Mass Psychology of the Net

Ode to a Vanished Discipline

Towards a Mass Psychology of the Net By Geert Lovink In its first, hidden phase, the Internet was developed by universities, research centers, the military and big computer companies. During the late eighties it was discovered by the ‘young white boys’, hackers and small entrepreneurs. This is the second phase, the golden age of cyberculture. The youngsters were still committed to the past of the academic computer networks. They supported the old rules of ‘netiquette’ and practiced the Unix code cult. Until today they see Usenet, ftp, WAIS and e-mail as the core of the Net. At the same time they behaved like a mixture of yuppies and hippies. Their libertarian attitudes brought them (potentially) in conflict with monopolistic companies and the state. Today we see their culture as the essence of the Net. We are still in the middle of this hype wave, which is covered and pushed by the traditional top-down mass media, which is desperately trying to understand, incorporate, tame and regulate the ‘new’. The third phase is the Age of the Online-Masses. Both the old-style informaticians and the new, freedom-loving visionaries of cyberspace are not equipped to deal with the mass-scale incorporation of computer networks into society. Still overoptimistic, only few of them will be able to define the standards for the webbed masses. This is the period of ‘net criticism’ and the ‘political economy of the Net’, no longer from the outside, like the technology critique of the 70s and 80s, but arguing and acting from the inside. This third phase also requires a deeper understand of the ‘mass psychology of the Net’. The second phase was determined by the individual psychology of the user (Brenda Laurel, Sandy Stone, Sherry Turkle), which used post-modern notions of psycho-analysis and French psychology to describe the desire to change gender, identity and personality. The mass psychology on the other hand will have the take the economic reality into account. The Net will be governed by big telecoms, entertainment conglomerates and state, which will try to control and regulate access and content. For a better understanding of the behavior of the cybermasses we could go back to the Golden Age of Mass Psychology, the period between the two worldwars. One could of course start with Gustav Le Bon “Psychology of the Masses” (1895) and Sigmund Freuds “Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego” (1921), Ortega Y Gassets “Revolt of the Masses” from 1930, or “The Ornament of the Masses” by Siegfried Kracauer (1926), Hermann Brochs Massenwahntheorie, a study which he started in 1939, Hendrik de Mans “Psychologie of Socialism” (1927), the “Masspsychology of Fascism” of Wilhelm Reich (1933), Alfred Adlers “On Mass Psychology” (1934), and many more, until “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti, a book which had than a big influence on Klaus Theweleits “Male Phantasies” (1977), Jean Baudrillard and on my group, ADILKNO, from The Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge, Amsterdam. Under influence of authors like David Riesman, Daniel Bell, Alvin Toffler and Alain Tourraine, the term ‘masses’ became more and more associated with the decling ‘second wave’ Fordist production and the outgoing cold war. It became in fashion amongst intellectuals to celebrate the ‘disappearance of the masses’. While millions were standing in traffic jams, filling up large sport stadiums, beaches, airports, malls, bringing the infrastructures of large metropolitan ereas unto a collapse, the sociology could no longer deal with this banal daily reality and started to look for individual tastes in consumer patterns. In modern theory, there were no longer crowds, only groups, communities and most of all, scattered individuals, desperately trying to define their own uniqueness. The masses ‘imploded’ into the media and became a ‘silent majority’, unwilling to express itself in old ways like political representation. Subversion and resistance therefore got trapped into questions of pop and style (cultural studies) and effortless attempts to avoid appropriation by ‘Babylon’, the total victory of neo-liberalism and global capitalism. Hannah Ahrendt wrote in her study “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951): “Masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals. The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of their sheer number, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions.” This is a precise description of today’s Internet. In a period defined by great distrust in political parties, advanced forms of vagueness (Xness) and an apathy to organize oneself into social movements, the Internet now faces the comeback of the masses, not on squares or in the streets, but within large computer systems. The lonely cybercrowds of today are desperate surfing for the ultimate experience, the encounter with the Other in order to reach the final goal of massification within the Net. There is no longer the ideal to have cybersex with a sweet stranger. Time and space have to get real dense and go beyond the low bandwidth of the individual imagination. We are now in search of ultimate forms of complexity, not of dead information on empty website, but a complexity filled up with people, on-line crowds, tribes looking for their accumulation into real events, crashes, riots, virtual panic. Take the example of the ‘Castanet’ channels: “The Knowledge Media Institute is busy building the Roman Collosseum of the Net, virtual stadium capable of housing 100,000 participants tuned in to everything from rock concerts to university lectures with video, sound, animation and text chats. With Castanet an attendee (!) will download the stadium and the means for video and sound broadcasting just once. Take your favorite Web site and envision it as a TV show. ‘All we now need is the killer channel.'” (Wired 4.11) No more scattered users, watch out for the swelling on- line masses and the elitist, anti-mass cyber intellectuals!