Popular media is filled with stories of computer hackers —young, male, nerdy college dropouts who are not very social—and their hacking activities.
However, reports show that hackers are actually a wild and crazy bunch and far more diverse than most people suspect. They are quite social in certain settings. What's more, within these social circles, advanced knowledge of computers and software technology is highly prized, much admired, and the key to popularity and friendship.
The power of these social relationships to expand hacking know-how may be a driving force behind more frequent and bigger data breaches.
A large number of web forums, IRC channels, blogs, and other online information exchanges—in addition to offline conventions and publications—are home to hackers and filled with in-depth conversations about hacking.
Top hackers also participate in loosely-organized hackinggroups where they freely share information on how to hack and celebrate successes against certain targets.
Hackers share hacking tools and openly discuss the social values and goals that support their hacking ways. These social webs are largely merit-driven, where the most advanced and knowledgeable hackers take leadership roles, attract followers, decide what targets to go after, and assign procedures for less-skilled hackers to follow.
Information on how to hack is widely shared within these communities, but all under a cloak of secrecy. The best hackers tend to study, practice, and master their skills on their own, primarily through trial and error.
As a result, hackers frequently operate alone, with only a handful of groups of hackers willing to collaborate and function as a team.
Within these social networks, hackers routinely boast about their abilities, successful penetrations of protected computer systems, and show off data—in the nature of trophies—to provide undeniable evidence of their skills.
Of course, hackers rarely reveal their real names, preferring to use online handles to conceal their identities, and also to develop and enhance their personal brand.
Social scientists who track hacker communities have developed rough pictures of their structure: The bulk of so-called "hackers" apparently possess only a small amount of computer knowledge and hacking skill, and consequently have relatively little power or social appeal.
A much smaller group of hackers know enough to launch significant attacks or penetrate heavily protected systems. These stars tend to have a large number of followers who respect their opinion and seek their advice.
At the top of the heap is a third group of hackers—only the top 5 percent or so—who possesses a deep understanding of computer technology, the skills to create hacking tools, and enough creative flair to probe for and uncover ways to exploit real-world security weaknesses.
These are the "superstars" of the hacking world, the central players in hacker social networks, some of whom may become the stuff of hacker legend.
These hackers par excellence generally belong to the largest number of social groups within the computer hacking community, are very thoroughly connected to other talented hackers, and are among the most active posters of narratives, techniques, and hacking-related information.