The Ugly, Embarrassing Spectacle of ‘Milling’ Around Online

What we’re doing when we make erratic posts about Ukraine

Cartoon of Ukrainian flag with circling mouse pointers
The Atlantic

No surprise, casual social-media chatter about the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been unhinged. I mean that almost literally: It’s as if an important door has been ripped off its hinges, allowing all the worst thoughts ever thought in the history of thinking in sentences to come spilling out. These include jokes—attempts at dark humor for dark times—that end up being like, “I don’t know about you, but this is not the ‘vibe shift’ I was hoping for.” Then there’s the deeper horror of stupid sincerity. The actor AnnaLynne McCord recorded herself (wearing a turtle-tank!) doing spoken word about how if she had been Vladimir Putin’s mom, he would not have become evil. “I know how I could easily have moved in the direction of becoming a dictator myself,” she later told BuzzFeed. A woman who went to the same college as I did (Lord, help us!) let her fellow “empaths” know that it is okay to take a break from the news and find your inner peace, while an impressive number of Americans expressed the opinion that they should not have to do their “silly little email jobs” during a war, and that they were tired of “living through historic events.”

The Marvel fans, of course, immediately began processing the bombardment of distant cities as action movies, and then cast them with political figures. Others found joy in the punchiness of the Ukrainian resistance, retweeting images of anyone cursing out Russian war machinery. After a Ukrainian brewery started making Molotov cocktails with Putin is a dickhead written on the label, I saw someone declare that Ukraine was “winning the meme war,” and that it was “hard to overstate just how important” that was. And for reasons I cannot explain, I have read hundreds of messages about the conflict from Steven Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen’s band and Tony Soprano’s fictional crew. “We should call Putin’s bluff because he ain’t nukin’ dick,” Van Zandt tweeted last night. “Wipe out that convoy and say what are you gonna to [sic] about it? All bullies are pussies.” His followers were dogged in their attempts to talk him out of this idea—forgetting, it seems, that Van Zandt’s attitude about whether the United States should declare war against Russia matters not at all.

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 Blumer model of behavior is very doom-and-gloom, and sort of outdated. (Recuber referred to it as “older.”) After a crowd gets done with milling, Blumer theorized, it moves on to doing things—things that can be “strange, forbidding, and sometimes atrocious.” Later scholars pointed out that milling crowds can also end up engaging in not-so-terrifying behaviors, and that individuals do not usually lose all control of their faculties in the face of a disaster. But the idea that milling is a first response to horrifying or confusing situations has indeed held up. As Ralph H. Turner and Lewis M. Killian put it in their 1957 book, Collective Behavior, “the restless, random movements of the uncertain individual” are (sometimes perversely) helpful to those who are looking around to see how others are responding to a situation, and trying to guess whose thoughts or behaviors will be approved by the broader group. Certainly, people use Twitter this way. I know I do.

Recuber, who has spent his career watching people post about all kinds of disasters, seems to find it easy to maintain a distance from especially bad tweets. They are just “expressions of our powerlessness as average citizens,” he told me. “We’re milling about, kind of waiting to see what’s coming, wishing we could do more to stop this stuff. I mean, we don’t really have a means to affect the situation at all.”