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Uncontrollable, unpredictable and just a little bit frightening: crowds create spaces in which rules can be broken and thinking can be disrupted.

Words Lucy Jolin

When Bridget Minamore (English 2014), co-founder of Brainchild Festival, scheduled poet Maria Ferguson for the noon slot at the 2015 festival, she was just hoping for a good start to the day. When you’re operating on festival time, noon is early. Opening acts expect sparse attendance and a ripple of applause if they’re lucky. But this time was different.

Ferguson was trialling a new show, Fat Girls Don’t Dance, which she took to the Edinburgh Festival this year. “It was a bit rough and she was clearly nervous at the beginning,” says Minamore. “But word spread across the site about how good it was. After she’d been on stage for a few minutes, it was just clear that the crowd was with her. The tent was packed. She got a standing ovation at the end, when we didn’t even think most people would be up, let alone standing up. Something beautiful happened there. You could see it in Maria’s face, and the faces in the crowd.”

That’s the mysterious alchemy of crowds: they can change things. Their collective will can send a performance soaring or condemn it utterly. We talk of both the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and ‘mob mentality’. Their will can inspire the courage to tear down walls of oppression, or the kind of fury that kills. Those in power court them, hate them – and fear them.

“We have a very strange relationship with crowds,” says Jorina von Zimmerman, a PhD student in experimental psychology, who studies how synchrony – people doing the same thing at the same time – creates a social bond between people, whether it’s soldiers marching in rhythm or football fans jumping up and down to celebrate a goal. “We fear them – they are unpredictable, the ‘mob’ – and at the same time we find them fascinating. Whether you’re in the crowd or observing it, it creates very powerful feelings on both sides. We get lost as individuals. We get immersed, and we feel part of a bigger whole.”

Think of crowds and the first thing that usually comes to mind is an image of protest – the voice of the people making itself heard. Dr Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, a specialist in the history of 20th century Britain, points out that street protest in modern Britain takes place against a context of increased democratic rights. The majority have the power of the vote. Yet people still take to the streets, despite democracy. Why? Identity politics play a big part, she says. “Why bother going to a CND rally, for example, such as those mass gatherings in the 1980s, even though the Labour Party rejected unilateral nuclear disarmament? It was about saying who you were. You might not have brought about a change, but you still went to the rallies and bought the badge, because it said something about you.”

Complex forces swirl around flashpoints of protest – the poll tax riots, the Brixton riots, the anti-war protests of the Blair era

The complex forces that swirl around flashpoints of protest – the poll tax riots, the Brixton riots, the anti-war protests of the Blair era – mean that there’s little point in trying to quantify their effect. Images of protests reveal that those protests can be more effective than the corridors of power – arguably it was the photogenic fury of protesters at the 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square which led to the junking of that tax, rather than the more prosaic alternative of Mr and Mrs Average sitting in their marginal constituency feeling rather cross and changing their voting intentions. “The protests were a very obvious demonstration of the policy’s unpopularity,” says Sutcliffe-Braithwaite. “But Chris Patten, then Secretary of State for the Environment, said it was ‘targeted like an Exocet missile’ on middle-class voters in marginal constituencies. It was incredibly unpopular with MPs in those constituencies and they were very nervous about it.”

And there are other, less obvious factors behind those people coming onto the streets. Dr Hannah Fry, lecturer in the mathematics of cities at the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, describes her work as “studying patterns in time and space”. A crowd, she says, may seem random, “but we leave patterns in everything we do”. She points to the 2011 London riots, which started after a peaceful protest following the police shooting of Mark Duggan. A bus was set on fire, a local shopping centre was looted. The next day, copycat riots sprang up all over London. By the third day, the riots had spread all over London and the UK, with around 4,000 arrests and five fatalities.

When Fry and her team analysed data from the riots, working alongside the Metropolitan Police, they identified three key findings. The riots were contagious – their pattern resembled the way disease spreads through a city. The rioters came from some of the most deprived areas of the city. And 80 per cent of people travelled less than three kilometres from their own homes to riot. In fact, the process was very similar to the way in which shoppers behave. They prefer to shop locally, but they’re prepared to go further for a big shopping centre. The rioters were the same, picking looting targets.

A crowd is no longer just a physical gathering. It’s a resource. You can use its money to fund your new business, its passion to sign your online petition, or its expertise to decipher thousands of pages of manuscripts


The Colour and Spring festival celebrating the love between Krishna and Radha, part of the Holi festival in Uttar Pradesh state, India. © Christophe Boisvieux/Hemis/Corbis


The London leg of the annual World Pillow Fight Day flashmob gathered in Trafalgar Square in April 2013. © Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis


A Gangnam-style flash mob outside Moscow’s Olimpiysky Sports Complex, where Korean singer Park Jae-sang, better known as Psy, gave a press conference devoted to his 2013 Moscow concert. © Golovkin Pavel/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

A data gathering

You can’t necessarily predict a riot, emphasises Fry. But information like this helps you plan for one. “Look at how earthquakes happen,” she says. “Once you know earthquakes happen, looking at the aftershocks, predicting where they are going to be, and how frequently they are going to occur, you can’t say for definite this is where it is going to happen but you can have a degree of predictability.”

In the internet age, a crowd is no longer just a physical gathering: it’s data. (IBM estimates that we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, including everything from the photo you posted on Instagram to information gathered by climate sensors in the Antarctic.) It’s a resource. You can use its money to fund your new business, its passion to sign your online petition, or its expertise to decipher thousands of pages of Jeremy Bentham’s handwritten manuscripts, as the Transcribe Bentham project is currently doing. And, of course, you can mine it for information – but you need to know what you’re looking for. The problem with crowds, says Sofia Olhede, professor of statistics, is that they might give us more data, but it’s not necessarily the information we actually want or need.

“If you want to know something, you need to design an experiment – but that’s not how people collect data nowadays,” she says. “We like using crowds because it’s so easy. We like using found data for exactly the same reason – there is so much of it that surely there must be some information within it. But data without our understanding of how it arose is valueless. You might as well go online and download numbers from an arbitrary website. You have to work out: how am I getting this data? And what do I know about this crowd? Are they representative?”

And it’s vital to remember, says von Zimmerman, that when we talk about crowds, we’re not talking about some amorphous, faceless mass. We’re talking about ourselves – both as individuals and how we act together. “Psychology knows a lot about individuals and has done a fantastic job of describing individual feelings and behaviours,” she says. “But essentially, we are social beings. There is hardly a situation where we are not influenced by something that is happening around us on a social level. So it’s very hard to separate the individual from the context which that individual is part of. That’s why we are trying to bring the study of groups and individuals together. We need to understand how people act in groups. Otherwise, we have done a poor job of understanding individuals as well.”

Amazing things happen when people come together. The UCL alumni network has more than 200,000 people around the world. You can join our global community by attending events, volunteering, mentoring or making a donation to UCL’s work. Visit www.ucl.ac.uk/alumni for more information and watch out for news about our on-campus festival, due to happen in Summer 2017, as part of the Campaign for UCL.

  • Contents 2016/17Contents 2016/17
  • DeconstructedDeconstructed
  • InboxInbox
  • Two new grand challengesTwo new grand challenges
  • Free RadicalFree Radical
  • UCL a “global university”UCL a “global university”
  • Jeremy Bentham SpeaksJeremy Bentham Speaks
  • Extra CurricularExtra Curricular
  • The Strong RoomThe Strong Room
  • CloisteredCloistered
  • Follow the CrowdFollow the Crowd
  • A Time to GiveA Time to Give
  • How to Build a BrainHow to Build a Brain
  • Next MachinaNext Machina
  • Social AnimalsSocial Animals
  • What Janani, Sarah and Adam did nextWhat Janani, Sarah and Adam did next
  • The power of philanthropyThe power of philanthropy
  • This idea must dieThis idea must die
  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 3. 2016/17