singing and that’s when the idea popped into my mind to try and find a singing group to serenade her using a flashmob style. Then I would present the tickets. And finally, to close the loop, I would film the whole thing and personalize the piece by adding a note of thanks from the both of us at the beginning of each video.

I took to searching the internet for a local a cappella group and came upon a group of singers from NYU called N’Harmonics. I reached out to them and was happy to hear back from Francesca. She helped me coordinate the effort, culminating in a meet up around the corner from the Swift Hibernian Lounge where I had stationed Alexis with a good friend and co-conspirator, Danielle.

I have to say thanks and give props to charity: water and Mo Scarpelli for the idea. If I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work on the charity: water thanks videos at the beginning of my internship, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me.

To watch us thank our friends, click here>

Logo Re-Design for Youth Leadership Development Academy

The Young Leaders Dialogue with America is sponsored by the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. It is administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE), and provides strategic opportunities between emerging leaders from Central Europe and the Baltic States and their U.S. counterparts on issues of mutual concern.

The program connects young leaders from Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, with young leaders from across the United States to exchange ideas and information as it relates to three “dialogue” themes: New Challenges in Transatlantic Security, Climate Change and Environmental Issues, and Tolerance and Diversity.

Working closely with IIE staff and Program Officers at YLDA, a graphic solution was achieved and implemented as a way to quickly communicate the goals and ideals of the Academy. Different versions of the new logo are used throughout YLDA’s website, in print publications, and during conferences.

Young Leaders Dialogue with America Logo