2010-11 will be looked back on as the beginning of a period of social uprising occurring in an age incessantly characterized by social media. Mainstream journalists were indeed quick to note the role of Web 2.0 in triggering new revolutionary and riotous crowds. However, this focus on the often over hyped potential of Web 2.0 applications perhaps loses sight of the event of social rebellion. For such events to ignite there is a requirement for the spontaneous and communicable desires of a crowd to actually spillover onto the streets. Take for example the seemingly disparate uprisings in Egypt and England. In the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba the impetus of rebellion was visibly guided by the leaderless contagious desires of the crowd. That is to say, its momentum was more readily related to local neighbourhood contaminations of rage than it was an orchestrated communication strategy. The English Riots were a somewhat perverted arrangement of antagonism and consumer desire. Yet this widespread contagion was similarly steered without a guiding hand. Indeed, both these events signal the return of a sometimes brutal crowd contagion that outspreads many protest movements endeavouring to increase their number by tapping into the virality of social media.
The Desire-Events of Revolutionary Contagion
Of course rebellions and riots are events boosted by communications, but it is not simply the technology that propagates the event. The network is “the relationality of that which it distributes . . . the passing-on of the event.” Be it word of mouth, telegraph, television or computer networks, it is the networkability of the event itself that opens up a space ready for the repetition of further events. The vital force required for the movability of the event comes from the rare intensity of a desire-event: the immolation of a street vendor or the fatal shooting of an unarmed gang suspect, for example. What spreads out from these shock events is felt at the visceral level of affective social encounter. The repetition of contaminating affects radiate reciprocal feelings, like anger, to a point where the thrust of collective desire builds into an effervescence of hormone and sentiment fit to burst. These are rare events because it would seem that most contagions eventually peter out or are rendered docile by outside forces. Some though build up into much bigger assemblages of desire with a capacity to spread further. Desire-events can in such cases follow a deadly line of flight whereby participants are prepared to die to satisfy their needs and wants.
There is nothing new in this event reading of social uprising. Indeed, aside from the recent kafuffle surrounding social media it is worth noting the early scepticisms of nineteenth century social contagion theory. Such events are exceptional, Gabriel Tarde claimed, even accidental. They are certainly not easy to predict, plan or steer. Furthermore, although now often regarded as a proto-network thinker, Tarde regarded most imitative outbreaks to be downward rather than democratically distributed movements. They were in the main aristocratic contagions – outbreaks of religious manias, patriotism, racism, and the like. Social examples flowed downward from a “superior” model to an “inferior” imitator. Conformity, obedience and a neurotic devotional fascination for those in power were generally the laws of imitation for the subjugated class. It is this descending flow of desire and social influence that magnetizes the social medium so that everyone infected passes on, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the example set from on high. Only on very rare occasions do the downward movements of such social terracing reverse like water flowing uphill. Democratic contagion occurs only when the movement down the scale becomes exhausted and is transformed into an inverse movement. That is, when “millions of men collectively fascinate and tyrannize over their quondam mediums.”
From his unique intellectual vantage point at the dawn of industry capitalism Tarde also observed a shift from older social assemblages, namely crowds, to new mediated social arrangements he called publics. Unlike crowds, who like animal societies required physical proximity in order to make psychic connections, publics were newly animated and dispersed by newspapers, railways, telegraphs and telephone networks. This made psychic connection possible without the need for closeness. The potential to spread new ideas was astonishing. However, by freeing up of the collective psychology from its corporal choreography, the publics’ capacity to protest was, Tarde argued, decidedly muted.
Certainly, Tarde did not see mediated connectivity as a way to escape the notion of an easily led crowd. On the contrary, Tarde regarded crowds to be without leaders, and as the nearness of their neighbourhoods diminished, and mediation increased, they became more open to persuasion from on high. Yes, the crowd was more brutal and had something of the animal about it, but publics were a passive and powerless social condition. That is to say, while the crowd leads its chief, publics are inspired by a controlling action-at-a-distance. Tarde recognized early on, as such, how the new media primes its products like a honey pot, setting up a mutual selection process whereby public opinion is dependent on a pandering to known prejudices and passions. By way of the flattery of their audiences, the press barons took hold of publics, dividing them up into several publics, making them evermore docile and credulous, and easily directed. In contrast, the crowd was to be feared.