Friday, 23 March 2012

The Atomised Herd Mentality

Last Saturday a football crowd of 35,000 people all united and reacted and behaved as one when a professional athlete collapsed on the pitch in front of them and medical teams fought for an age to restart his heart. The crowd were hushed, concerned, rooting for him, respectful, distraught and behaved with utter dignity. All of this was visibly captured by the TV cameras there to cover the match. All parochial differences between the fans of two competing teams disappeared, any thought of the game needing to continue to an end slipped away instantly as this drama of the stuff of life and death unfolded before their eyes. There were no dissenters, all were linked by their common humanity. 35,000 empathic people.

Last summer there were some seriously destructive riots in the UK in which lives were lost. While the fires were raging for several nights, the mass reaction as gauged through social media was very different from the above. I have attempted to reproduce a slice of that in this week's Friday Flash story off 999 words called "Riotous Assembly". Here the voices were as diverse and disunited as it is possible to conceive.

While there were informative tweets about the rapidly shifting scene on the ground, with helpful tweets about areas to avoid, and towards the end appeals for people to come out and clean up the wreckage of their communities, there was also a cacophony of voices just pitching into the 'debate' which only served to cloud the issue. I can't help feeling that they should have watched on in shocked and horrified silence like the football crowd, unless they were passing on useful information rather than their opinions.

For even as the arson, destruction and looting were raging, people were tweeting their political solutions; curfews, military intervention, or berating an end to the government cuts in education and youth opportunities, the gross inequalities in our society etc. What did these people expect to achieve? Did they really anticipate someone from authority (most of whom seemed to be away on vacation anyway) reading their tweets and acting on them? People just want to opine. To sound off. From the safe place of their house. I just don't get any sense of empathy emerging from such actions. Such people may claim that their voice isn't being heard, which is why they felt the need to offer it. Well many of the the rioters claimed the same thing for themselves when they tried to justify their actions. How can you hear any voice when it is submerged in a cacophony?

Then there were pictures and testimonies posted from the streets during the riots. Some by the participants goading, boasting, showing off their ill-gotten gains (and in doing so raising the chances of them being arrested on their own evidence). But in fact many were snapped on the phones of bystanders stood there observing the mayhem. Not professional journalists, but ordinary citizens who weren't looting, weren't starting fires, rather loitering there with their camera phones and generating 'content' for their blogs, Tumblrs or for YouTube or other means of sharing. Condoning the riots by accumulating material from it, albeit of the virtual and digital rather than stolen sports or electronic goods.

In my piece, by being relayed in reverse order of 'newest' tweets first and oldest tweets last, I hope I have conveyed the building crescendo of voices determined to have their say. Representing so much of a bombardment of the virtual airwaves, that it all just becomes white noise. Any vital information is obliterated by the deluge.

I hope my piece gives a sense of the welter of divergent voices that ultimately just seem to like the sound (look) of their own words on screen. While some treat the issue with great seriousness, others look to derive humour from it. Gallows humour? I might believe that if it wasn't done for self-aggrandisement, to make the person look clever. People are of course entitled to their opinion, but the time for that was probably after the riots had simmered down. This wasn't any real debate. No one was listening to anybody else. Besides, when has anyone ever had their views changed by online shouting? What could be more preposterous than online trolling of people over their views on the riots, WHILE people were having to flee their homes that had been set alight?

Two very different crowd behaviours. One showing the best commonality of humanity. And the other what happens when any such unity breaks down into a free-for-all. Be it one on the shopping high streets, or out in virtual reality.


John Wiswell said...

I can see the philosophy that identifies people taping and photographing the riots as condoning, though it would take more context for me to condemn them as self-aggrandizing. One could very easily wish to condemn an act one thinks one couldn't stop, and thereby document it to propose widerspread horror.

Sulci Collective said...

I can see that argument John, but in the main the pictures are uploaded without any context of preservation of record. I fear they are all about reflecting kudos on the person producing them

Jeffrey Jones said...

I am not sure your equation of 35,000 football fans united in empathy with "the best commonality of humanity" isn't an extreme case of wishful thinking on your part. You seem to be taking an exaggerated stance here to create a convenient contrast with your perceived cacophony of voices responding to the riots, when in fact there was plenty of acute media debate about the causes and effects of the riots - it's just that little of it would have appeared on twitter. Why would it? Twitter is surely by its very nature a sounding board for self-aggrandising individuals. It will never be a place of organised debate because it is, erm, not organised with that purpose in mind.
To my mind, the 35,000 football fans were about as convincing as symbol of united humanity as the lines of deluded people who appeared on the streets when Princess Diana died. United, maybe...but united in what?
To my mind, your basic assumptions about the desirability of empathic unity - of the benefits of a coherent, unified voice as opposed to a cacophony of individual voices - are fundamentally flawed. However benevolent they may appear, when it comes to a unified community speaking as one, I'm with God at the Tower of Babel: scatter them across the face of the earth and confound their language, that they may not understand each other's speech.