In his essay Die Verachtung der Massen of 2000, Peter Sloterdijk argues that we have entered a new age of mass mediation. Today, we are part of the masses not through our participation in street demonstrations, strikes, or the like. Rather, so Sloterdijk suggests, we are part of the mass when we sit on the couch and watch TV shows. The screen has replaced the street. The program principle has taken the place of the Führer principle.1While it can hardly be denied that the mass media, and more recently new social media, have had an impact on how crowd and mass phenomena are being materialized, experienced and orchestrated, an emphasis on epochal ruptures easily overshadows the fact that, from the very outset, the academic discussions of the role and nature of crowds, which emerged with the advent of crowd psychology in the late nineteenth century, revolved around a concept of crowds as inherently mediated entities. To be sure, the kinds of mediation attributed to crowd phenomena took different shapes, depending on the theoretical outlook. But there was a widespread agreement that some form of mediation was at play in the formation of crowds.
The present chapter aims to sketch how elements of this crowd mediation were articulated. How, in other words, was the relation between crowds and media observed and problematized in the field of crowd theory in the late nineteenth century, and how was this relation conceived by the heirs of this theoretical tradition? In the first part, I discuss how crowd mediation can be addressed and discussed on the basis of classical crowd theory. Specifically, I assert that the work of Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde points to a double, or even triple, crowd mediation process revolving around the mediation taking place in the crowd as such, and the mediation of the crowd through the leader (and vice versa). The second part discusses the role of mass media, focusing on how these might manipulate the masses through propaganda. Finally, I discuss how a rationalist-individualist conception of crowds emerged in sociology in the 1960s (still hegemonic in those specialized branches of sociology that continue to take an interest in crowd phenomena), and how this notion of crowds has produced an ignorance with regard to the idea that the crowd itself might be seen as a mediating entity.
While reflections on crowds...
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Mass gatherings and the positive or negative phantasms of the masses instigate various discourses and practices of social control, communication, and community formation. Yet the masses are not what they once were. In light of the algorithmic analysis of mass data, the diagnosis of dispersed public spheres in the age of digital media, and new conceptions of the masses such as swarms, flash mobs, and multitudes, the emergence, functions, and effects of today’s digital masses need to be examined and discussed anew. They provide us, moreover, with an opportunity to reevaluate the cultural and medial historiography of the masses. The present volume outlines the contours of this new field of research and brings together a collection of studies that analyze the differences between the new and former masses, their distinct media-technical conditions, and the political consequences of current mass phenomena.