Mobbing the Scene

In May 2003, hundreds of New Yorkers received a mysterious e-mail that read: “You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less…Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.” Confused, readers scrolled down to the e-mail’s frequently- asked-questions section only to find a single question: “Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?” Answer: “Tons of other people are doing it.”

Started by journalist Bill Wasik, this chain e-mail marked the birth of what has become known as “flash mobs.” Individuals convene in a public place for a brief period of time and perform a strange and contrived act before dispersing as suddenly as they first appeared. While Wasik conceptualized the “MOB project” as a social experiment, it did not take long for flash mobs to become political. By the end of 2003, flash mobs had spread to various parts of Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia, protesting everything from consumerism, to homophobia, to Philippine President Joseph Estrada. The 2004 Madrid train bombings sparked a spontaneous mobile phone message campaign resulting in public demonstrations against the conservative Spanish government, which was later defeated in the national election. Just last year, Belarusian bloggers used the internet to organize flash mobs in Minsk protesting the arrest of democracy activists after a flawed national election.

The widespread use of telecommunication technology has fueled the global rise of the flash mob as a tool for activists. “To organize a few hundred people to do something used to require a couple more layers of management and technology,” said Sean Savage, a digital systems specialist and the originator of the term “flash mob.” Today, organizing a few hundred people requires as little as a few keystrokes on the computer keyboard or cell phone. The implications this carries are, of course, enormous. As Howard Rheingold, an expert on the societal implications of new technologies and author of the book Smart Mobs, explains “It is not the phenomenon [of flash mobs] itself that is attractive, but the fact that there is a new way to respond to new situations.”

As new technologies are released, young activists will continue to invent new applications for them that were unimagined by their original engineers. No one predicted the cell phone as a tool for organizing a mob. “A generation of digital natives is emerging, people for whom having a telephone on them, having access to the web, being able to use those technologies for their own purposes is just part of life, like running water and electricity,” said Rheingold. The increased power to rapidly disseminate information, however, also implies the parallel risk of misinformation. To counter this, Rheingold believes “media literacy training is an essential part of civic education.” Savage also recognizes the danger, noting that a flash mob is “a crowd of people that has this huge potential power behind it, power for good as well as bad.” And it is up to the people to decide—perhaps through mass text-messaging—how they are going to collectively use that power.