Anonymous has been around for a good long while. The world noticed when the collective took up the Guy Fawkes masks during the scuffle with the Church of Scientology in 2008, but I had met some of the hackers who bedeviled the church a decade before this. Keep in mind that anyone who tells you there is a leader or formal structure is either confused or teasing. There are organizations with agendas that blend in with the group, but collectively those involved are adamant that there is no hierarchy. It's the leaderless resistance postulated by the American right, only their sole cause seems to be resisting classification.
Today journalists with no background and no contacts, triggered by the Wikileaks imbroglio, are struggling to understand and report on this flashy, theatrical, and yet highly secretive social phenomenon. I set aside my black hat many years ago, but recent events have compelled me to pay attention at the level of ghosting along with a few of the major groups so that none of the things I'm responsible for get blindsided.
If you're going to report on this stuff you have to understand a bit about hackers, trolls, the places they frequent, and their values.
There are basically three personality types one finds among hackers. You see the anti-social personality disorders, typified by Kevin Mitnick, who basically displayed all of the behaviors of a control rapist towards his victims, albeit at a distance. You see the brilliant oddballs, often on the autism spectrum, and Adrian Lamo is the quintessential example of this. Trailing behind these two forces you find people who would be described as hipsters, if they’re male, or perhaps scene whores, a somewhat dated term which we would have applied to both sexes.
The internet's sprawling, diverse troll community overlaps with hackers, certainly, but it is not correct to assume that each troll is a hacker, or that they even know one, and not all hackers are involved in the trolling. The trolls use text systems like IRC but their rise as a cluster of communities is tied to the web, which changed the nature of the skills required to have status.
The valued skills for trolls are equal parts the sociopathic, manipulative conduct seen in some hackers coupled with various creative endeavors such as graphic arts and video production. Their approach to media and public perception is similar to how a hacker would approach computers and networks
There are several top level community sites for the various troll communities. Anonymous in its current form is by all accounts something that sprouted from the rowdy environs of 4chan.org's /b/ - their random image board. The system requires no authentication and various rituals exist whereby participants recognize and communicate with each other. Something Awful hosts another facet of Anonymous and only a small percentage of the 135,000 paying members need take interest in any particular topic before things start to happen. Encyclopedia Dramatica's wiki effort is a product of a community that is far more stable than the barbarians of /b/, but the forums have a vibe similar to what is found on Something Awful.
There are, of course, boutique sites with specific interests or disaffected infrastructure operators behind them, and there is no formal connection between the top level site operators and the IRC networks used to coordinate misconduct.
Operating discipline among the Anonymi seems to be on the rise thanks to infiltration pressure from the likes of the utterly ruined HBGary Federal and the highly questionable Backtrace dissident Anons. People appear to be sticking to those they know for sensitive work and formerly clear text systems are disappearing behind ssh and various VPN solutions.
The technical solutions to the observation problem will mature but the community standards were already in place to make infiltration difficult. There are shared values, mores, and a carnival worker like mangling of the English language to be mastered before one can hope to venture into the Anonymi's home turf. If you truly want in the final hurdles are rather like a street gang initiation - you have to do something criminal if you're going to run with the pack. I've also seen drug use and various communal sexual activities conducted via shared video chat rooms. Curiosity seekers will likely not make it very far.
This was drafted at the suggestion of someone in the security field with an eye on educating the industry by posting at a security-centric news site. I just learned that you have to pay a monthly fee to blog there(!) so they're just gonna have to put up with this stuff appearing here in a slightly less technical form.