One of the generally agreed upon things in the modern, 21st century wealthy nation world (or at least the politically progressive part of that world anyway) is the democracy of the crowd. We love the crowd, whether real or virtual, love being a part of it, participating in it with our technology and sometimes our feet and our voices. We look to our partners in the crowd for good restaurant recs on Yelp, find out what’s happening out in the world on Twitter, feel solidarity from it in Occupy protests. But this is not your old-school crowd of nameless, faceless people called out for rallies by the union president. In the new crowd, we all have equal voices, with our individual rights and feelings protected and even prioritized. We feel empowered to destroy a business’ reputation on our beloved Yelp if they didn’t note a food ingredient we didn’t like in a salad we ordered. Each and every one of us (or at least a few of us in combination) can grind an Occupy meeting to a halt if we loudly register our anger at this or that position, or just because we aren’t comfortable with the process.
We love this tension between the crowd and the individual, the empowering solidarity, even if we wouldn’t necessarily call it that with most of our online interactions. But is the individual just as manipulated by the crowd of other individuals as by a corporation or political party or any other institution? In our empowered individualism within a huge community of equally empowered individuals, are we any more savvy? Are we participating in a democratic process through an Occupy protest or is the bogged-down consensus process that Occupy so values an open opportunity for stools from the police to sabotage the movement’s ability to do anything (I’m not saying this actually happened, but given the history of police infiltration in American social movements, it seems quite plausible. Plus the answer to the above question is likely both)? Is an anarchist who is showing influence within a movement and convinces some other people to break windows without larger approval from the entire movement a committed thinker or an agent provocateur?
For that matter, is there any reason to believe any kind of customer review online? This Times piece on professional “reviewers” being paid by self-published authors to give positive reviews, a process that seems to lead to increased sales for many, suggests to me that we, even the most supposedly savvy of us, are as manipulated now as ever. The crowd and the empowered individual does not protect us in any way, in fact, it may make us more vulnerable as our confidence lets our guard down.
On Twitter, Matt Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) said about the Times article, “Possible future scenario: online customer reviews are ruined, publishers become more authoritative.” I thought that was interesting. Does the fact that anyone can say anything mean that all statements become equally worthless without some kind of expertise to back it up? For that matter, could we see a future where, as a broader society, we see the pendulum swing back toward expertise and institutionalized leadership in books, politics, or all the other ways in which we distrust expertise today?
And while it may seem that comparing political movements and profiteering manipulation on websites are apples and oranges, in my mind they are part of the same phenomenon.
Obviously I could be wrong about all of this, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about in my spare moments for the last few days.