Mobs: None of us is as bad as all of us

We will need significant historical, ethical, moral, and philosophical sophistication to maintain critical tensions between individuals and the crowd.

February 29 th 2012

I've never been part of an angry mob engaged in burning cars, stealing shoes and computers, or throwing Molotov cocktails at a riot squad (although in the spirit of full disclosure, there was that one time that a friend and I lit a nice collection of fireworks in the courtyard of a rival school). But if London, Vancouver, Montreal, or Detroit are indications from recent and more distant history, we humans do have a disturbing capacity for collective violence. Yet our society manifests the greater good we can also achieve when we work together establishing schools, manufacturing airplanes, and designing interesting wireless devices.

While mobs have a long history, digital technologies are enabling new kinds of collaboration that are still very new and have not undergone the long sifting that other cultural expressions have, like language and music. Does the online version of humans working together, a kind of benevolent mob, represent an attainment we should celebrate?

As MIT researcher Robert Goodspeed notes, the term crowdsourcing is used to indicate this digital collaboration. He has identified six different kinds of crowdsourcing. There are likely more than six, including a range of nuances around them, but the idea that there are types and variations is important.

We might also pose the question slightly differently: what can crowds (digital or visceral) do? What kinds of problems are we best at solving when in horde mode? Can big groups of us generate novel and creative solutions to problems? Or are we only good at refining existing processes, products, or ideas? The familiar game where people guess how many jelly beans are in a jar teaches us that with enough guesses, the average of the crowd will converge on the correct number. There's no magic in that process, though it can appear mysterious. Averaging is a way of collecting individual perspectives into a single answer, of adding together our various subjective vantage points to generate an answer. We cannot, however, create a masterpiece by letting each person add a single brushstroke to a canvas, because masterpieces don't converge on a Gaussian average. They are anomalies, odd patches of brilliance that don't arise from the middle ground.

What does this have to do with mobs and their relative value or menace? Can events like the changing of the government in Egypt be understood in this crude dichotomy of statistical averaging or brilliant outburst? I think that they can. Masses of us, each adding a bit to a greater whole, cannot help but form some type of convergence out of which the extraordinary emerges. As the remarkable philosopher Michel Serres notes, "Discussion conserves; invention requires rapid intuition and being as light as weightlessness." Individual intuition or conserving discussion represent at least two of the tensions that we must consider in analyzing the hazards and benefits of acting together.

In practical terms, hordes of us tend to cancel out the best and worst. Destructive mobs are much less common than peaceful crowds; the turn to violence originates with a small (sometimes miniscule) sub-group that was bent on destruction from the start. When other variables such as alcohol or a violent incident are added, a crowd can morph into a mob.

Remarkable achievements also tend to be the result of individual or small group efforts that go well beyond what the crowd or group is capable of generating. Creativity can be an individual or small group effort arising from or in response to normal, which in turn fuels a spreading set of ideas. In some cases, that flash of creativity and passion is rewarded by the muting effect of the collective whole that wants to return things to normal (though the achievement may later be celebrated as masterwork as has happened to various artists and revolutionaries post mortem). These responses and the variations between them constitute the rich diversity of our collective human experience.

Crowds don't form governments. They can pressure governments, oust them, or cheer them, but the crowd as an entity cannot govern. That requires a degree of individuation, an institutionalization of the energy in the movement. And that isn't at all simple. Egypt and other places around the globe are wrestling with it, along with Greeks, Canadians, and Americans. Voters seem to show up less often than they used to, and our traditional indicators of engagement also indicate some kind of decline, as has been noted by Robert Putnam and others. We have apparently become cynical and disconnected, having allowed the waters of self-fulfilment to erode our social capital. But that may not be a permanent state, and conditions will likely change as new communication platforms alter the ways in which we interact with our governments and other institutions.

We can learn about how best to apply our collective averaging power and the much smaller but critical areas of specific work that is needed to steward what is collective. That stewardship is concerned with maintaining the tensions of averaging, living somewhere between the cold, grey, undead horizon of efficient bureaucratic tidiness and the flaming, chaotic dizziness of anarchic fantasy. Crowds of people who have had enough injustice and suppression can rise up in movements of civil unrest that change the landscape and in many places around the world, injustice is dishearteningly robust. But mobs will spring up as well in ways that intimidate, shock, and disgust us.

Digital media employed in various ways as crowdsourcing platforms is characterized by similar tensions. Bullying among teenagers today still takes place in the old-fashioned schoolyard ways, but has now been extended through Facebook blackmail, reputation-smearing texts, and identity hacks. The anonymity of the web certainly enables more brazen expressions of our various vices and tendencies, but often enough there is no attempt to hide who is involved or to retract what is enacted, particularly when groups or circles are coordinating their villainy and spurring each other on.

There is an aspect of being a crowd that new media has changed we can be the crowd while being nowhere near each other. This is a new dynamic. What happens when a group of protestors no longer shows up in the same public square to denounce their common oppressor? Does it matter if they unite in a common protest through a digital platform, even though they live in different places around the world and have never even met and likely never will?

I think it does matter. The combination and recombination of individual action and collective will become, in this setting, much more volatile and temporary. As I have noted in the past, the rapid accumulation of support for a political candidate that social technologies makes possible don't always translate into the foundation of support needed to govern. This is not necessarily a problem. It may well be that the more fluid dynamics of social action introduce a nimbleness of action that stodgy institutions are reluctant to embrace but will be required to accept anyway. Law enforcement will have to keep on learning what it means to curb the criminal aspects of this expression while upholding the rights of the balance of citizens. Governments and courts will have to contend with what it means to preserve individual freedoms and our right to privacy, while venturing into the spaces occupied by criminals by means of new forms of surveillance and data monitoring, where sophisticated algorithms sort through massive flows of information, picking out patterns and anomalies that represent harm.

We will need significant historical, ethical, moral, and philosophical sophistication to maintain critical tensions between individuals and the crowd. The social and cultural equity that our forebears have given us must be brought to bear on these interactions so that we neither cower in fear and thus cheaply surrender our freedoms in the name of security, nor brazenly disregard the protections of institutional forms like government in the name of hastily assembled though deceptively personal license. The age-old balance of me and we is still being worked out, with new mediums of exchange and participation adding to, rather than reducing, the complexity of that tension.

Topics: Innovation

Milton Friesen is Program Director of Cardus Social Cities.