Last weekend I went to the Latitude festival, in Suffolk. It’s billed as a family-friendly arts festival (it has comedy, theatre, film, literary and poetry stages in addition to music) and the programme was fantastic.
While I personally had a great time (The National, Laura Marling and Rodrigo y Gabriela being my musical highlights), the festival experience took a clear step away from its family-friendly roots, intentional or otherwise. The most extreme example of this is that two women were raped at the festival. This is obviously horrific news, and the organisers need to take serious action to minimise the chances of this happening again.
However, two less serious instances got me thinking about the nature of crowds and communities.
There were a large number of teenagers at Latitude. The excitement of being away from home and in a field with various stimulants and depressants, combined with general self-centred teenage exuberance, meant that a large portion of the crowd was quite boisterous.
Tom Jones fielded this deftly. In a set consisting exclusively of new material (his Johnny Cash American records direction), he was regularly heckled with calls to sing Sex Bomb. He was continually able to deflect these calls in a calm and charismatic manner.
Calm is not a word that would be used to describe Alice Glass of Crystal Castles. She likes to spend the majority of her shows crowdsurfing, and this was no different. However, she took a particular exception to a couple of fans who she felt had inappropriately groped her. After punching and kicking a couple of them, she left the stage mid-set.
The nature of these events is that the music (or noise, in Crystal Castles’ case) is central, but the crowd augment this by providing the atmosphere. And this atmosphere can be positive or negative – enthusiastic crowds can spur additional encores, antipathetic crowds can ruin the event for those around them.
This is also the case with online communities. There is a central purpose that draws people in (such as the content covered or, if it is a research community, a financial incentive), but the enjoyment of the experience is dependent on the community dynamic.
A community with a disruptive troll or two can be destroyed from within. Banning community members should only ever be a last resort, as it can set a dangerous precedent for idiosyncratic rules. Ideally, it requires careful moderation to disarm disrupters and avoid feeding trolls, so that eventually they lose interest or conforming to the social norms of the group.
Tom Jones seems like he would be good at community moderation. Alice Glass wouldn’t be.