Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Crowds Are Not People, My Friend

From the article: "This assumption that crowds have some non-fragmented consciousness leads us to the false dichotomy we draw between physical and virtual crowds: one is dumb, the other is smart. But in both cases, we’re placing too much emphasis on the crowd as distinct from the people involved in it. …

This has real-world consequences. When police officers show up at a protest or political rally, they tend to think of the crowd in Le Bonian terms, McPhail told me. That can be dangerous. If the police assume the crowd is acting as one, it becomes easier for a handful of people to provoke a violent reaction from law enforcement — and vice versa. McPhail uses what he has learned from 40 years of studying groups of people to advise law enforcement on better, safer ways to deal with crowds. He told me that 150 years of records from Europe and the United States show violence happens at less than 15 percent of political gatherings. So he instructs officers to never respond categorically to a crowd. If one person is breaking the law, address that person in an unobtrusive way. “If you are blatant and violent, you affect people who weren’t doing anything, and that . . . turns them against you,” he said.

At the same time, knowing that virtual crowds are merely human helps us better predict when one is likely to be smart and when it’s likely to be stupid. Reddit can help someone understand a medical diagnosis just as easily as it can foster a men’s rights movement. Scientists, working as a virtual group, are capable of sharing diverse research to reach a consensus on climate change, but they’re also capable of passing down the received wisdom that crowds have minds. The group itself isn’t what matters. What matters is who they are, what they know and how they interact." Read more