The Threat of the Eternal Crowd

A crowd that’s always connected can never be dispersed. It’s always still out there.

Today's crowds never diserse, they just disappear back into the network.

So I am back from holiday break and finally read the Wired digital activism article with the vaguely sinister title:#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You by Bill Wasik.

Wasik invented the flash mob by organizing strange and spontaneous crowds in New York in 2003. Most of the article presents new case study information (how the London rioters moved, how the police responded, the case of Ryan Raddon’s concert riot in LA) without offering many new insights. However, one idea did grab me:

A crowd that’s always connected can never be dispersed. It’s always still out there.

I am always looking for evidence of model change in digital activism, ways that digital media changes the ways that power, politics, and culture work at a fundamental level. Yes, I seek “paradigm shifts.” Let me allow Bill to expand on his point:

In Among the Thugs, Bill Buford’s [1993] first-person account of soccer hooliganism, he describes the remarkable discipline that even these drunken, anarchic yobs had to maintain to carry out violence against opposing fans… Step out of the phalanx to grab a pint or take a piss and you might never find your fellows again…. Today, by contrast, a crowd’s power is amplified by the fact that its members can never really get separated.

A crowd that can never be dispersed, which is always connected by dense linkages over multiple platforms (SMS, Blackberry Messenger, Facebook, Twitter, blogs), that flows through multiple personal connections, is a threat to authoritarian states. Even if Facebook is down you can keep in touch via Twitter. If the Internet is down you can get the info from a friend via SMS. If phone and Internet are shut down you can go out into the street… and we saw what that meant in Egypt. The networked communications sphere has so many back-ups that it cannot be completely shut down without total shut-down of the network and intensive use of human resources (police, military) to prevent people from meeting offline.

The cost of stopping all communication now exacts an inescapably high cost on states. In order to stop the communication of all activists, governments must stop the communication of all citizens, exacting an undeserved penalty on apolitical citizens which cannot help but decrease the government’s legitimacy.

Certainly governments prefer targeted repression: detain only the activist, shut down communication only in Xinjiang. But sometimes you don’t know who the activists are. Sometimes it seems that every citizen is a potential threat. As scholars like Zeynep Tufekci have pointed out, the Internet is a great place to reveal hidden preferences that are not safe to reveal offline. The Internet is also a good place to stay in touch with people who share your preferences while keeping those preferences hidden. A group of friends may not be committed activists, they may mostly talk about soccer or video games, they may seem apolitical, but the network remains as a mobilizing structure, ready to be re-activated and brought from invisible in the digital space to visibility in the street.

This is where the threat of the eternal and undispersable crowd comes into play. If the crowd is still invisibly connected and present online, even when it is not visible in the street, how do you attack it? This is a challenge for repressive states. The SCAF (post-Mubarak military council ruling Egypt) probably thought that the revolutionary crowd had dispersed when Mubarak stepped down. Only a few die-hards remained in Tahrir. Yet, as the SCAF consolidated their power, the crowds came back into the streets. They had not dispersed, only disappeared. In their online connection remained the constant capacity to reconstitute the crowd.


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