Crowdsourced social order in Boston: technology replaces relationships?

By Mary Still.

Particular public crises become etched in the collective conscious: the Arab spring, in which masses mobilized by internet technology revolted against government regimes, is such an example.  September 11 is another. Hurricane Katrina, with its images of poor people floating on makeshift rafts, is a third. The Boston Marathon bombings appear to have a similar hold on our psyches, in part for the vividness of the bombing images, but also for the ensuing manhunt, an unprecedented example of swarm intelligence facilitated by technology. The uniquely inter-connected citizenry became a self-organized army that rapidly organized to restore social order.

For those of us on lockdown in Boston, information on the bombings flowed in a seamless, constant stream through TV, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and cell phone.  It felt a bit like a militaristic video game, as UMB’s David Levy observed, like we had all gone online for one massive World of Warcraft showdown.

The moral panic in Boston was not what made the event so unique. Instead, it was the rapidity in which that panic diffused beyond those directly affected, and the breakneck response time of the masses, who actually shaped events to follow. Law enforcement had no choice but to unleash the public on the investigation, since that public was already using online tools to identify potential suspects and posting their images worldwide.  This pressured law enforcement to release photos of the alleged perpetrators, which then brought the suspects out of hiding and led to their capture.

Americans are unused to, and intolerant of, social disorder such as that experienced after the bombings.  We have a relatively well-fed, impassive populace (in comparison with much of the rest of the world) and the resources to lock up offenders. We take order for granted. For centuries before us, however, social order was a key focus of philosophers and social theorists, and certainly the key concern of sociologists. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that social cohesion so characteristic of traditional small societies had been forever changed by industrialization, and that “modern” social solidarity would be produced not by shared values, religious beliefs or bonding rituals, but by specialization and inter-dependencies (we no longer grow our own food, build our own homes, fix our own cars).  Philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America’s strength as a democracy rested upon its inner-connected citizenry, who joined religious, educational, moral, intellectual and other types of associations at high rates. These kinds of ties, de Tocqueville and others have argued, enable societies to pool resources and fight common enemies, because the relationships engender trust, exchange of information, and coordinated action.  Sociologist James Coleman proposed that such social capital was essential for constraining deviance, and showed that children who attended close-knit Catholic schools where “social closure” was common (i.e., parents knowing other parents, teachers knowing parents) were less likely to engage in deviant behaviors and more likely to conform to desirable norms (graduation).

These classical theorists’ ideas cannot explain what happened in Boston last month. Technology, not social relationships, enabled the citizenry of Boston to act cohesively and to collude with law enforcement. There was no need for social capital when information was free-flowing and widely available to anyone. The social closure so important for effective monitoring of behavior in Coleman’s theory was unneeded in Boston;  we had video cameras and cell phones to monitor behavior, and public repositories to display our evidence on the Internet via Youtube, Facebook, and websites created instantly just for the event. We didn’t need Tocquevillian associational ties, nor Durkheimian inter-dependent relationships.

Modern thinkers have been debating the negative effect of technology on social life for some time.  A decade ago, the public conversation on social capital, sparked largely by political scientist Robert Putnam, led to concerted efforts to address problems of civil society through a shoring up of social capital.  The World Bank launched a series of meetings and workshops between 1993 and 1997 on pressing global issues that largely focused on the role of social capital as a critical resource (culminating in a book on the subject), and from there, the idea spread to nearby sectors and institutions. Non-governmental organizations, housing and urban planners, and the field of economic development turned to social capital as the panacea for thorny social problems. Indeed, an ABI/Inform search of articles on social capital and crises/disasters produces more than 800 articles, most pointing to social capital as a critical component of community resilience.

But back in Boston last month, the city handled the threat primarily through the internet, not through long-standing relationships of trust and obligation.  One wonders, were the classical theorists wrong about the necessity of social capital to social order? Was the World Bank in fact misguided in identifying social capital as critical to a civil and orderly world? And should we care if people know their neighbors, as long as they can get on Facebook or LinkedIn to find out about them when they need to?

A sociologist’s immediate instinct is to bristle at the idea of a future where social relationships are enacted for fleeting needs or convenience and are largely instrumental, since most sociologists subscribe to a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” world view. The idea here is that a collectivity can achieve more in (face-to-face) interaction than the individual and solitary contributions of each member added together.

The Boston crisis, however, provides support for the more atomistic explanation of behavior preferred by economic theory. In this view, individual agents pursuing their own interests with no central coordination or social interaction will cluster around the optimal outcome. Such is the case in biological systems, where bees produce “swarm intelligence” and in markets where aggregated individual predictions perform better than those of experts, resulting in “the wisdom of crowds.”

We saw last month the whiff of potential crowdsourcing pitfalls. Several people were mistakenly implicated and descended upon by the mob of public observers. Law enforcement effectively lost control of the investigation and was reduced to performing the brute chore of apprehending the suspects. The media was rendered impotent, sometimes resorting to anonymous Twitter and youtube posts as sources.

Besides inaccurate reporting, weakened police and mob mentalities, though, a society with low social capital and high technological capacity creates an environment in which it is easy and tempting for people to neglect the kinds of networks that have been linked quite robustly to positive outcomes like  health, happiness, human capital and innovation. Socially integrated individuals live longer, have lower blood pressure; social isolation is a risk factor for undesirable health outcomes.

It seems clear the Boston Marathon bombings will join other significant events in the public imagination, but accounts that describe the tragedy as an example of the empowered masses triumphing over (evil) immigrants are unnerving. We know too much about crowd behavior, witness unreliability, human cognitive limitations and biases to accept unfettered citizen participation as a superior form of social control. After all, it was only a short distance away from the bombing site, in Salem, MA, that the country’s worst example of mass hysteria led to the execution of 19 innocent citizens.

The lesson learned from previous technologies is that they will change social life in some ways, but probably not as dramatically as alarmists fear. If the Internet makes it easier to catch criminals, as it did in Boston, it will improve society. (It should also spur a reconsideration of theories of social control and social capital). If, at the same time, it seduces us into living more isolated lives, it could be hurtful. Already, trends in socializing, volunteering, affiliation memberships and personal networks show the United States in a state of decline. If these forms of social capital are indeed what undergirds democracy, then the implications are a more serious matter altogether.

Further reading

Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology. 94 Supplement: S95-S-120.

Dasgupta, P. & Serageldin, I., ed. (2000). Social Capital: A Multifaceted Perspective. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

De Tocqueville, A., & Frohnen, B. (2003). Democracy in America (Vol. 10). Gateway Books.

Durkheim, E. (1997). The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. Lewis A. Coser. New York: Free Press.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3), 353-375.

Putnam, R. (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  Simon and Schuster.

Smith, K. P., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Social networks and health. Annu. Rev. Sociol, 34, 405-429.

Surowiecki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books.

Related Posts:

Marc Lavine: “Reflections on the Boston Marathon tragic events (Introduction)”

Banu Ozkazanc-Pan: “Terrorists: Some you see, some you don’t”


5 thoughts on “Crowdsourced social order in Boston: technology replaces relationships?

  1. Sabine and Stephan, you both make excellent points. The efficiency of the Internet for solving personal problems (instant support groups for such issues as illnesses you’ve just been diagnosed with; getting someone to pick up your old couch through a craigslist “curb alert,” etc.) and the anonymity spoils us — why spend hours in messy social interaction that may or may not pay off when you can be in your pajamas accessing hundreds of people with similar problems? As for whether technology enriches or poses risks, I think it does both. Either way, it changes us.

    Perhaps cases like the marathon will have an inhibiting effect on those planning such atrocities (if they see how easy it is for law enforcement to engage the public in their capture) but more likely, it will make them more careful. (And if they are martyrs, the publicity will only add to the appeal.) Social capital is, in theory, supposed to curb deviance, but I don’t know if anyone has considered it as this level of violent activity.

  2. In her revealing analysis of the manhunt Mary makes the point that “technology, not social relationships, enabled the citizenry of Boston to act cohesively…”. The more general question she raises is whether technology, i.e. the internet used by individual agents, can replace relationships of socially integrated individuals. I wonder whether the nature of these internet-based relationships and the specific role of individuals involved are in fact more critical than the impact of technology as such. These relationships are open and loose (in the sense of not integrated), they are formed ad hoc (not by a joint cause), and the feedback on activity is generated by technological devices (not by people involved). Regarding the role of the individuals, Mary highlights in particular the problem of isolation (“individual agents pursuing their own interests with no central coordination or social interaction”).

    This isolation, I think, links up with another major problem: the low degree of responsibility individuals have to take for their involvement. They can join in anonymously or without any personal contact with others, in any case there is little or no feedback from other agents involved, so they are hardly accountable among themselves for what they say or do, and they may be very little affected by the results of their individual actions. This seems to be a major difference to traditional social relationships. And, one might ask, is it a source of enrichment or rather of risk for society? It is of course true that internet technology shapes these relationships to a degree unknown for traditional social relationships, but I would still think that the people making use of this technology are the challenge rather than technology itself.

  3. Thanks Mary for this thoughtful piece. I also felt the power of technology taking over and creating a second reality, a strange mixture of proximity/immediacy and distance. But I think another important question is: Can technology prevent such tragedies from happening? I doubt it. Can social capital? I don’t think so. Thinking that I might have seen Dzokhar Tsarnaev randomly at the coffee shop in Cambridge I sometimes work in, and knowing for sure that people I know personally have actually talked to this guy before (again randomly) does not change anything. In a world where the local gets blended with the global, where people get radicalized through the Internet, where people are increasingly mobile and exposed to various sets of norms and views at the same time, it is almost impossible to expect any form of ‘social control’ to ‘tame’ individual behavior. On the contrary, what I do believe is that any form of old-school imposed order (e.g. military power and intervention, restrictive laws, monopolistic capital, sophisticated surveillance) gets undermined more easily and quickly. Let’s not forget that the capture of the two brothers was very lucky. Not only did they stroll around undetected for days after the bombings, but they were actually on their way to New York to place the next round of explosives at Times Square. Only the fact that their vehicle ran out of gas and that the driver who was taken hostage was able to make a call led to the famous lock-down which was nothing more than a show-down… If technology does anything here then perhaps prove how vulnerable social order really is.

  4. Pingback: Terrorists: Some you see, some you don’t | Organizations and Social Change

  5. Pingback: Reflections on the Boston Marathon tragic events | Organizations and Social Change

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