Connectedness and crowd psychology

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose contains the following passage: “…I saw that it is one thing for a crowd, in an almost ecstatic frenzy, mistaking the laws of the Devil for those of the Lord, to commit a massacre, but it is another thing for an individual to commit a crime in cold blood, with calculation, in silence.”

The idea underlying this sentence is that crowds initiate a mutation in the human psyche. An individual will do things as part of a group he would never do in solitude. Itself, not a revolutionary idea. But consider many of the articles exploring relationships amongst the first generations to grow up with smartphones and the Internet. The conclusions are, typically, that these generations are both the most connected and the most isolated. Tools for instant communication, regardless of distance, are ubiquitous, yet loneliness is rampant amongst the populations who have developed alongside them.

While this trend of connected-but-isolated is burgeoning, we’re also seeing acts of severe irrationality. Tales of sexual abuse, skirmishes between Social Justice Warriors, volatile markets manipulated by disruptive technologies and pragmatic individuals. Which makes me wonder. Does our constant connectedness and communication make us feel like we are never apart from a crowd, even when alone? And in constantly being part of a group, are we vulnerable to the same effects that occur in actual gatherings of people in meatspace?

For example, isn’t a teen, barricaded in his bedroom but active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and Snapchat, as much a part of a group as someone standing in a crowd of ten thousand? And if so, isn’t he just as vulnerable to mass hysteria, to the flight of reason and the fragmentation of empathic ability? Doesn’t the constant connectedness of an individual open them up to the distorting effects of group dynamics