Over the past few years we have been inundated with news stories, articles and conversations about the post-pandemic crowd, who appear to have become more deviant and anti-authority than we have seen in years. Since the events industry restarted after lockdown, we have experienced mass deviant behaviour on an unprecedented scale. In the UK in 2021, deviant behaviour at the Wembley Euro 2020 Final gave an insight into how crowds might behave from then on, with break-ins attempted at events following that year including Astroworld, London New Year’s Eve, the Wizkid concert, and a Cricket T20 World Cup match in Dubai.
Fast forward to 2023 and mass break-ins appear to have declined, however deviant behaviour seems to have increased at events globally; from Formula 1 to golf to theatre, to high school sports in the USA and community events in Australia. We've seen fans throwing items at artists on stage, even injuring them. Yet, watching social media clips of crowds as Taylor Swift launched The Eras Tour has shown me less deviance and more benevolence.
As I researched this phenomenon, two qualities stood out to me; Emotional Intelligence (the capacity to perceive, regulate, and manage emotions, and interpersonal relationships empathetically)²² and positive expressions of Shared Social Identity (where a set of people view each other as members of a common social group, adopting behaviour based on collective norms)²⁰, when observing fans swapping friendship bracelets, demonstrating mutual respect, and not acting deviantly.
How are these behaviours so different? And what could be influencing them? In this article I consider the common themes discussed at industry conversations (Global Crowd Management Alliance and UK Crowd Management Association), to help understand the cause of deviant behaviour and breaking into events, as well as observed crowd behaviour at The Eras Tour. These themes include opportunistic deviance, the effect of the pandemic lockdown, industry experience and social media. As Taylor Swift's tour launched, I observed footage of The Eras Tour crowds online, where I began to notice the difference in behaviour.
The combination of both research avenues revealed an opportunity I believe could improve crowd safety as our industry evolves.
From my perspective, opportunistic deviance has always existed in the undercurrents of society, from people misbehaving at events, in school and on holiday. Billie Eilish reminds us that fans have always been throwing objects at artists, as far back as Shakespearean times, when crowds threw rotten fruit at the stage if they deemed a performance less than entertaining. Yet the majority of people conformed to social norms, and as an industry we had enough collective experience to manage those crowds. However, since the pandemic these established norms have shifted, and we have witnessed an increase in deviant behaviour across society.
The Pandemic Effect
I observe that one possible reason could be the sharp fall in people’s trust in the government after its handling of the pandemic response⁷ and suppressive lockdowns¹. Government ministers did not adhere to the rules they imposed on “us”, and therefore "we” reacted by disregarding their authority. This appears to have resulted in a revolt against authority figures, with the “crowd” anonymity of attending events making it easier to behave like this. Essentially, people don’t want to be told what to do with their bodies or behaviour¹³ any more.
As an industry we have lost experience and our ability to respond to situations as effectively as in the past. Experienced professionals, from crowd managers and safety consultants, to stewards and security staff, are changing careers, retiring and migrating post-Brexit and the pandemic. In addition, police forces have been withdrawing support for crowd management at events across the UK.
This loss has left a gap in competent decision making and management. Recognition Primed Decision Model⁵ (RPDM) highlights it is through experience that we are able to make effective decisions under time critical pressure. Without experience, we are less able to recognise problems before they occur⁵ when planning events, as it is through experience we identify what is missing from a crowd safety plan.
I believe the practice of crowd safety at events shares traits with High Reliability Organisations (recently discussed on the Safety Sistas podcast), as we constantly face serious and complex safety risks, requiring competent management and time-critical effective decision making. If we have we been relying on the competency of experienced crowd managers, rather than creating a robust system to design organisations, train and qualify crowd safety professionals, are we now operating in an environment with increased risk?
Another observation has been the rise of TikTok and the ever increasing pressure for 15 seconds of fame; cue a fan handing Pink a wheel of brie at her British Summertime concert in Hyde Park. TikTok only became popular just before the pandemic, was the most downloaded app in 2020, and now appears to be a cultural anchor in the post-lockdown world we live in now. In addition, Forbes magazine recently uncovered a dedicated “Heating” team at TikTok that secretly hand-pick videos to purposefully “supercharge their distribution” in order to incite reaction, keeping users engaged with the app, as well as fuelling deviant behaviour.
Seemingly exploited by social media companies, could there be a lasting impact from the pandemic where people feel starved of connection, and so seek attention by behaving deviantly and sharing reactionary behaviour online?
"We’ve reached the point where a not-insignificant number of people don’t want to be at the gig – they want to be seen to be at the gig, so they can whack it on Instagram.” Simon Price, Guardian
A Deviant or Benevolent Crowd
When large numbers of ticketless crowds arrive outside a Taylor Swift concert compared to Astroworld or London New Year’s Eve 2022, they share the same potential of breaking in, yet their behaviour seems to manifest differently.
When researching spontaneous deviant behaviour after the Wembley Euro 2020 Final, Emergent Norm Theory⁹ helped shape my understanding of how crowd behaviour changed, from a group of individuals unknown to each other to strategising as a collective, in less than twelve hours.
Emergent Norm Theory argues that actions of individuals in a crowd are guided by a set of behavioural norms, based on a shared understanding of the situation. For this to occur, three criteria need to be satisfied;
- There needs to be a formation of a group surrounding an event,
- There needs to be group interaction via communication and observation of the immediate physical environment,
- The resulting emerging norms that form provide the crowd with compelling justification for collective action.
The first criterion is easily triggered, however the crowd must discover a Shared Social Identity that individuals are willing to adopt. This process of discovery is called “Milling”⁹ where individuals ask each other questions and shape a picture of the situation, becoming sensitised to each other, building a relationship, and priming for influence⁸.
For the second criterion, individuals either communicate in person or via mobile communication (such as Telegram or TikTok).
The final criterion, where the group norms emerge, serves as the group adhesive and gives the crowd power⁷. It is as this point that the crowd take collective action which, in the case of Astroworld or Wembley Euro 2020 Final, meant breaking through security perimeters and cordons to access the event. This led me to consider if demand for The Eras Tour tickets far outweighed the supply, then why does it seem these crowds have not tried to break in?
With scenes of thousands of ticketless fans outside Eras Tour stadia, it appears they are not causing disruption or damage to the venue or surroundings. Instead they gather together, remain in situ, sing and dance to the songs Taylor performs inside the stadium. How is this so?
As we navigate the challenges of deviant behaviour, industry experience and social media post-pandemic, can studying Taylor's crowds help us find a way forward?
The influence of Taylor Swift
Not only one of the world's biggest music stars of this generation, Taylor Swift is also changing the industry on an unprecedented scale. From championing artists' rights, to overhauling label contracts, she is reshaping the music business.
Taylor has harnessed social media to foster a direct relationship with fans, through "easter eggs" (dropping clues in her music, videos and social media), responding to their social media posts, and inviting them to her house for pre-album launches, which demonstrates her authenticity and strengthens the connection between Swift and her fans¹⁹.
Taylor's ability to recognise, respond to and respect her fans has fostered a Shared Social Identity²¹between them, supported by her songs on heartbreak, friendship, self-authority, and self-reflection. She has even been known to change her work after fan feedback (featuring more Lana del Rey), an unusual display of self-awareness in the industry.
It seems this demonstration of self-awareness and Emotional Intelligence has nurtured the same quality in her fans, cultivating a fanbase of “intelligent people”, and reminding us of our own potential. She also shows consideration to those outside her fanbase; employing almost the same band members and dancers since her first tour, donating to food banks of every city The Eras Tour visited, and recently giving $100,000 bonus to all her tour truck drivers on completion of the USA leg.
Emotional Intelligence and Safety
What piqued my interest was the connection between Taylor and Emotional Intelligence, and if this is enhances crowd safety at her events.
Emotional Intelligence helps people understand themselves and each other¹⁵, and in the context of crowd safety, I surmise this quality increases understanding of action and consequence (e.g. I understand that breaking in will hurt others, damage the venue and risk my safety and safety of others), raises awareness of self and others (e.g. I care about the health and safety of myself and the people around me and so will behave respectfully), and can improve care and consideration between attendees and staff (e.g. I respect the staff and would not risk their safety so will not cause trouble).
"...just because communication means having gentle healthy boundaries, it really freaks me out when stuff gets thrown on stage, because if it's on the stage then a dancer can trip on it. I love that you brought presents, that is so nice, but can you please not throw them on the stage, I love you so much"
This narrative matches what I observed in footage of The Eras Tour, including Taylor respectfully asking her fans to stop throwing items on stage, as well as fans gathering outside behaving benevolently. In addition (as a fellow Swiftie), I often scroll through subreddits and notice members sharing how pleasantly surprised they are about how nice, kind, and considerate Swifties are at a Taylor Swift concert. The word I often see is how "safe" they feel compared to other events.
"As a social experiment, she has created the ultimate safe space (The “Taytopia,” as I referred to it to my wife), especially for women (from my male point of view). Every single possible community was represented and all were dressed to the nines with zero apprehension of judgement. A friend of mine who went also said she and her friends left their bags at their seats when they went to get drinks because they said “who here would steal?” She’s right. Taylor has created something truly special." ~ Ted Ramey on Reddit
Looking to Harry Styles concerts, where crowds display similar behaviour, fans have been known to demonstrate collaborative behaviour, including forming orderly queues by themselves (making the job of the crowd safety team easier to deliver), with one journalist stating “emotional intelligence” as Harry Style’s Unique Selling Point.
Just like Swift.
Is the prevalence of Emotional Intelligence among Taylor Swift fans influencing their safety behaviour in a way that they act more benevolent than deviant when gathering outside stadia? With little academic research on Emotional Intelligence and safety behaviour in the events industry, I considered studies in other industries including petroleum²³, construction²⁴, the workplace¹⁶ and when driving¹⁷¹⁸, all of which demonstrated a strong connection between the two.
If research into other industries also highlights this link, can we consider it when planning events in a world where “people’s behaviour at music gigs is getting worse”?
I believe the combination of positive Shared Social Identity and Emotional Intelligence promotes a collective behaviour of mutual respect between the crowd and staff, which enhances Swiftie's safety at The Eras Tour.
Applying this strategy at other events could potentially reduce antagonism and deviant behaviour. If we, i.e. event organisers, crowd safety team, police etc., can foster Shared Social Identity with the crowd through identifying common ground and establishing agreed norms of behaviour, then there is no one to act deviantly against. If we are able to nurture Emotional Intelligence, there may be an opportunity to not only reduce risk to crowd safety but increase enjoyment in the event experience.
I believe creating an environment where the crowd behave with respect, care and joy to each other and event staff, starts by developing our own awareness in how we treat ourselves and our colleagues. By encouraging mutual respect within our teams, we can mirror that behaviour to the crowd, creating a culture that naturally asks the same of them (like Taylor Swift).
Evolution of Crowd Safety
I have contemplated this cooperative approach to improving safety for some time, because we can’t do it by ourselves. It is difficult to continue believing 2,000 people will keep 90,000 free from all harm. I believe our way forward in improving safety is to nurture Emotional Intelligence and mutual respect in our teams and attendees. Just as the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 reminds us that everyone is responsible for their own safety, I believe we need to harness that in our approach to managing safety at events.
I see three areas in which this applies;
- How we treat ourselves as well as our event day staff; ensuring welfare is sufficient, providing appropriate training and recognition, and that staff feel respected and heard. (Unfortunately lack of staff welfare provision is common in the events industry).
- How we communicate policies, procedures and protocol to our audience in a respectful and informative way. (Empower them with information and use Injunctive Norms - creating culture of how we want them to behave.)
- How we treat the crowd, which affects how they treat us. If staff can be seen as a fellow human rather than dehumanised objects (jacket fillers?), the crowd might respond better to their instructions.
If we can respect ourselves authentically, we can help to cultivate a culture of consideration. This respect cascades to positively influence the behaviour of all those working to deliver an event, who in turn may behave more benevolent to the crowd. Just like Taylor and her team respect their crowd, their crowd respects them, making our role of crowd safety management easier to deliver with everyone on the same side.
Nurturing Shared Social Identity and Emotional Intelligence in a positive way provides the crowd and event organisers with the opportunity to evolve from a relationship of "us and them", to one of consciously co-creating an enjoyable event experience together.
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