Elias Canettis Masse und DasGeileNeueInternet

Gepostet vor 10 Tagen in Tech Share: Twitter Facebook Mail

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Ich lese grade eine Reihe von Büchern, um meine Beobachtungen zu DasGeileNeueInternet akademisch aufzublasen theoretisch zu fundieren. Das erste ist (natürlich) Elias Canettis Masse und Macht.

Ich hatte da bereits einige Stellen gemarkert und wollte die demnächst für's Netz aktualisieren, aber nun hat meine Sort-Of-Namenvetterin Renee DiResta das bereits getan. Sie analysiert netzbasierte Massen-Phänomene darüber hinaus anhand von Eric Hoffers The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, das ich bislang nicht auf'm Schirm hatte und jetzt auf meiner Leseliste steht.

lulzCanetti unterscheidet in seinem Buch zunächst zwischen offenen und geschlossenen Massen, erstere zeichnen sich vor allem durch Spontaneität und grenzenloses Wachstum aus, letztere durch Institutionalisierung und Kontituität. Beiden gemeinsam ist das Ziel, die Mission, und die Unterscheidung zwischen „Wir“ und den „Anderen“ („Us vs them“).

Laut DiResta ist Twitter mit seinem spontanen #Hashtag-Activism ein das Social-Media-Äquivalent für Canettis offene Massen, während Facebook mit seinen drölf Millionen Gruppen und seiner Kommunikations-Symmetrie (ich kann Dich nur lesen, wenn wir uns gegenseitig folgen) geschlossene Massen erzeugt.

DiResta erwähnt auch ganz richtig die neue Unendlichkeit für Massenphänomene im Netz, einer der grundlegenden Unterschiede zu den alten Masse-Begriffen bei Canetti: „The new open crowd is increasingly persistent, and can grow to massive proportions without ever needing to dissipate. Since there is never a full dissolution, cathartic emotional release – the kind that would be achieved by actually tearing down the statue in the town square – is never achieved. Instead, there is a perpetual state of simmering crowd-fury and crowd-paranoia.

Ihr Update zu Canetti in der Kurzfassung:

To translate Canetti’s main observations to digital environments:

  • The crowd always wants to grow — and always can, unfettered by physical limitations
  • Within the crowd there is equality — but higher levels of deception, suspicion, and manipulation
  • The crowd loves density — and digital identities can be more closely packed
  • The crowd needs a direction — and clickbait makes directions cheap to manufacture
  • Translating Eric Hoffer’s ideas to digital environments is even simpler: the Internet is practically designed to enable the formation of self-serving patterns of “true belief.”

Ein Paradoxon, das DiResta nicht erwähnt und über das ich derzeit sehr viel nachdenke, ist das Spannungsverhältnis zwischen Individuum und der Masse. Wo sich das Individuum in klassischen Massen ab einem bestimmten Punkt immer auflöst, bleibt man im Netz immer der Einzelne vor einem Screen. Die Synchronisation verläuft nicht mehr über Körperlichkeit und visueller Wahrnehmung und Rythmus, sondern durch bewusst gewähltem Aktionismus durch Auswahl/Kuration, Formulierung von Hashtags und Sharing-Mechanismen. Das Individuum bleibt erhalten, die Masse formt sich nach memetischen Gesetzen. Diese müssen erarbeitet werden, um die neuen Masse-Phänomene im Netz zu verstehen.

Ich werde mir in den kommenden Wochen die Zeit nehmen und versuchen herauszuarbeiten, wo die klassischen Masse-Modelle nach Canetti und Hoffer im Netz versagen und/oder Paradoxa erzeugen, to quote myself: „Das Ergebnis gleicht dem Irresistible Force Paradox, einem bekannten Gedankenspiel der Philosophie: 'Was passiert, wenn eine unaufhaltsame Kraft auf ein unbewegbares Objekt trifft?' Im physikalischen Meatspace sind beide Dinge nicht gleichzeitig möglich: Es gibt keine unaufhaltsame Kraft, wenn es ein unbewegbares Objekt gibt. Im Internet funktioniert das Paradoxon allerdings prima mit bekanntem Ergebnis: KABOOM.“

(Sehr) großzügiges Zitat ahead (Hervorhebungen von mir), aber lest unbedingt den kompletten Text: Crowds and Technology. (Bild oben: Trolltwitter-Visualisierung von Luca, „Masse und Lulz“ von yours truly dank Systemcrash aufm Zweitrechner mit Trackpad zusammengegimpt. Sucks.)

Social platforms are The Great Enabler. They eliminate the need for physical proximity, yet provide a readily available standing group of individuals to call to action at any moment in time. The effort required to participate in a digital crowd is much lower than in the real world: you don’t have to yell or march or carry a sign, just click the Share or Retweet button from your couch. The cost of participation is also much lower: you’re unlikely to be physically harmed, arrested, or killed as a participant in an online crowd. In fact, you can usually participate anonymously.

Different platforms have specialized in serving and hosting the different crowd types. Twitter, for example, is a swirling plaza-like open crowd which allows people to quickly gather into sub-crowds, around hashtags that summarize a #mission or articulate an instance of #persecution. These sub-crowds are largely spontaneous, and quick to form and dissipate, often in response to some perceived offense or insult. But the broader crowd persists — and this is important. There is camaraderie and a shared sense of mission in the word-wars between those with opposing views about a given hashtag (Canetti described war as “an eruption between two crowds”). There is paranoia: allegations that other participants are shills, bots, or false-flaggers are rampant in Twitter mobs.

And most importantly, the hallmark destructiveness of the open crowd is fully present.

While there is no physical statue to tear down or victim to stone, online harassment, dogpiles in particular, are the digital manifestations of these very ancient rituals.

Facebook, despite having a billion users, functions as a closed crowd (or, perhaps more accurately, a warren of closed crowds). People orient into friend networks or affinity groups, typically in true name. Permanence and trust are paramount. Closed sub-crowds have a strong sense of group identity and culture and establish their own norms. Most people don’t look to Facebook for mob justice, or to experience collective instantaneous rage. They’re there to participate in a community focused on an ongoing shared interest or mission. And this is likely why we see fewer thinkpieces about harassment on Facebook. Sure, the moderation tools are better (bidirectional block and identity verification), but the distinction comes down to the temperament of closed vs open crowds: Facebook doesn’t need rage to grow. That’s just not what people are there for. Facebook groups aren’t grasping for a new mission in a frantic attempt to avoid dissipating; they’ll simply be there the next time you log in.

The underlying social and psychological motivations that drive crowds have remained constant over time. But our new technological scaffolding has changed the way that they form and exist in the world. Today’s crowds can grow to unheard-of proportions and never dissolve. Their members are no longer equal. And for the technologically savvy, their power they embody is easier to wield, and the members are easier to manipulate.

The New Crowd

Persistent and Large

Whereas the open crowds of the past convened in physical locations, and were limited by biological needs and space constraints, the digital crowd has no such concerns. When one member temporarily halts participation to sleep, those in a different time zone can pick up the slack. Even if the #mission has shifted by the time the original group wakes back up, they can easily rejoin the crowd through the permanent, easily-searchable record that is digital communication. The new open crowd is increasingly persistent, and can grow to massive proportions without ever needing to dissipate. Since there is never a full dissolution, cathartic emotional release – the kind that would be achieved by actually tearing down the statue in the town square – is never achieved. Instead, there is a perpetual state of simmering crowd-fury and crowd-paranoia.

Unequal, and easy to manipulate

While social platforms make us all equal in terms of having access to megaphones and publishing tools, they simultaneously allow us to very easily mask our identities. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Or a Kremlin bot. Or a paid commenter. We no longer physically look at the fellow participants in our crowds. The sense of camaraderie remains when there is an active, shared mission — but there’s also chronic vague undercurrent of suspicion that perpetually feeds the crowd’s natural inclination toward paranoia and distrust.

This distrust isn’t necessarily unfounded, because the digital crowd is also far more easily manipulated. The company, government, or wannabe-demagogue most adept at using technology to harness the energy of the digital crowd becomes the master of a phenomenally lucrative source of dollars or votes. Facebook is a particularly powerful tool for manipulating activist passions because of its personalized targeting tools and mechanisms for engineering virality: if organic virality doesn’t materialize, pay-to-promote is cheap and effective. All sorts of actors have benefitted from zero-cost publishing and the demise of the fact-checking gatekeepers who controlled Old Media; to make something real, you only have to make it trend. We live in a post-fact society; every issue is a digital marketing campaign and radicalization happens via the recommendation engine.

To translate Canetti’s main observations to digital environments:

  • The crowd always wants to grow — and always can, unfettered by physical limitations
  • Within the crowd there is equality — but higher levels of deception, suspicion, and manipulation
  • The crowd loves density — and digital identities can be more closely packed
  • The crowd needs a direction — and clickbait makes directions cheap to manufacture
  • Translating Eric Hoffer’s ideas to digital environments is even simpler: the Internet is practically designed to enable the formation of self-serving patterns of “true belief.”

The Impact

Technologically enabled persistent crowds impact society in four principal ways.

First: we are likely to increasingly find ourselves in a battle of polarized extremes. The persistent digital crowd is still ultimately a crowd, driven by emotion rather than rational thought. There is a greater tendency toward extremes; moderates aren’t driving the roiling fury of Twitter mobs. And since public conversations now happen on social platforms, we’re likely to see the polarized, passionate, organized ends of the political spectrum increasingly dominate the conversation.

The silent, moderate majority seems likely to be rendered even more silent, as it’s flanked by persistent digital crowds on both sides. It will either have to discover some passionate fervor and form its own activist crowd, or it will need to attempt to influence the structure and design of the technology itself.

Second: we will likely see an increase in the ability of crowds to influence opinions. The evolution of public opinion looks something like this: mob → social movement → opinion current. Another way to look at this progression comes from The True Believer: Men of Words → Fanatics → Men of Action. Men of words seed mass movements: the writings of the propagandist, the muckracker, the novelist, influence the opinions those prone to becoming True Believers because of dissatisfaction with their circumstances. The fanatics — unified by anger, discontent, hatred, and a willingness to believe the unbelievable — spread the message, creating the gravitational pull of a crowd. Men of action eventually appear to helm the mass movement; they begin to build the power structures and institutions necessary to achieve the culmination of the grand vision.

Social media has reduced friction for the men of words. It is much easier to spread a message (any message; veracity is optional), and there’s a more readily available, persistent, and already-organized group of potential fanatics waiting to receive it. There is no shortage of angry, discontented, frustrated individuals in our current political climate, as Andrew Sullivan notes in a recent thought-provoking essay looking at the rise of Donald Trump (a man of action). Given the more permanent nature of today’s digital crowds, the speed with which information travels, and the ease of propagating an idea, we can move from a mob to an opinion current faster than ever before. This is not purely negative development by any means: but it has resulted in some very surprising recent political trends.

Third: the relationship between crowds and power will shift. Even small crowds, such as special-interest groups, will wield increasing influence over traditional institutions of power. It’s very difficult to measure the true size of a virtual crowd. In Canetti’s day, leaders could gauge how passionate the masses were about an issue by looking at the number of people climbing the fences. In the modern era, sockpuppets and bots surreptitiously attempt to shift public opinion and conversations.

This means there is an increased asymmetry of passion and leverage between the niche digital crowds, and the moderate mainstream. Niche groups are often very small in number, but persistent and loud when it comes to spreading their message. By leveraging the reach of social networks, they can have a disproportionate impact in shaping policy. The pre-digital power of special interest groups looks benign by comparison. Even the smallest digital crowd can masquerade as a majority, and when enough messaging is targeted at a particular person (for example, a legislator), it becomes extremely difficult to determine whether a campaign is a rising opinion current that should be taken seriously, or the work of dedicated and noisy small minority. Also, creating the perception of mass approval around an idea can result in actual increased legitimacy in the battle for public opinion: people who are exposed to an idea repeatedly often begin to believe it; at a minimum, they believe that many others believe it, so it must be worth considering.

Fourth: online harassment mobs will become a weightier issue, because the dynamics of participation will have higher stakes. For most of history, participation in crowds was largely anonymous by default. Besides the police (occasionally), no one really cared about the name of the person next to them at the rally. This has changed in the era of doxing. A digital crowd is only effective when its members participate by speaking up. Therefore, online harassment and intimidation are the new most effective tools for shutting down a crowd. American culture is built on the premise that that the best antidote to repulsive speech is more speech. But in the era of digital crowds, the threat (or perceived threat) of backlash, harassment, intimidation, or outing mean that many choose to remain silent. And so, the group that is most willing to apply repulsive tactics has the potential to achieve the largest share of the conversation, and have the loudest message.

And all this is further compounded by a media establishment that is incentivized to cover the sensational.

Tags: DasGeileNeueInternet Philosophy Psychology Trolls

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