The Internet’s Own Boy – Crafting the Face of a Message

Aaron Swartz was arrested in 2011 after he was discovered to have downloaded millions of JSTOR’s academic articles using his MIT guest account. Though he didn’t execute his plan, it was set in place 3 years earlier, when he published a document titled ‘The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’, in which he stated “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves … We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.” Swartz’s actions were not driven from a place of selfishness or greed, but rather trying to combat this.

In Brian Knappenberger’s 2014 documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, the director delves into the life of the man who tried to change the world – the man who then took his life upon being faced with decades of jailtime in 2013. The film is expository but also deeply personal, being narrated by Swartz’s mother, brothers and girlfriends. It also uses archival footage of Swartz as a child at the beginning of the film, and footage of him at various points in his life throughout the documentary – establishing Swartz as an empathetic, and sympathetic, figure. While Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour was an exploration of the concepts of privacy, while also looking at Snowden – this documentary is a celebration of Swartz, while also looking at what he believed in and sought to accomplish.

Aaron Swartz at a young age, as seen in ‘Internet’s Own Boy’

Swartz held a belief that education was a right that all people had, and something that should never be commercialised or used for profit. The documentary compliments footage of his family discussing this with talks and presentations Swartz did on the subject, where he specifically slates companies who try to make profit on academic journals. In this way, the film is inherently political; even more than my previously covered Knappenberger film, We Are Legion. That film delved into Anonymous’ various actions, but Internet’s Own Boy feels like a film keen to make a statement through Swartz, showing that the treatment on him was unnecessarily harsh and highlighted the greed and avaricious nature of a capitalist society. Zizi Papacharissi begged the question that “even if online information is available to all, how easy is it to access?”, which echoes the sentiment of Swartz’s quest – the information is available, but due to its pay to read nature, it is not easy to access and, therefore, closes off a large amount of people from the possibility of gaining an education.

An example of the legacy Swartz left behind

An effective method Knappenberger uses is layering the political messages and undertones within the ways the various interviewees speak of Aaron. Never do they condemn his actions or suggest he should have even considered the legal ramifications of them, but rather say it was always in his nature to want to teach and to want to let other people learn; his brothers told stories about Aaron coming home from school and trying to teach them complex calculus and algebra despite them being much younger. These types of monologues and stories help make the film more emotional, but also make its political message more sympathetic and easier to support. The film’s broad concerns about education and everyone’s right to schooling in some capacity is one that is consistently echoed through the questions Knappenberger asks his subjects, and the stories he encourages them to tell – in this way, the director makes Swartz, an established figure of empathy and sympathy within the documentary, the face of his political message, making it easier to win over the audience.


We Are Legion – How an Online Community Spurred On Real World Action

 “The thing about anon[ymous] is that you’re alone until you get to 4chan”, this line is spoken by a participating member of Anonymous in the documentary We Are Legion, directed by Brian Knappenberger. The documentary acts as an exploration of Anonymous; its origins, its actions and its members. Initially beginning as just a group of people with similar senses of humour and an interest in things such as computer coding, what has come of the group is something much larger. Though the documentary explores a few key moments in Anonymous’ history, I think focusing on one of these moments would be beneficial for this post.

Project Chanology refers to Anonymous’ conflict with the Church of Scientology – what began with a leaked video of Tom Cruise extolling the wonders of Scientology led to a huge protest against what it stood for. The leaked video was taken down due to copyright claims from the church, and with this act, Anonymous’ animosity was born. On 4chan, the home of several chat groups and forums for the members of the group, their attack plans were organised and orchestrated. This information is relayed to the audience in an expository fashion, the director employs heavy usage of talking heads coupled with archival footage; giving the documentary an informative and formal feel.

Project Chanology Protests

In Lina Dencik and Oliver Leistert’s In Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation, they note that “near-instant communication amongst dispersed communities allows for a great number of organizational tasks to be more easily achieved” and this was absolutely the case with Project Chanology – throughout various countries and parts of America, organised attacks on the Church of Scientology’s websites and forums were launched, crashing most of the sites and most likely sending their IT departments into meltdown within hours, even causing the Scientology’s main website to move to a new web-based protection service.

An interesting facet of the documentary is its commitment to letting the members of the community speak as they wish to. The interviewees don’t shy away from speaking of the “luls” and “rick-rolls”, nor do they censor their language both in terms of profanity and political correctness. It instead presents itself as a true-to-life retelling of what happened. Instead of shying away from the dated stereotype of the basement-dwelling virgin, the members of the group discuss how these protest movements changed this and let a lot of the members develop healthy and thriving relationships.

One of the documentary’s subjects, a former member of Anonymous

As their online attacks were being countered more and more, Anonymous decided it would take their protest into the real world, picketing outside of the premises of various Scientology buildings throughout the world to great effect. Thousands turned out to the protests, in what can only be seen as a prime example of how hacktivism and online action can translate into real world action. Without the base online community of anonymous, a protest of this magnitude, taking place in various countries, against the Church of Scientology would not have been easily achieved. Dencik and Leistert noted that these new online methods can pave the path for greater organisation in protest, and this was absolutely the case with Project Chanology.

Works cited

  • Dencik, Lina and Oliver Leistert. “Introduction”. In Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.
  • Knappenberger, Brian. We Are Legion. US, 2012.

Citizenfour – An exploration of privacy through an informal eye

Zygmunt Bauman once said, “Perhaps we just consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange” – the sentiment of this quote has stood the test of time as our modern world continues to develop new, innovative ways to keep tabs on the citizens. In Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, we citizens get a rare look behind the curtain into how we are being watched, followed and tracked through interviews with Edward Snowden, and expository voice over detailing what Snowden accomplished.

Snowden, as seen in Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour is a truly unique documentary, through its approach to the subject. The idea of pulling back the curtain on one of the most publicised whistleblowers of modern times is enough to draw attention to your documentary, but the fact that this documentary takes place in real time – as the information is leaking – hands the film a feeling of urgency and chaotic rush. It wasn’t made as a hindsight-infused retelling of what was done, it was a real-time look at the man giving the information, and his own life, away, and the anxieties, worries and confusion that came along with both, as well as offering explanation into what exactly was uncovered. One of its most standout qualities is that the film doesn’t feel inherently cinematic. Most of the frames are just static, tripod-mounted shots of people talking, sometimes not even fully in focus. There’s no flashy cinematography or sound design, but its simplistic approach adds to the nuance of the film’s informality – it doesn’t speak to its viewer like a lecturer, but rather as a friend detailing what’s happening and what will happen, much like how Snowden took a calmer, easygoing approach to talking with the journalists.

The film’s informal approach helps to ground the story, but also helps to communicate its themes in a rational, calm manner. It hearkens back to Bauman’s quote, and begs the question why do we choose to accept it? Edward Snowden, talking with Glenn Greenwald, said “The greatest fear I have regarding the outcome is that nothing will change”, he knew that he wasn’t personally starting the revolution, but rather he was offering a spark that would allow the fire to rise, hoping someone else, whether it be a superior within the NSA, or protesters forcing change out of sheer will, would take what he had done and achieve a change from it for the good. However, as we learn more and more each day, nothing is changing and we are still being watched just as much as we were when Citizenfour was released.

An extract from Citizenfour published on The Guardian

In a separate article, Bauman stated “Occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy and individual autonomy … find little if any repercussion in the public agenda, in media programming, and first and foremost in popular attention.” Unfortunately, as intriguing and informative as a film such as Citizenfour is, it ultimately falls into Bauman’s description of occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy, most people who have watched the film have continued on using social media and other websites. The irony of social media pages dedicated to Snowden appears to be lost on the creators, who feed into the fears the man had about coming out with this information.

Works cited

  • Poitras, Laura. Citizenfour. US, 2014.