Tag Archives: crowds

The more things change

Everywhere there is talk of revolution. People are disturbed when they think of the future. There are those who look forward eagerly to a sudden violent change in the social order. It is said that the revolutions which have occurred in continental Europe are symptoms of a world movement; that bourgeois liberal democracy is inevitably drifting toward catastrophe. There are loyal defenders of the existing order who seem to see in any suggested reform signs of revolutionary conspiracy. And there are many liberal-minded people, neither revolutionists nor apologists for entrenched interests, who are confused by the din of excited propagandists. These liberals are not averse to the orderly process of change. They may even welcome what they would like to regard as trends toward a better social system. But they hear it said that liberalism is dead, that parliamentary government is ineffective and that resort to force in the settlement of present-day economic issues is unavoidable.

Are such fears or hopes well founded? What is a revolution? When is it likely to take place, if at all? How large a portion of the public has in times past participated in revolutionary movements? What has been the behavior of the crowd in such crises? What forces, historical, economic and psychological, have transformed social stress and change into deeds of violence? What, in the end, have revolutions accomplished for human advancement? Are we facing a revolution in America at the present time?

—Everett Dean Martin, Farewell to Revolution (1935), p. ix (from the Foreword)


The only problem is if you think there are no righteous mobs

The black bloc I joined met at Logan Circle, some two miles north of the inauguration parade route. We peered through bandanas to find friends. We gathered in bloc formation behind wood-enforced banners, filled the street, and began to march. The bloc takes care to stay together, move together, and blend together. Within minutes, bottle rockets were shooting skyward and bricks were flying through bank windows. You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty. If that sounds to you like a precondition for mob violence, you’re right. But this is only a problem if you think there are no righteous mobs, or that windows feel pain, or that counter-violence (like punching Richard Spencer) is never valid.

–Natasha Lennard, Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched–You Can Thank the Black Bloc


“Be afraid human, we are coming for you.”

One line in that message is particularly revealing: “It’s the only thing I live for.” Whether or not he was exaggerating, that’s the type of obsession that fuels so much of the nastiness in gaming culture. There are plenty of great gaming communities and, in my experience, most gamers are perfectly pleasant, but too many are unable to separate themselves from their products. Video game fans who are zealously attached to their favorite games—even, as in this case, a game that has yet to come out!—are prone to get aggressive when they feel like they’re being attacked. Or when they get bad news. […]

What’s most astounding about this whole sequence of events isn’t the threats to me and to Sean Murray, nor is it the toxic elements of the No Man’s Sky community, nor is it even the sharp GamerGater who insisted that the threat was fake because he doesn’t understand how open twitter DMs work. What’s most astounding is that this has become the new normal. In a few days everyone will forget about it, and we’ll be on to the next big outrage. And on to the next set of death threats.

—Jason Schreier, I Got Death Threats for Reporting On a Video Game Delay

I didn’t spent a lot of time on the web over the long Memorial Day weekend, so I happened to read the above article just a few minutes after reading about the incident at Cincinnati Zoo, in which a 4-year-old managed to climb the fence into a gorilla enclosure, and zoo officials put the animal down in order to save the boy’s life. From Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos:

It’s not like Gregg lost track of her son and he bumped his head on a kitchen table or burned himself on a hot pan. Because of Gregg’s lack of supervision, an endangered animal was killed and her son’s life was put in danger.

Gregg’s perceived lack of remorse (she didn’t mention Harambe’s death) in this Facebook post has garnered an outpouring of online hate. There are now online petitions (this one has 47,000-plus signatures; another has 317,000-plus signatures) asking for Child Protective Services to investigate Gregg for neglect. There’s so much vitriol out there against Gregg that another Michelle Gregg has been harassed by people onlineThere are also unfounded rumors that Gregg is planning to sue to zoo, which would only build the hate against her. […]

We’re not that far removed from Gregg receiving death threats and her address being published, which happened to the dentist who killed Cecil (it’s possible it’s already happened in some pockets of the internet). There’s also a disturbing possibility that Gregg’s race will be brought into this and a racist narrative will emerge.

To be honest, I don’t have any thoughts about any of this that aren’t half-baked or inchoate. What strikes me, though, is that these two stories about very, very different things — the delayed release of a video game and the death of a zoo animal — are linked by several things:

  • mass media journalism
  • social media/web-based communication
  • media virality
  • the hyper-accountability of the individual
  • the near-total unaccountability of the masses
  • intense personal attachment to nonhuman objects/entities
  • exaggerated sense of moral superiority
  • defaulting to extreme rhetorical hyperbole
  • attempts by some to leverage institutional power against those who post no threat to them

What else am I missing in this? Abad-Santos links in his article to Max Fisher’s rumination on Internet mob justice in the wake of the killing of Cecil the Lion. I’m also mindful of the article from last year (which Fisher also mentions) by Jon Ronson that leads with how one woman’s racist Tweet was used by the Internet mob to destroy her livelihood in the time it took her to fly from one continent to another. I don’t think there’s any argument against the existence of an emergent pattern here (in large part because a lot of folks way more learned on such topics than me have been talking about it for years now; my bullet points above are totally unoriginal). I guess I’m just trying to settle for myself if this is simply the new normal (and if so, in what ways it will get worse) or if there’s any hope at all for reining it in.

No one person decides

“And although it’s easy to assume that stampedes are caused by panicked crowds running away from something in fear, Seabrook found that, in general, that’s only true in fires. In most stampedes, the crowd is churning toward something. In the United States and Europe, stampedes are rarer than they are in the developing world, and they don’t tend to happen on religious occasions. Americans and Europeans stampede for other causes: Black Friday sales, rock concerts, and sporting events. No one person decides to stampede. But if there’s a connection between what attracts a crowd and what a society holds dear, then stampedes are a deadly illustration of those values.”

—Ruth Graham, “The Hajj Stampede: Why Do Crowds Run?