Crowds have always had a bad rap. The fear of the angry mob is powerful, and over the past fifty years this myth has been weaponized by those in power. This kind of rhetoric dates to 1896, when Gustave Le Bon’s book “The Crowd” was first translated into English. Reflecting on the French Revolution, the book argued that a crowd is always on the verge of becoming a mob.
The concept has been widely discredited, but still shapes popular understanding today. We’re taught that with crowds comes riot and rebellion, that there’s an implicit danger to gathering en masse. Today, finally, that is true. Our new environment means that gathering in crowds is an act of defiance, selfishly passing the virus along.
But being part of a crowd is electric. You feel empathy and grief and anger and joy without ever exchanging words. You’re both overstimulated and submerged. Being lost in the crowd is exhilarating and validating – you’re all here for the same reason.
It’s not a new feeling. We’ve been dancing, massing and marching in ritualistic and tribalistic gatherings since the Mesolithic age. Cave paintings of ancient man dancing together have been discovered all over the globe. Quite simply, our voices are louder in a crowd. They sound better too. Discord becomes harmony, and song becomes a tribal anthem.
Today, modern academia has proved that crowds are actually pro-social. Contrary to the myth of the angry mob, for the most part crowds self-police, self-regulate and look to help one another. The now viral shot of Patrick Hutchinson carrying an injured man to safety during a (nominally) peaceful BLM protest reminds us the violence of the (alt-right) crowd was not contagious in a way we’re taught to believe.
Throughout history, protests have created transformational change, by letting ordinary citizens make their disapproval heard. And in a connected age, crowds exist online too. Gen Z’ers propensity to congregate online is even stronger than previous cohorts, with even more reasons. From the entertainment quantum leaps made by Fortnite streaming online gigs by Marshmello and Travis Scot to the latest wave of activism rippling through other online communities, the campfires around which Gen Z congregate are being built bigger and burning brighter.
Whilst young people within the various fandoms and social communities are still physically alone, their actions are very much in sync. Last week, K-Pop ‘stans’ proved digital crowds can mobilise and create action IRL. These like-minded, global Gen Zs have been widely celebrated for their activism during police brutality protests, such as hijacking racist hashtags on Twitter and circulating petitions and fundraisers for victims of police violence.
TikTok users have been abandoning carts filled with thousands of dollars worth of merchandise from Trump’s official online store. The objective? So the Trump campaign will spend time and money retargeting dead end email addresses on social media, encouraging them to complete their transactions. The hack, known as a “denial of inventory attack” also hugely affected eCom stock tracking systems, confusing and costing right wing digital retailers in the process.
Whilst the impact of these online protests has been called into question, what’s interesting is the way these platforms are hosting activist communities. One TikTok video encouraging users to abandon carts clocked up 2.4million views in a single day.
Part of any online social community’s value lies in the speed in which content goes viral, meaning powerful political statements can press hundreds of thousands into action within hours. Although there’s no real political consensus on apps such as TikTok, the ease at which new content can be discovered means it’s become fertile ground for expression and connection.
For this generation commanding and controlling digital spaces is natural as breathing. What’s clear is that the crowd is evolving and adopting new technologies for their own ideological means.. We will always have an innate need to gather together in protest and in celebration. But we can no longer reject the digital versions of these movements as less than. They are simply a different beast.