Internet Crowds and Personal Space

Generally speaking, I think there are currently two main anthropological clichés about internet culture:

The first one is “The internet brings out the status-seeking narcissist in us.” The internet, social media, and continuous mobile connectivity with all our friends and peers means that a large percentage of our lives are carried out in public. In doing so, we craft and project an image of a particular type of person we’d like to be, both to our peers and to ourselves. 

This isn’t new. It’s human nature to live our lives partially as a performance. The internet just happens to be a fantastic venue for that kind of performance. Social networks, to borrow Eugene Wei’s framing, are the “Status-as-a-Service” providers where this behaviour plays out today. 

The second one is “The internet brings out the angry mob in us.” Who among us hasn’t witnessed, or maybe even partaken, in today’s public pile-on? The internet, especially real-time social media like Twitter, is a natural forum for scapegoating: a flash mob can assemble in seconds and gang up on some single poor person (deserving or not) in a kind of online public execution. 

I know I’ll take heat for this, but I don’t care: they can be so much fun. Social media is at its best when everyone is talking about the same thing. And the main way that happens is when there’s a collective villain. Sometimes that villain is fine, like the Patriots or something, other times it’s a single person who did something benign but ridiculous and somehow strikes just the right chord to go viral (see the long, weird history of Internet Wife Guys), and sometimes it’s people who actually did bad things. 

Many of these public scapegoating strikes are deserved, of course: ‘cancel culture’ has undoubtedly evolved and overlapped with ‘consequence culture’, where people are now finally facing consequences for their past behaviour. But nonetheless, online cancel culture is a real thing, and it’s interesting. 

Both of these themes, coincidentally enough, have been in the news recently as social media giants like Twitter and Instagram ponder a tricky problem: their products are mature and successful, but in ways that feel harmful to their users. 

Instagram’s test to hide Like counts expands to the US and across the globe | Jay Peters, The Verge

Twitter is trying to fix the Dunk and Ratio | Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed News

It’s an interesting test for product teams: what’s the right way to modify or fix your product, if it’s being used in an undeniably authentic, yet harmful way? It’s also an interesting question for internet sociologists: two what extent are these two phenomena – narcissism and scapegoating – related online?

I’ve wondered for a while what exactly is the relationship between these two sides of internet culture. They seem a bit at odds with each other: the goal of finely curating your unique online persona, and relentlessly focusing inward on yourself, seems a bit antithetical to indiscriminately joining an online mob where your own identity is completely irrelevant and you can often say things you regret later. But my gut feeling is that these two clichés, as overwrought as they are, are both real expressions of the same thing: two sides of some deeper social logic. What, though?

Let’s go check my favourite untapped trove of Consumer Product Wisdom: books written more than fifty years ago. 

One of my favourite books I’ve read this year, Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, has some really interesting ideas about this. 

Crowds and Power begins by introducing the concept of personal space. We’re acutely aware whenever someone enters into our personal space, both literally or metaphorically. Getting inadvertently touched by a stranger sets off the same sort of alarm as having our personal identity get “stepped on” by a new employee who’s popular in the office. We reflexively bristle at it, often out of proportion to what’s warranted. 

To Canetti, personal space is not some negotiable, middling concept. It’s a compulsive need and a primitive fear, wired into our psychology:

The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is – the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch – proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality. 

A lot of our everyday activity consists of metaphorical variants on a common task: establishing and defending personal space. This could be our pursuit of physical and financial security, or our pursuit of status and recognition among peers. Making a 401k contribution, buying a new pair of yeezys, or washing your car seem like totally different activities, but they’re all variants on this same theme. 

Our identity and self-image is highly wrapped up in our personal space, and we do not like when others invade it. When your neighbour buys a new car, or someone tells a joke at your expense, or a petitioner rings your doorbell unexpectedly, we often experience a violent reaction of disgust and panic: a feeling that the boundaries of your personality have been violated. 

The more we care about personal space, the more of a burden it becomes. We strain under the effort of maintaining and protecting that perimeter. It’s a self-inflicted strain that constricts and scares us. The larger the distance around us we seek to protect, the greater the cost, and the more effort and paranoia it demands of us continuously:

The satisfaction of being higher in rank than others does not compensate for the loss of freedom of movement. Man petrifies and darkens in the distances he has created. He drags at the burden of them, but cannot move. He forgets that it is self-inflicted, and longs for liberation. But how, alone, can he free himself? Whatever he does, and however determined he is, he will always find himself among others who thwart his efforts. So long as they hold fast to their distances, he can never come any nearer to them. 

There is only one place where we do not guard our personal space, and have no fear of being touched: in a crowd. 

Photo by yours truly. What a night that was.

Canetti has a really interesting definition of a crowd: a crowd is a state where personal space is discarded. In that moment where personal space is let go, like a weight being lifted from your shoulders, you feel free. Canetti calls this moment the “discharge”: the moment where a group of individuals transforms into a crowd. That feeling of freedom and vigour in a crowd, as if a weight has been cast from your shoulders, is the feeling of being relieved of the continuous, oppressive burden of protecting your personal space:

Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd. During the discharge distinctions are thrown off and all feel equal. In that density, where there is scarcely any space between, and body presses against body, each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd. 

Now what does this have to do with the internet?

To me, the dual riddle of “the internet turns us into status seeking narcissists” versus “the internet turns us into mindless angry crowds” makes complete sense if we think about it in terms of personal space. 

Our online lives are a constantly shifting, high-stakes environment where we have to stake and defend our personal space 24/7. It’s exhausting, and compulsive. Successful social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram become attractive to join as they gain momentum and reputation for being “status as a service” platforms: places where you can go to create and sustain a particular kind of performance about yourself, both to your peers and especially to yourself. Your online state requires constant upkeep. 

Status online, in other words, is personal space. The effort you have to put into maintaining that space, which covers a whole range from keeping up a Snap streak to blocking harassers is the same as Canetti’s idea from 60 years ago. The burden of protecting this digital perimeter can be exhausting, and it’s a universal experience to anyone who spends enough time online. 

That’s why online crowds are so much fun. They’re a release. When everyone shows up at once to dunk on a bad take or pile onto a ratio, that sublime feeling you get is the feeling of relief: the discharge of burden as a group of individuals transforms into a crowd. “I’m so stressed out from keeping up this performance at all times, and so are you, but at least we can get together every once in a while to nuke some poor bastard along with the rest of the internet.” 

These feelings are self-reinforcing. The more invested you are into your own online persona, the greater will be the constant burden that you experience around personal space – and the more of a thrill you feel when you get to cast off the burden of that identity and become one of a thousand people dunking on some scapegoat. But crowds are inherently temporary: without growth in numbers or a direction to move, they eventually disperse and scatter as its members regain their sense of self. When people come back to their individual senses, the crowd relief gets washed out and our usual guard comes back on. 

I think you could do a pretty interesting categorization of different social media networks and different spaces on the internet (blogs, forums, what have you) based on what “personal space” means in each context. A bunch of bloggers with their own websites and newsletters, as I have, will probably face less pressure to keep up a performance and defend their personal space compared to, say, Twitter. If the effort involved in protecting your personal space is lower, it probably follows that the exhilaration and relief you get in the discharge of a crowd might be lower too. 

I bet you that there’s promise in thinking of social media’s product problems in a personal-space lens. “Give people better tools to manage their personal space” seems like a perfectly good starting point for a product direction. And it is: just not in the way that most people would think. It’s pretty logical to think that by giving people privacy, protection, and personal space tools (e.g. giving them more control over who can reply to them, who can follow them, who can see their tweets in a timeline) you’ll help them withstand being ganged up on. But those same steps might have an unintended and useful consequence in preventing scapegoating in the first place: making the surge of the crowd slightly less rewarding. 

I’m not really a product person, but bet you this would be a fun experiment to think through. The ebb and flow of personal space is a part of human nature, even online. But the nice thing about the internet, unlike the physical world, is that you can actually change the environment in which that personal space is managed and experienced pretty quickly. If you ask the right questions, I bet you could learn a lot here.

Like this post? Get it in your inbox every week with Two Truths and a Take, my weekly newsletter enjoyed by thousands.