For those leading the charge, it’s a wholly legitimate ‘call-out’; a pushback against some cabal or conspiracy. Everyone involved no doubt feels a deep commitment to whatever it is they think they’re are doing, but we rarely take a moment to acknowledge that regardless of the issue, whether genderless bathrooms or who is playing Batman, most social media disputes follow a similar pattern.
Because these disputes occur mainly on social media – a relatively recent phenomenon – we feel they are a symptom of modernity. When in truth, these storms are no different from a hysterical public square in medieval times – complete with flying food and demands for rolling heads.
We tend to think of social media as a milestone in our social and technological evolution that has fundamentally altered civilisation. In the absence of any sense of history, that’s a completely natural assumption to make. I suspect most human beings felt that way about the specific time in which they lived; a profound sense that the world was changing beyond recognition and that something ‘must be done’.
I’m sorry to be the one to burst your social media bubble here, but social networks are nothing new. To understand their historic effects, especially where human behaviour and crowd psychology are concerned, you must zoom out from your own timeline and contemplate human behaviour on a much broader scale.
Glaswegian historian, Niall Ferguson, in his recent book The Square and the Tower, sets forth a compelling case that sites such as Facebook are simply the latest iteration of an age-old organising principle of humanity: the social network. Ferguson argues that human history is shaped by the rub between networked communities and their primary oppositional force: hierarchy.
You could argue, for example, that the BBC is a hierarchy and that the various individuals, groups and organisations currently accusing it of one form of bias or another, represent disruptive networks. There is a tension between the two. It’s led to concessions being made at the Beeb across a wide range of areas, from how much it pays women, to how many ethnic minorities and people with disabilities appear on TV and even in the imminent creation of a brand new Scottish TV channel.
Incidentally, viewing Scottish politics through the lens of networks and hierarchies may explain the continued dominance of the SNP, which is unarguably proficient in both configurations.
In the Square and the Tower, Ferguson argues that in the last 500 years, networks have been particularly important in shaping the course of human events. This happened in the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press and again when information-technology led to a revolution in human connectedness in the 1970s, a revolution many of us are beginning to find dizzying because it continues to this day.
Ferguson believes much of the apparent discord and chaos of our world – at both the level of community and politics – is rooted in the resurgence of networks, reasserting themselves over hierarchies by exploiting social media.
It’s only in this broader historical context – and when you consider the fact we haven’t evolved a great deal as a species – that one begins to question the notion that we are any more socially sophisticated than people who lived 500 years ago, people whose worldviews were based on superstition, hearsay, self-interest and gossip. In those days, outrage was a thing too, albeit far more violent. In those days, fake news went viral from street to street, village to city and just like today, communities divided themselves into tribes and sects, based on moral impulse and an ulterior instinct to conform to whichever crowd they identified with.
That sense of immediacy we feel right now, that quickening and escalation, is nothing new. In the 1895 book The Crowd, French writer and philosopher Gustave le Bon wrote of a society afflicted by profound changes brought about by the impact of information on human crowd psychology. He argued that human events were not shaped by powerful people but by how powerful people responded to either pacify or dominate the ‘crowd’. The most notable feature of the ‘crowd’ was an inability to perceive complexity while at once regarding itself as both virtuous and deeply informed.
He wrote: “Whatever be the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise effective influence on condition that they assume a very absolute, uncompromising, and simple shape. They present themselves then in the guise of images and are only accessible to the masses under this form. These image-like ideas are not connected by any logical bond of analogy or succession and may take each other’s place like the slides of a magic-lantern which the operator withdraws from the groove in which they were placed one above the other. This explains how it is that the most contradictory ideas may be seen to be simultaneously current in crowds.”
You may already be drawing a parallel here that personally suits you and mapping it onto a crowd you dislike. When really, I’m saying we are all part of a crowd. We slip in and out of crowds every day now, thanks to social media and its simulation of the public square. Every now and then, we’d do well to observe our social media troubles in this broader context and temporarily uncouple from both our sense of moral surety and the uniqueness of our experiences.
Human beings evolved to communicate directly. It’s why most of our face-to-face communication takes place subconsciously, assessing body language and gaze direction while being able to infer context from what another person is expressing. On social media, this is taken from us. All we have are contextless remarks, which we rely on to direct our thinking despite language being the most recent acquisition in our evolutionary toolkit. It’s no wonder we find this tremendously frustrating and confusing. We function optimally in small groups that our brain capacity can accommodate. The human mind is only capable of modelling complexity at the scale of the family and immediate community – everything else is speculation.
Discussion about trolls, mobs and the like is ultimately useless until we have a scientific analysis of the profound impact social media is having on the human ability to interpret reality and thus communicate. What we are likely to find, despite our society seemingly morphing beyond all recognition, is that as a species we remain stubbornly unchanged.