Surfing through the wealth of websites offering opportunities to contribute to scientific research (the so-called “citizen science”), whether by lending computer processor time for distributed computing projects or by requesting an actual human contribution, such as classifying galaxies, one cannot but marvel at the diversity of the vocabulary used to refer to users. They can be contributors, citizens, participants, donors, members of the public, or part of the crowd. If most of these words are somewhat related to politics, none has more political undertones than the latter. When we speak of the crowd (rather than a crowd of xyz), we see more than a great number of people; we think of, say, violent revolutionary mobs, mass political meetings, or protestors going on strike. And it is as if the word tacitly implied some kind of condescending denigration — as if the crowd only existed in relation to an elite few. When we speak of the crowd, we often imagine the patricians sneering at the plebs.
Should it come as a surprise that the popularity of “the crowd” reached its highest level between the 1880s and the 1930s, at a time when answering the “social question” (what holds society together) appeared pressing in the West? Probably not. However, what is much more startling is the recent upsurge in the use of the word. If, as Kelty (2012) has pointed out, thepeople was the major political category of the 17th and early 18th centuries, if the public was that of the late 18th century, and so on, what does it mean that we’re seemingly reverting to the crowd as one of the main political topoi of our times?
For contemporary advocates of crowdsourcing (Howe, 2006), the crowds of our times stand in striking contrast to those of the old days. Today, we have wise crowds (Surowiecki, 2005) and smart mobs (Rheingold, 2002), instead of the dangerous, irrational, and violent crowds of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Or maybe, the crowd has not really changed; rather, it is our view of the crowd that has undergone a wide transformation.