Sociology and “milling” online

When unusual or bad events occur, how do people respond? They go online to try to make sense of it all:

Photo by San Fermin Pamplona on Pexels.com

I don’t know what to make of all this, and I doubt if there is anything to be made. But the behavior on display is, if nothing else, a product of a lack of sense. It’s the agitated, aimless buzzing of the type of crowd that gathers in the aftermath of some bewildering catastrophe. Social scientists have a name for this mode of chaos: They call it “milling.” We are all just chattering away in restless and confused excitement as we try to figure out how to think about what’s happening. We want to understand which outcomes are most likely, and whether we might be obligated to help—by giving money or vowing not to share misinformation or learning the entire history of global conflict so as to avoid saying the wrong thing. We are milling.

The word comes from the mid-20th-century American sociologist Herbert Blumer, who was interested in the process by which crowds converge, during moments of uncertainty and restlessness, on common attitudes and actions. As people mill about the public square, those nearby will be drawn into their behavior, Blumer wrote in 1939. “The primary effect of milling is to make the individuals more sensitive and responsive to one another, so that they become increasingly preoccupied with one another and decreasingly responsive to ordinary objects of stimulation.”

These days, we mill online. For a paper published in 2016, a team of researchers from the University of Washington looked at the spread of rumors and erratic chatter on Twitter about the Boston Marathon bombings in the hours after that event. They described this “milling” as “collective work to make sense of an uncertain space” by interpreting, speculating, theorizing, debating, or challenging presented information.

To apply the term to the current moment may be a little sloppy—for a sociologist, milling would be the precursor to meaningful group action—but it gets across, you know, the current mood. We’re emoting, lecturing, correcting, praising, and debunking. We’re offering up dumb stuff that immediately gets swatted down. (We’re getting “ratioed,” as it’s called on Twitter.) We’re being aimless and embarrassing and loud and responding to each other’s weird behavior. “People are kind of struggling to figure out appropriate ways of responding to this really uncertain situation,” Timothy Recuber, an assistant sociology professor at Smith College, told me. Recuber, who is also the author of Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, is an expert on the role that media play in what he calls “unsettled times.” And in these unsettled times, he said, we’re engaged in something like what Blumer had in mind.

The wisdom of crowds as an emergent property in the midst of uncertainty?

I wonder how this milling has changed over time. Specifically, I am thinking about spatial changes in the United States over the last century or so. Milling could work better when people live either in denser areas or small towns. This could lead to having “the public square” described above for people to gather. In a more suburban setting, where a majority of Americans now live, where would milling take place? Walking outside their house or residence might put them in contact with some neighbors but it would take some driving for many to get to a location where people might gather. Go to the shopping mall? The local library? Walmart?

If suburbanization reduced public spaces for gathering and add to this fewer people going to work during COVID-19, the online sphere offers more opportunities. The physical geography matters less when people can enter an online public square from anywhere. Now, there are numerous public squares available online with certain platforms or sites offering different opportunities and population with which to interact.

How effective is this online milling as opposed to milling in a offline location? In the offline public square, there is an embodied experience with people. The online public square is different with fewer cues from other actors and someone has to say/do something to be recognized.

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