The Guy Fawkes mask has become the icon of Anonymous and online, as well as offline, activism. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

If the word “doxing” makes you think of puppies, and the word “hacker” has you imagining a zit-faced, social outcast eating junk food in his or her parents’ basement, it’s time to head to the anthropology section of your local library or bookstore and start reading up on “hacktivism,” or online activism.

Academics have been studying the very non-academic undertakings of hacktivists, predominantly groups such as Anonymous, for years. These include the repeated hacking of the Church of Scientology Web site, the infamous online message board 4Chan, and the philosophy of “doing it for the Lulz.” Their findings, while not your average classroom fare, are helping to paint a picture for policy makers of a leaderless, geographically and socio-economically diverse and powerfully disruptive group.

“Anonymous is by nature, as well as design, difficult to define,” said New York University Assistant Professor of media, culture and communication Gabriella Coleman during a gathering at the Brookings Institution on Dec. 9. ”It made my life as an anthropologist very difficult at times.”

Coleman has spent the past decade studying hackers, meeting with members of the hacking community and using formal academic tools to understand this emerging sector of society. She joined Richard Forno, director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Cybersecurity Program, and Paul Rosenzweig, the founder of Red Branch Law and Consulting and former assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security, at Brookings. The group was convened by Brookings’s Director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Allan Friedman.

“I tend to say they’re geeks — they’re geeks and they’re hackers,” said Coleman when asked about the demographics of the hacking populace, “and yet, when you say geeks, often times the problem with using the term like that is that it kind of conjures one image, and one image alone: basement, pimples, and psychological pa­thol­ogy. That is wrong.”

Coleman has met with a “remarkably diverse group,” with people who “are near royalty” in Europe and others who are “below working class” and “at the bottom of the barrel at some level.”

“They just have very unusual backgrounds,” said Coleman of those in the group willing to engage in illegal activity, “which may be one of the reasons they me be willing to go where they go.”

Beyond understanding who Anonymous is, there’s the additional question of how to protect society against its destructive power. This, argues Rosenzweig, depends on which value is deemed to be predominant among the group. Is it hacktivism, vigilantism or collective action?

If it is a hacktivist group or a criminal group, such as Mao in China or the VietCong, perhaps anti-insurgency tactics, such as the employment of good intelligence, empowering hactivist resistance movements and public education campaigns should be used, said Rosenzweig. If vigilantism is dominant, the solution could lie in improving criminal law enforcement and diplomatic activity. If, however, the group is deemed to be dominated by an attitude of collective action, then it falls under First Amendment-protected speech, meaning that reinforcing First Amendment protections and vigilant policing of the margin between protected speech and criminal activity are all that can be done.

“I see less of the political speech and more of the criminality,” said Rosenzweig, “but I am certainly willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong.”

Right or wrong, the subject of online activism can be expected to only grow as a subsection of anthropological study in the coming years. A far cry from the social outcast in mom and dad’s basement.

Given this, we spoke with Coleman afterward about what to expect from Anonymous, what companies can learn from the group’s behavior, and what aspiring and current anthropologists can expect in terms of how these activities stand to change the academic landscape.

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