Flash Mobs in the age of mobile connectivity

By: Eva Kol
On: December 15, 2006
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About Eva Kol
I recently got my MA degree at the VU studying CIW (in my case a combination of Dutch literature, Italian and communication sciences). At the moment I'm happily working to become a Master of (New!) Media at the UvA. My thesis will be about the social networking website Hyves.

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Since we didn’t have enough time yesterday to do all the presentations, I will give you a summary of the article on flash mobs by Judith Nicholson (2005).

What is a flash mob? According to a definition by the Oxford English Dictionary it’s  “A public gathering of complete strangers, organized via internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again”. The first flash mob took place in New York in June 2003: one hundred people gathered in Macy’s furniture department around a $10.000 rug to tell the salespeople they all lived in a free-love commune and wanted to buy a ‘love rug’. Other flash mobs followed quickly in cities all over the world. The trend was already declared passé in September 2003. Why was a trend often described as ‘silly fun’ so hotly contested? Nicholson argues that the reason was the conjuncture in flash mobbing of 3 types of mobile communicating: mobile texting, targeted mobbing and public performing. These made the trend a significant moment in the history of mobile communication.

Mobile communicating

Announcements for flash mobbings were circulated like chain letters via email and SMS. Its popularization was well documented by blogs and media primarily because of the use of mobile communication technologies. Flash mobbers often used for example camcorders, digital cameras and camera phones to record their participation in the events. There were also many blogs created to share information about mobbings in different cities. It has been widely suggested that flash mobbing was shaped primarily by Internet use. Nicholson on the other hand, states that the trend was also shaped by mobile phone use. It has been shaped by the shift in using mobile phones from private communication to more collective use dominated by mobile texting. In the late 1990s North Americans began to use mobile phones to facilitate fast, decentralized, one-to-many  interaction. Nicholson calls this “mobile mass communication”. The mobile phone was being used by protestors, particularly at anti-globalization demonstrations. So mobile mass communication was key to the anti-globalization movement and to flash mobbing. This overlap suggests the movement and the trend were similar at least in terms of how participants communicated and organised themselves. An example of the use of mobile mass communication is what happened in 2001 in the Philippines. To force the resignation of the corrupted president Estrada, Filipinos gathered at a major highway for a mass public protest. It ended with Estrada’s fall. The gathering was co-ordinated by mobile texting. This is an example of the political potential of to mobile mass communication, although flash mobbers in general emphasized that it was an a-political trend without a leader, with no particular issue and no specific mandate. Their credo was: “The power of many, in the pursuit of nothing”.

Targeted mobbing

Nicholson compares the term flash mobbing with Rheingold’s smart mobbing. He defines a flash mob as “A group of people who organize through the net to stage a public event for the fun of it.” Smart mobs are “Impromptu gatherings, like celebrity stalkings, which are not meant to be public events, but are meant to benefit the group that is in on it.” While flash mobbing was being popularized, some expressed a fear that someone would appoint himself leader of the mob or that the trend would be appropriated for political or commercial purposes. And even though there was no reported violence related to it, it came under increased police surveillance as it became more popular. In this respect Nicholson quotes McClelland: “Officials always tried to prove the existence of some form of criminal conspiracy in the heart of the mob, to show that something important enough to justify their fears was going on. These were fears of a very generalized kind, fears of order, or for the world as we know it, threatened by subversion.” Even though the trend didn’t last long, “it had empowered citizens in a world controlled by Big Government and Big Corporation” (Savage).
Public performing

Nicholson wants to point out that flash mobbing can be interpreted as a commentary or reflection on contemporary spaces and routines. There are parallels between flash mobs and Situationism, Dadaism and surrealism. Some can be read as commentaries on the absurdities of contemporary living. She asks if flash mobbing is a response to the social and political conditions of 2003, particularly conditions that existed in New York where the trend was started. Like performance art, flash mobbing straddled the boundaries between spectacle, activism, experiment and prank. In March 2004 Spaniards used mobile phones to circulate political messages following commuter train bombings that killed nearly 200 people. 5.000 people gathered in front of the headquarters of the conservative Partido Popular to protest. The idea existed that the bombings were a consequence of the Spanish government supporting the American ‘war on terror’. During the next election Spanish voters swayed to a Leftist government. This example shows how the conjuncture of mobile texting, targeted mobbing and public performance/protesting that made flash mobbing significant continues to be meaningful in different cultural and political contexts.

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