Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wikileaks and Anonymous: Rise of Non-Organizations

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz.

The havoc created by Wikileaks and Anonymous has forced the political world, and more recently the business world, to sit up and take notice of a new phenomenon: The non-organization organization. Consider Wikileaks in terms of our traditional understanding of strategy and organizations: It identified a space where the traditional media giants were not competing - providing a mechanism for anonymous sources to deliver sensitive material, and then to allow a link back to those materials through their own or other established media stories for audiences to check for themselves. Technologically, nothing too outstanding by today's standards. But strategically, quite a new space, some would even call it a type of "blue ocean" space - an uncontested market space - that was waiting to be exploited. There is even a well-chalked out vision and mission, often reiterated by the founder, Julian Assange, as "scientific journalism". Clearly, exploring a new media space such as this was bound to rub against some pretty sensitive political terrain.

What is interesting though, and has caught many by surprise, is the connection between this strategy and the organizational form of Wikileaks. While in some ways, it can be considered an organization, in other ways, it is a non-organization. The non-organization element is built deep into its structure, which allows it to get material from sources that no one knows about. To avoid denial of service, it has taken the form of a non-national organization (as opposed to a 'transnational' or 'multinational') i.e. no one could really say which nations it belongs in and operates from. As far as we know, there seems to be no clear organization structure - there is one visible founder - and the rest is murky.

The other non-organization in the news is even more murky: Anonymous. It prides itself on having no structure, no leaders, no clear membership, no locations and so on, and is simply described as an "internet gathering". Yet, it is clearly well organized enough to be able to launch denial of service cyber attacks on big businesses such as Mastercard, Visa and Paypal (thought these have largely been symbolic so far). There does seem to be some vision, mission and strategy, as the Financial Times reports:
"As an “internet gathering”, they are simply whoever decides to sign up to their cause on any given day – and they follow the lead of whoever comes up with the latest online attack or prank. The main thing that unites “Anons” is the willingness to lash out collectively at organisations they see as threatening the free flow of information and ideas online. Attacks on WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing site, have acted as a rallying cry and recruiting sergeant for “Operation Payback”, an offshoot within Anonymous."
Clearly, such non-organizations with unconventional strategies had to come under attack from established players. There seems to be a rough division building up here between the organized world of political and business elites and the non-organization and its supporters - though it is even more complex than that. The legal, ethical and social acceptance of these non-organizations has a long way to go. The rhetoric we see on both sides of the divide is essentially the contestation of the social legitimacy of these non-organizations, going on live right now, and likely to continue for a while. As expected, some have had moments of confusion amidst this contestation - witness Amazon's fiasco at selling an e-Book of Wikileak's cables in the UK, while it disallowed service to the group in the US.

We should expect more such confusion and contestation rhetoric in the near future. Love them or hate them, it does seem these non-organizations are here to stay, and the organized world will have to find ways to adapt to this reality.


Anonymous said...


Israr said...

Open source software (OSS) movements have already demonstrated power of non-organized organizations. They also faced wrath of "organized" organization like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems (initially before quickly becoming friend) etc. However, eventually "wisdom of crowd" and "power of crowdsourcing" won the battle and software industry not only has to adapt to shifting reality but also in some cases co-opted OSS philosophy.

If that is any indication then should we say traditional media will soon co-opt Wikileaks philosophy?

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