Publish at November 14 2016 Updated January 28 2022

Digital crowds in motion

What happens when the crowd meets the digital?

We remember the Parisian Flâneur or more likely Alain Souchon's song "sentimental crowd" which depicts individuals in groups wandering in search of their own desire and sometimes getting lost in commercial places.

The time-lapses allow us today to understand flows as in this example of crowd in the city of Osaka. Crowds are often disturbing. We talk about crowd movements to better manage them, we also talk about leaders who lift and direct, as well as insanity or collective hysteria. These are the particularly feared group effects.

Even if the jubilant crowd during the liberation of a city, the bacchanal, the carnival, the festival, or the political assembly are high points of human life, the crowd remains a social configuration that fascinates and worries. The power of networks accelerating the possibilities to find each other, to gather, to link, to act together increases even more. What happens when the crowd meets the digital?

The phenomena of urbanization cover individuals who are less and less isolated

The phenomena of crowds are progressing because the human mass is increasing and grouping together: 60% of the planet's inhabitants live in cities, already 80% in the most developed countries. The 7 billion living humans for 100 billion that have existed in the entire history of humanity are rubbing shoulders in cities and at the same time the crowd is also becoming digital with increasing access to the internet.

The nomadic crowds (gypsies, hordes of pastoralists, migratory peoples) are caught up with the cities, almost covered. Freedom-loving as they are, they equip themselves with cell phones to stay connected. In doing so, the way of thinking about the crowd changes.

We remember the allegorical formulas of the numberless ships of the Homeric texts, of King Darius's immortal guard. In this image as soon as one soldier fell under the blows of the adversary another would take his place. The crowds would be uncountable. The demonstrations are accompanied by the same refrains they were 24,000 according to the police but 200,000 according to the organizers (difference of 1 to 10 noted in the Manif pour tous). But is this anonymity of the crowd still true when everyone with an IP address participates in an online forum, petition or discussion, of an online movement, is no longer identifiable? And even lost in a march, recognition of a face among 36,000,000 in a second but also of emotions in the crowd is now possible as well as tracking and anticipating suspicious movements.

Generalized surveillance of all by all is possible and the "Big brother" syndrome is growing with the potential of geolocation.

Digital crowds have new attributes

The physical crowd has its characteristic attributes. The collective unconscious invented by Jung, was forged in embraced or contested belongings in which ties to work, family to homeland, to religion had an essential role. What happens when these links crumble and each person makes his own market of who he wants to be, when the common framework is less made of imposed proximity than of choice and when the identity offer carried by the Internet grows? What is the collective digital unconscious? Victor Hugo evoked the egregore to designate the soul of a crowd. Do digital crowds have a soul?


Ancient and more recent crowds were marked by the proximity of the peoples with whom they traded. Pilgrimages, the Silk Roads or the India Roads brought ideas and people in transit. The logic of supply and demand where a crowd of buyers and sellers faced each other, mutates without return. Micro-offers meet micro-demands and invite themselves on the market place. Crumbling crowds find new outlets for their need.

What are the effects of digital crowds?

When one has experienced the feeling of suffocation or crushing in a concert, a demonstration or a large assembly, one has experienced the physical effect of the crowd: warming up, mutual annoyance feeling tiny. Everyone's leeway encroaches on everyone else's and sometimes produces disaster (2,236 deaths in a 2015 Mecca stampede, Heizel Stadium stampede).

What about online? Just as physical movement is slowed, so is the mass of information, that finding your way online or being audible is difficult. The sheer volume of forking makes it complicated to find one's way in a straight line.

The flocks of starlings leave no singular visible individual isolated for a predator. The bird of prey does not know where to attack when faced with an indistinct mass. The same would be true online, where malicious hackers can hide, borrow identities, and use many techniques to conceal their actions in the mass of scrolling data. Intelligent algorithms then seek to track suspicious behaviors and movements, but disguises and false noses are numerous.

Crowds are also characterized by their collective power, the show of force of a gathering, a procession or an assembly are not without reminding the Celtic tribes and their songs of intimidation in front of the Roman armies. The chants of today's supporters are reminiscent of this metaphor. Isn't the mass effect one of the favorite tactics of hackers, the mass attack by server saturation, the multiple requests that end up obliterating any response capacity by constant noise?

The crowd impresses because it is a brute force without relays to talk to. One thinks of Victor Hugo's novels, which depict a revolution in which the characters go from barricade to barricade without any real organizer or spokesperson. Action seems to override any form of reason. The Anonymous group is the symbol of a sedition that acts without unmasking itself. Whom to address?

The physical crowd is the place of encounter and chance. The online crowd exacerbates the power of serendipity the unlikely encounters of potential and creativity. But serendipity can also be organized in the logic of flash-mobs, or crowds of twitter followers. Not to mention new crowds on demand online services, allowing whoever pays to gather a mass of individuals to give the impression of a volume of supporters or admirers, for example in a political campaign.

Is an online crowd an augmented crowd?

The idea of the augmented crowd refers to the meeting of digital and crowd characteristics.

Hyper-connectivity allows one to be in a human mass. But, a hyper-connected online crowd is not necessarily augmented. Just as a crowd limits its movements by its own congestion, the mobile crowd will only find a few telephone relays quickly saturated when a transit failure forcibly concentrates the demand for service in a single point.

Hyper coordination is the possibility of rapid rendezvous within a mass or of optimal task distribution using groupware for distribution or project organization. It is also the possibility of fluidity in travel thanks to applications to help the mobility of cars caught in traffic jams (Waze) or the disabled (access tracking).

Continuous connection is also the possibility of establishing a link from within the crowd to the outside. This possibility opens up the possibility of reporting crimes in the making. The crowd becomes an observable object from within with apps like Periscope or Twitter.

The "legitimate violence of the state" becomes a little less so in the face of the rawness and immediacy of the images. Rumors spread through a physical crowd by proximity and distortions of facts. The propagation in the form of a wave could take several minutes. Connection accelerates the transmission of information and emotional propagation.

In summary

The offline crowd is uncountable. It leaves individual and limited traces of its passage. It is constrained in its groupings by the available spaces. It acts on the theatrical motif. The decor, the staging plays an essential role on the triggering of actions and passions. The role of the body is first by warming up, coaction, visual effect and theatricalization.

The leader who climbs on a tribune with imposing decorum or on a tree to harangue the crowd (ex Marcelin Albert in a winegrower's revolt at the beginning of the XXth century) marks the spirits. Communication remains mostly nonverbal gestural (ex Nuit debout). The propagation of a rumor occurs in the form of body waves. The key is proximity. Physical aggression is possible.

The online crowd can be enumerated by tracking IP addresses. The crowd is limited by the power of the servers (example rapid saturation of service). The multiplicity of physical locations and in addition the lability (property of a thing to be mobile) and variety of grouping types make the crowd more fluid, more dispersed. The role of speech is primary, as is that of mastery of protocols. There is a possibility of invective and trolls, the visual is an important support. Communication is fast and occurs through hyper-connection and hyper-coordination. Rumors and hoax spread online according to the information and their distribution circuit. What is important is less physical proximity than reputation capital. Online aggression is possible, it translates into reputational damage, slanderous denunciations.

The crowds are just beginning to take possession of their digital means in their power and to seize them at their full efficiency, at the same time the public authorities are seizing the issue with security issues.

This is a radical transformation that is taking place. It is a matter of completely rewriting Gustave le Bon's classic work "Psychology of Crowds". by integrating the idea that from now on the crowd observes itself and is observed and its action is multiplied by digital power.

Illustration: Geralt - Pixabay

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