“It is crowds that have furnished the torrents of blood requisite for the triumph of every belief” – Gustave Le Bon
A great deal of ink has been spilled over the new global interconnectedness, opportunities for the dissemination of knowledge, and community building advantages afforded by the Internet, with enthusiastic discussions of “the wisdom of crowds”, crowd sourcing, crowd funding, and revolutions sparked by social media as the future of a collaborative world of information and knowledge proliferation where the cream inevitably rises to the top. Sadly, those defining characteristics of the Internet that are lauded as a force for good that is democratizing, liberating, and empowering, are the same qualities that scholars of mass psychology have long identified as shaping sets of otherwise sane individuals into bloodthirsty mobs. Was not the slogan of the blood-drenched French Revolution also “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”?
In 1999, Professor of Communications Geoff Cox posited the question of whether the Internet was purely a force for good. “The Internet appears to offer renewed participation in the public sphere. Such positive claims for the Internet might derive from the conservative political context of the previous decade, with its general disillusionment with the democratic processes available. This appears to be the result of a search for a new sense of community and collectivism. Since democracy is about the exchange of information rather than information itself, the Internet and World Wide Web appear to offer itself as a perfect model of interconnectedness. But what are the conditions under which this information exchange takes place, and what purpose does it serve? Surely, access alone does not ensure ‘good’ participation” (Cox, 1999, p16).
Good participation would no doubt be defined as the free exchange of ideas, the emergence of suppressed voices, a freedom from censorship, and a sharing of perspectives among individuals who would otherwise find themselves intellectually or socially isolated. In a limited sense, this is inarguable. The process of information transfer has undoubtedly transcended the limitations imposed upon it by the megalithic media conglomerates, the political powerhouses, and the hallowed halls of the academy, mercilessly exposing our cultural peccadillos, the subtle tyranny of money and power, and the filters through which we are fed information and misinformation alike. But information alone is not unequivocally knowledge; or rather the relationship between the two has plagued philosophers since we began scribbling existential notes to ourselves.
Information is always passed in a psycho-cultural context. While there is enormous value in confronting cultural and ideological perspectives distinct from your own, what one rapidly discovers is the deafening cacophony of attitudes and beliefs which humanity indulges in. My own limited social media presence revolves around my guilty pleasure and hobby of strange phenomena, which in the past was largely ghettoized in the “Zine” world and a somewhat inaccessible niche of aficionados that lurked on the fringes of social discourse. This is one area that undoubtedly benefited, both financially (although in an extremely limited sense) and intellectually, from the emergence of an outlet for what were typically seen as philosophically anarchistic and marginally rational ideas by the mainstream. As television shows, books, and websites concerned with anomalistics have proliferated, what has emerged is that the qualities characterizing modern discourse on the fringiest of the fringe can be extrapolated to almost any subject of human inquiry that is bandied about on the Internet. That is, the psychology of the crowd, translated into the digital world, has rapidly begun to dominate.
One prefers to give humanity the benefit of the doubt and say that interpersonal communication or the act of two conscious creatures attempting to relate to each other is the foundation of civilization, which has lots of benefits, such as social cooperation and a more harmonious existence that involves not getting eaten by predators, or starving to death, and affording us ample free time to indulge in those expressions of existence that assure us life is worth living. While uncharacteristically optimistic for me, it would seem that two sentient critters, left to their own devices, can usually find some common ground upon which to relate to each other, regardless of their vast ideological gaps. Humans only really become insufferable when we start to form crowds.
Consider the old social media trope, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. We are all divorced, or distanced, from our Internet avatar. Our Internet selves, regardless of whether we are inadvisably using our real name, are by necessity performances, much as our “social” selves are. You are not identical with who you portray yourself to be on social media. You have a name, but you are still anonymous. And anonymity is the motive force that drives the sentiments and behavior of the crowd. “In the ordinary sense the word ‘crowd’ means a gathering of individuals of whatever nationality, profession, or sex, and whatever be the chances that have brought them together. From the psychological point of view the expression ‘crowd’ assumes quite a different signification. Under certain given circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes” (Le Bon, 1982, p23).
In short, the anonymity of the crowd allows us to become creatures of suggestibility and sentiment. We like to think of the internet troll as a lone wolf, spouting venom into the ether, rather they are expressions of the worst characteristics of humanity that emerge when we find ourselves able to act anonymously amongst like-minded individuals, distancing what we say from who we are, and the Internet allows us to access “the crowd” that validates us. One need only spend a little time on social media sites to discover that crowd behavior typically involves anger, bullying, denigration, and conformity of ideology on a level that would rarely emerge from individualized interpersonal interaction. The Internet allows the individual to find his or her crowd, and act accordingly. In trying to perfect ourselves, perhaps we are falling into the trap that our folklore and mythology have warned us about from time immemorial – we have found that substantial segments of the human race agree with our particular biases, our social preferences, and our views of the universe and our place in it, and in doing so are legitimizing that which is monstrous.
Far from advocating a Luddite abandonment of social media, it would seem to me that it would be far more productive to understand the revolution in human interaction that it represents. We can do great things through this newfound interconnectedness, but we can equally destroy much of what is good about humanity, should we fail to recognize the dangers inherent. Our ability to find those who agree with us and form angry crowds can serve to resist oppression as easily as it can send countless innocents to the guillotine. We do so like to talk about our rights, while neglecting the responsibilities entailed. As Michael Leunig observed, “Try as I do to comprehend the human project and my part in it, I am further than ever from understanding the monstrous everyday things that seem like self-evident truths and existential necessities to so many”.
Cox, Geoff. “The Digital Crowd: Some Questions on Globalization and Agency”. Design Issues 15 (1). The MIT Press: 16–25, 1999.
Le Bon, Gustave, 1841-1931. The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind. 2nd ed. Marietta, Ga.: Larlin Corp., 1982.