September 10th, 2003

On FlashMobs

First, let me say that at their core I find the idea of FlashMob incredibly sexy. I define FlashMobs as Internet-coordinated acts of spontaneous absurdity amongst strangers in a public space. They fulfill a desire for unmediated play, for not being in charge, for melting into a group and trusting the hidden hand behind the action.

Tonight, however, was NYC Mob #8, reportedly the "last mob." And while I admired and will always have a warm spot in my heart for Mob #6 (praying with hundreds of people to the giant animated roaring T-Rex in the Time Square Toys R Us), the last two, including tonight’s, were remarkably stupid.

Now, when I say stupid I don’t mean like smart-stupid, like an Austin Powers‘ flick. I mean lacking any sign of intelligence. They have just been remarkably mundane. Take Mob #7 — stand in a line outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. So what? With hundreds of people coming (I guesstimate 500-600 came to that one), with hundreds of possible simple yet brilliant ideas (please see T-Rex above) why produce such a clunker? If anything this shows the power behind the core idea of the FlashMob -— than even when implemented in such a mundane fashion, the concept is still so powerful that it can even survive an implementation that falls flat.

But of course, once making such a point, one must ask (as the creators remain anonymous to date) was that their point all along? To contrast the brilliant power of the FlashMob to overcome even pedestrian examples? Perhaps not, but one can wonder.

In any case, tonight’s Mob was so solipsistic — directed to a tiny public square close to Bryant Park, we stood in a circle, hundreds of people, watching and applauding each other watching and applauding each other. That’s right — that wasn’t a typo - hundreds of people watching and applauding each other watching and applauding each other. We were told to go to this location to watch a performance and then leave. But, as it was, no one was there when we arrived… except for us, of course. We were the performance. At the same time we were also the audience. It was a massive feedback loop, built around nothing but our expectations and desires. If it was the FlashMob that received our adulation, or rather the spirit or union we made manifest, I could be in full support — instead it felt a bit like patting oneself on the back for… patting oneself on the back.

I would like to see the simple rules behind these actions be used to create not just simple affects — a line in front of a church — but a higher level of complexity. Emergence is a body of thought that explains how simple rules can create higher levels of complexity and organization, like a flock of birds or an ant swarm. For example, simple rules in a Mob could tell each person, say, to meet three people and learn their names. Remember the first letter of each person’s name. These are your letters. Then, at a designated time, starting with the letter "A" and moving one letter at a time until "Z" is reached, the Mob can collectively sing the alphabet song. Simple rules creating a more complex interaction. Each player only knows their isolated part but together self-coordinate into an intricate (albeit familiar) pattern.

But back at its core, the emergence of the FlashMob, even if tonight were the last in the world (which it ain’t) is an historic event. The beginning of the Internet was marked by transferring physical models into this new cyberspace. Sending and receiving messages was called electronic mail. Using a computer to search for information on another compute was called using a gopher. A space created for leaving messages on a computer for another to read was called a bulletin board system. The big grand-daddy of them all transferred all of the U.S. onto the Internet: America Online.

One could go on and on with these comparisons. What makes FlashMobs so relevant and as a topic worthy of deep analysis is that they are perhaps the first time in recorded history that something developed offline is described using online metaphors. The metaphorical direction has done 180.

The concept of the "flash" is a term, I believe, that was developed in the 90s as a form of activism in which people were contacted at a moment’s notice by fax and then email and now instant messenger to organize and take collective action offline. To describe something one experiences in-person the FlashMob turned to something developed through Internet technology, using the concept of "flash" as a metaphor for organizing people offline.

And if this is just the beginning, what’s next? What terms and phrases describing unique online experiences might next make the leap to our in-person world? For example, will we "rip" ideas from books and speakers as we do now music from albums? I have no idea where this might lead. But it does suggest that whatever happens with FlashMobs, they signify a significant step forward in the incorporation of digital thinking into our social mindset.
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