As Lang and Lang point out in their paper “Mass Society, Mass Culture, and Mass Communication: The Meaning of Mass,” the term “mass” has a history rife with negative associations, particularly in recent decades. Acting as a site of convergence for multiple themes, the mass is subject to criticism from both Conservative and Liberal viewpoints as theorists point out the potential downfalls of a public that is homogenized, malleable, and pedestrian. Indeed, it seems as though some positions against mass culture contain an air of elitism (although this is not always expressed overtly), suggesting that those who criticize the masses have somehow managed to escape its thrall (and are better for it).
Although one cannot necessarily fault critics of the masses—as Lang and Lang note, the term took on a new set of meanings between the end of World War II and the Cold War as a reaction to world events—there has been an effort to rehabilitate the term, which also argues for a reconsideration of what “the masses” encapsulates.
Combining the work of Benedict Anderson—who famously wrote on the imagined community—with that of Gabriel Tarde and Paul Lazarsfeld, we begin to see an argument that speaks to positive (or, at the very least, functional) aspects of the masses. (We must of course recognize that both Anderson and Tarde wrote in cultural contexts that differed from each other and from the mid-century critics mentioned above.) For if we take Anderson’s description of the initials forms of imagined communities (i.e., those that were built on religion), we see that Lazarsfeld’s “opinion leaders” become the priests while media takes the place (or supplements) our religion. The idea that we form a sense of community based on notions of nationalism or belief in religion is a powerful one, for we begin to see that the very linkages that cause us to constitute a “mass” also allow for the development of a democratic state.
And although we cannot discount or ignore the potential power of the mass media, Lazarsfeld’s work speaks to the idea of a “two-step flow” or “limited effects model” of communication, which argues that individual people possess the ability to mediate the messages broadcast to the masses. If we grant Lazarsfeld’s work validity, we begin to see that, despite the fears of those who would consider the masses as mindless herds, the potential for agency does exist in audiences. The question, then, is whether we teach individual actors to exercise this power.
But we can also push beyond the notion of an imagined community to think about James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and how it attempts to unpack the notion of collective intelligence, offering insight into when (and why) the phenomenon works. Throughout his book, Surowiecki points out the dangers of groupthink, mass hysteria, and insufficient communication—some of the very things that we might think of when considering the downside of masses, the tendencies identified by Surowiecki might speak to movements that are best described as mob rule.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Surowiecki also notes that when collective intelligence works, it can produce some amazing results. The go-to example of Wikipedia aside, the 21st century has seen an incredible rise in distributed intelligence and crowdsourcing along with some equally incredible results, as evidenced by success with Foldit (a game designed to help discern the structure of a protein that makes up the AIDS virus).