A long time ago the Romans realised that the biggest threat to power was a bunch of disillusioned citizens getting together and deciding to do something about it. This group was generally known as the “Mob”, or more theatrically the “Great Audience”. The main worry for the ruling powers was to keep the mob distracted. Note: distracted, not involved. The elite could afford to have their own little circles, but they would be small groups whose voices would be drowned out by the mob if the worst came to the worst.

This theme re-occurs throughout history and across the world and in various forms whether in peace or war. There are times when the Mob is one with the direction of the society, but most often it is seen as a disruptive influence.

The mob is best known to most people as “the general public” or “those not in my social/employment circle” but the most ready identifier of a mob is the anonymity of it. If people are subject to a large enough group to lose their sense of individualism and also cannot be readily identified, they often engage in behaviours that you would not attribute to them as individuals.

Even the size of the group can have some effect. Consider the behaviour of people from a small village where everyone is known to the behaviour of those in a city of millions where there is an unwritten thought “I’ll never see her/him/it again so why care about it ?”.

So what does this have to do with Social Media ? Right now I’m looking at Skype and noticing that of the 14,717,220 people online, I know 17. Those 17 I have elected to know and relate to for some reason. This blog on the other hand is public. Those 14,717,220 people can view and comment. Their actions may have an effect, be it spam, praise, criticism, ignorance (in action or by action), attention, linking and so on…. It is not as accessible in some ways as a message board but it is subject to the same problems. Let’s also remember email, who out there does not get spam ?

Those 14 million can become a very vocal “mob” for the minority in a medium which has no sanity checks. In some ways unlimited access to knowledge has also brought the same for ignorance.

Wikipedia and Twitter have managed to do something that years of meritocracy and and personal growth and development had railed against. They’ve made anonymity equal in status to experience and actual knowledge. People’s reputation now needs to be identified and managed within communities, which has added an element of measurement back into the process and some quantification of trust.

On one hand the Internet means that everyone has a voice. On the other hand, it has become the distraction of the Mob, and the sacrifices needed to keep the Mob going are people’s integrity, celebrity, and privacy.

Part of the motivation for this post was Trent Reznor’s account of why he is quitting the social media domain (also here).

After all, we don’t want to end up like this do we ?