From the Brutality of the Crowd to the Docile Public
With Twitter, the business enterprise, now joining other social media companies in enforcing country-specific censorship of content, Web 2.0 will perhaps lose much of its revolutionary appeal (The Guardian, Monday 30 January 2012). This failure to adhere to fundamental democratic rights certainly questions the willingness of social media to disassociate itself from state mechanisms of tyranny. In its rush to do business with dictatorships social media has become absorbed into the public. The question that needs to be addressed now then is not how social media changes the world, but how the desire-events of one crowd can be steered toward political revolution while the other heads straight for the shops. The answer in the UK will certainly not be found in the established media system.
In the wake of the riots the artifice that separates Labour from their Neo-Conservative foil is exposed to some extent. Indeed, while the corporate media endeavours to position the public on either side of an increasingly narrow and irrelevant political divide, the bourgeois domination of British “democracy” becomes absolute. On one hand, the neo-cons of course blamed the crowd, clamouring for vengeful payback in terms of long draconian sentences. On the other, Labour made a desultory effort to condemn the corrupted values of consumer society for the production of a disenfranchised mob hell bent on satisfying its desire for stuff.
Yet, more than that, the riots draw attention to the failure the neo-liberal Labour Party to connect with the poor. It was after all they who encouraged a deregulated City of London. It was Tony Blair who wasn’t that bothered by the ever widening gap between rich and poor. It was Labour who saddled up with the Murdochs. It was also Labour who began the process of dismantling the university. A new social and political arrangement of desire is needed that can challenge these political centres: an arrangement that can harness the kind of energy that the “desire for stuff” inspires and steer it toward new democratic forms of organization. Social media will of course play a part, but what must be reversed before any of this can happen is the continuing move away from the potential of the crowd toward an evermore docile public. As nineteenth century social contagion theory argued, more than it flatters the public corrupted institutional power fears the crowd.
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.
John Postill sees this age of protest as synonymous with an “age of viral reality.” His work on viral media, protest and the potential for rebellion is indeed a very welcome intervention into a debate so often marked by the puff of the popular press. In the UK, for example, the BBC recently broadcast a documentary claiming that “Facebook Changed the World.” Of course, social media has had a demonstrable influence on events in North Africa and the Middle East. However, such claims concerning the Arab Spring need to be seen alongside the growing impetus of a desire to fight on the streets with authoritarian regimes that are prepared to kill their own citizens. What triggers such a desire is not simply the product of Facebook or Twitter. See the references in the BBC documentary to Imbaba and how taxi drivers were used to spread the word of protest. To be sure, it took years of cruelty, injustice and poverty under these brutal regimes to trigger revolt. Revolutionary contagion needs to exceed the information cascade.
The role social media plays in building such a momentum for rebellion cannot however be ignored. Certainly in “democratic” countries, where protests and riots have spread as a result of anger expressed at the unequal imposition of austerity on people who had nothing to do with the financial crisis, the impact of social media is yet to be fully appreciated.
In the UK the student protests went viral for a while, but they never reached the magnitude of an epidemic of celebrity gossip. The necessary leap from social media to mainstream media is still a difficult prerequisite for all-out-contagion, unless, that is, the story concerns a footballer cheating on his wife. Why is it that this kind of mindless trivia seems to spread well while social rebellion does not? This is not simply a problem of the old media. I suspect that Facebook, along with wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity crap on Twitter, plays a bit part in suppressing anger as much as it provides ignition.
It is also a problem for democracy. After staging some of the most potent protests in recent UK history (smashing up Tory HQ and clashing with a royal celebrity couple on their way to the theatre) student desire has, it would seem, been snubbed out by bourgeois democracy in action. The British are free to tweet their protests, they can mobilize protesters online, and in some cases put a million people on the street, but successive UK governments still go on to fight illegal wars in our name, break election promises (on student fees and health care), hang out with the Murdochs, and cut social benefits and living standards for the 99% while cutting the taxes of the 1%.
So the promise of a confluence of anthropological cultural work and media epidemiology seems like a good way to cut through the popular media hype and try to get at the real potential of virality. Postill’s focus on Spain, where unemployment is currently running at 23%, is particularly fascinating. If some kind of tipping point is to be breached in these so-called democratic countries then it is perhaps more likely to be where the pain is felt most.
Many questions still remain though as to what is driving virality. What can be learnt from protests that actually “go viral”? Can these contagions be repeated or are such contagions mostly accidental and largely unpredictable? Is it possible to steer virality? What tactics help to push an informational pandemic from 2,000 Twitter users in April to over 94,000 followers in August! I’m now following Postill’s work…