The New Sleepwalker
Tony D Sampson
During the height of Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020 nearly four billion people across the world habitually accessed social media. These platforms enabled people to stay in touch with each other, share amusing memes and news stories about political failures and heroic keyworkers. Although exacerbated by the extraordinary circumstances, most of these interactions would appear to be fairly ordinary. It was ostensibly business as usual for social media. Yet, during this period, there was an intensification of highly anomalous social media contagions. These contagions included Instagram-fuelled panic buying of toilet roll and paracetamol, crazy conspiracy theorists implausibly linking the roll out of 5G networks with Covid-19, and a new wave of anti-vaxers.
It would perhaps seem that our own friendship networks are immune to such contagions. However, they are far more entrenched than we might think. So, why do seemingly rational social media users become implicated in the spreading of irrational network contagions? Before the very real viral threat of Covid-19 arrived, social contagions of this kind were often compared to biological viruses. Popular books like The Tipping Point reasoned that social contagions spread through promiscuous social hubs, building up and spilling over into epidemiological thresholds. Early computer simulations pointed to a far more accidental pass-on-power in which just about anyone can start a contagion if the collective mood is right.
Putting these analogies and simulations aside, there is an older, yet compelling sociological account of contagion. To fully grasp its persuasive explanatory force, we need to revisit the early roots of European social theory. By doing so, we revive a forgotten conceptual figure which came to prominence in nineteenth century crowd theories and figured writ large in early sociological debates: the sleepwalker. Such a revival cannot evidently occur without taking into account over two hundred years of developments in sociology, brain science and the humanities. Nonetheless, a reconfigured sleepwalker helps us to understand some of the dynamics of social media contagion that biological analogies and computer simulations simply cannot explain.
Interest in sleepwalkers can be traced back to the study of ‘irrational’ crowds in France in the late 1800s. Gustave Le Bon’s book, The Crowd, argued that when reasoned individuals become subsumed by the irrational crowd, they take the position of hypnotized sleepers prone to the contagions of others since they lose their capacity to self-reflect. At the similar time, the sociologist, Gabriel Tarde, presented a more sophisticated sleepwalker or somnambulist. Unlike Le Bon, Tarde’s distinction between individuals and collectives is considerably blurred. He instead drew on social, biological and psychological explanations to present a complex, somnambulists microsociology. For Tarde, somnambulists may well feel like individuals, but this feeling is part of an illusion that obscures their place in a society of imitation. This is not an illusion simply triggered by Le Bon’s crowd. Instead, sleepwalkers possess innate propensities, as well as a social tendency, toward imitation. Indeed, Tarde was interested in the budding sciences of the brain and his work has been linked to fairly recent discoveries of so-called mirror neurons. However, a revived sleepwalker is not biologically determined. To be clear, what is often imitated is primarily outside in the social before it enters through the skin or the skull.
Another way to consider the sleepwalker is via psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is through Freud’s development of Le Bon’s crowd that a different sleepwalker emerges as an expression of a sexually repressed individual. It is the interiority of the dreamlike theatrical unconscious that becomes externalized in the act of sleepwalking. Nevertheless, in their homage to Tarde, the philosopher’s Deleuze and Guattari accused Freud of being myopic. He mistook the unconscious voice for mother. On the contrary, they contended, the voice of the unconscious is a crowd. Along these lines, it is important to note that other authors have replaced the term unconscious with the neurologically nuanced term, nonconscious. In the brain sciences this new term simply means the multitude of processes that function outside of consciousness.
“Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. He was myopic and hard of hearing; he mistook crowds for a single person.”
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 29-30
These neurological explanations are of obvious interest to contemporary sociology, but it is actually an old spat Tarde had with the more famous forefather of sociology, Durkheim, that helps us to understand social media contagion. This argument can be simplified by considering two opposing terms. On one hand, Durkheim’s concept of society emerged from the dynamic densities of the collective. Society was in effect the emergence of a collective consciousness. This idea is reflected in more recent emergence theories of collective intelligence and the wisdom of crowds. These are societies of cognitive excess that are supposed to distinguish between social norms and anomalies. The idea that the media could emerge as a global brain was very popular in the 1960s as were similar notions of smart mobs and other variants on collective intelligence during the early days of the Internet.
On the other hand, for Tarde society does not emerge since the society of imitation is already made up of unconscious (or nonconscious) associations. Individuals do not become sleepwalkers. On the contrary, these imitating subjects are socially positioned between illusory conscious states and nonconscious relations. Their seemingly separate sense of individuality is always etched with the contagions of others and primed for suggestibility.
It is perhaps not surprising that Tarde’s revival coincided with the social media age. Back in the mid-2000s, the French sociologist, Bruno Latour, declared that the Internet was well and truly Tardean! Indeed, the role of social media is to stir up the imitative associations of the sleepwalkers and make them go viral. These platforms are designed to bring together artificial crowds, nurture and steer them toward social contagion. The social media business model prefigures the big data model. Certainly, without the spreading of likes, posts and shares, there will be no data traces to monetize. The real value of social media is in the pass-on-power that produces data. Even at our most reasoned and rational, once we are part of these viral networks, we might imitate this or that act and eventually pass on something that is suggested to us.
Tony Sampson’s new book is published by Polity