The wisdom of crowds descends into meme wars
The print era is irretrievably over. And with it, we can wave goodbye to the ideal of ‘objectivity’ — and also public support for mass democracy.
You might say this is a lot to read into the ‘review bombing’ of Amazon’s new Tolkien fanfic series, The Rings Of Power, but we should take this as a microcosm of something far greater than mere collective review mechanisms.
The back story is as follows. Amazon has released a new series intended as a prequel to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that has prompted delight and rage in equal measure, with what some fans perceive as heavy-handed ‘woke’ casting.
The result has been such a deluge of intensely negative reviews that Amazon has suspended reviews entirely. Nor is this the first such instance: the Disney+ show She-Hulk also recently became the focus of a “review bombing” campaign. In response, some are beginning to question the notion of crowdsourcing objective reviews at all — a shift that signals how radically the digital era has transformed core beliefs about the world in just two decades.
Back in the heady early-noughties days of social media, the general assumption was that public opinion was just there and the internet would simply make it visible — something envisaged as obviously a good thing. James Surowiecki encapsulated this in his 2004 The Wisdom of Crowds, in which he argued that collective intelligence is, in fact, better at assessing reality than single decision-makers. Thanks to the power of the social web, Surowiecki thought, we can now take advantage of that collective intelligence and power of truth-seeking to make the world a better place.
Lol, as they say these days.
No one gave much thought as to what would happen when collective intelligence became aware of itself as such. And where early-noughties internet optimists imagined that this would just reveal something that was objectively there, it turns out that making public opinion visible has recursive effects. As we’re beginning to discover, the upshot is not a careful, collective, deliberative striving for the truth, but increasingly unhinged meme wars.
Opinions have never been formed in a vacuum. They’re infectious, as people copy one another. And when this process is made visible it sets off public opinion trends. As more of the public square has moved online, we’ve seen how these can grow monolithic and bitterly factionalised, stifling potentially important public deliberation: take, for example, the hysteria that shut down public discussion of lockdown trade-offs.
This is the dynamic now playing out in ‘review bombing’ of TV series: in essence, it’s a proxy war for a larger moral one, with real-world consequences. So wherever you stand in the argument over the Tolkien fandom, the upshot of our collective loss of faith in “the wisdom of crowds” is an increasingly evident determination across the board to give credence only to the wisdom of some crowds. Others, meanwhile, must be rendered voiceless by any means necessary.
This is one thing in the context of a TV show. But what does it do to the core assumption of democratic governance, that politicians should take public opinion into account? As we slide further into the digital age, we can expect this new tension to become, itself, a core political battlefield.