Humansys: What the Flock is Going On
Flocking or swarming behaviors have evolved in animals for a variety of reasons. Birds flock in order to reduce drag when migrating long distances. Fish school as a deterrent to predators. But most human flocking behavior is counter-productive, and even dangerous. We tend to flock in two situations.
Have you ever driven past a wreck on the road, and felt the traffic slow down as drivers crane their heads to get a better view? As though, if they weren't required to move at all, they might just pull their car to a stop and have a good long look? Rubbernecking is a type of clustering -- its more extreme cousin is firetruck and police-car chasing. If you thought it seemed dangerous, you were right; According to a study done by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and Virginia Commonwealth University, rubbernecking accounted for 16 percent of wrecks (the highest percentage), while cellphones (the second highest) accounted for only 12 percent.
Another example is clustering and crowding around disasters like fires, which are interesting to look at. This is hugely dangerous, because fires can spread, gas lines can explode, and debris can fall. When the Twin towers fell 2001 hundreds of bystanders were injured or killed because they stood too close to the falling debris as the towers collapsed. Similarly, even thought classic signs of a tsunami were present, beach goers waded out into the super-low surf to collect fish and shells, even as the monster waves built out at sea.
Almost the exact opposite of clustering occurs in other situations, but with no less danger. If you remember the tragic nightclub fires of Chicago and Rhode Island a few years ago, you know what we mean. A small fire inside the building caused a stampede of movement for the doors, which, being the type that open in, blocked the initial exiters. Then, the pressure of the other people behind them made the doors impossible to open as the flames become a real dangerous fire. Huge loss of life resulted from this small initial trigger of a stampede.
Even more disastrous are the effects of flight on disease spreading. When the SARS outbreaks occurred in China, a global pandemic was feared. Interestingly, part of the reason for the successful containment of the disease has been attributed to China's iron fist of control over its citizens which was able to stop people fleeing into India or the US.
Despite their dangers, designers are taking advantage of these behaviors, either to limit their damage, or even to turn them into positive output. Massachusetts is among the first cities in the US to use giant screens to block viewing of wrecked vehicles on the side of roads. The hope is that when the interesting view is removed, travelers will no longer cause congestion by slowing down to look.
Or, on a positive note, the Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park is a swarming point in a positive way. Little kids swarm to play in the water, parents swarm to look after them, and the amalgam of the two becomes a great people watching experience which draws in the other visitors of the park in.
Like all other Humansys topics, this isn't really a call to action. Swarming isn't some kind of problem that needs fixing. But this is humanity. This is how we act. Designers need this insight more than anything. Because, whoever you are designing for, they are human, subject to the same irregularities and tendencies as all of us. Being able to understand and navigate these rules is what makes us designers
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team