Flash-mobbing

But what use, we may ask, is a political protest with no figurehead, no slogans, no chanting and no single issue? Simply swarming areas in order to undertake surreal, meaningless and harmless tasks is hardly frontline radicalism. Or is it?

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Dadaist lunacy or the future of protest?

An introduction to the world of flash-mobbing.

flash mob (FLASH mawb) n. A large group of people who gather in a predetermined location, perform some brief action, and then quickly disperse.

Flash-mobbing's timely arrival in Britain has made it the toast of journalism's 'silly season', providing as it does the perfect 'and finally …' material to counterbalance the gloom of world political coverage and seasonal climatic scaremongering. The first British flash-mob took place last Thursday August 7th, amid newspaper speculation that this bizarre, seemingly meaningless activity is the summer's new craze. The roots of flash mobbing can be traced back to New York earlier this year, with numerous follow-ups having appeared around the globe since then. Although key figures in flash-mobbing emphasise the deliberately apolitical nature of the trend, some commentators see in flash mobbing a potential new form of political or even anti-authoritarian statement. Others dismiss the whole thing as a barmy, although admittedly amusing, load of cobblers.

So what, then, is flash mobbing all about?

Some would argue that this question cannot be answered, such is the elusive and transitory nature of the phenomenon. Sean Savage, who documents flash mobs on his website cheesebikini.com, gave the following statement to the Bergen Record following a flash-mobbing incident in New Jersey:

"If anyone tells you they know what the point is, they either don't know what they're talking about or they're lying."

In addition to affirming the supposedly meaningless nature of flash-mobbing, this statement contains an element of warning, putting the enthusiastic reporter off allying the flash-mob scene with any particular cause or purpose. However, this should not deter us – an examination of the facts and of the possible roots of flash mobbing should indicate whether or not there even is a point to this apparently bird-brained activity.

Instructions for the London flashmobbers who gathered on Thursday can be found on the various internet message boards and weblogs, including the delightfully named "kiss my panties". The following instructions were given to prospective flash-mobbers:

Revealed here is a combination of military efficiency, complete anonymity, rapid communication and organisation by internet. Obviously lacking is the indication of any purpose – the motivation to become part of the flash mob is left up to the individual. Indeed, the most revealing of the instructions here is #7, which states that "a MOB is just fun". This dictum is the flash-mobber's raison d'être. To quote one flash mobber at a New York event "this feels like being in a spy movie or something." The notion of such serious organisation for the purpose of something so potentially idiotic presumably adds to the fun, as does the massive amount of media attention that these events attract – although by fuelling such attention this article is arguably contributing to the hasty demise of genuine (i.e. spontaneous and non-corporate) flash-mobbing. There have already been reports of flash-mobs cancelled due to warnings of an overwhelming police and media presence on the day. The phenomenon is intended to be short-lived, and also to be baffling, but we can safely conclude that if flash mobs didn't generate any media coverage at all, they wouldn't be anywhere near as much fun.

The notion of a 'happening' is therefore key to the idea of the flash mob. I find the whole thing somewhat reminiscent of the old trick of standing in the street, perhaps with a friend if you don't fancy being the sole cause of a commotion, and pointing with gasps of astonishment and/or horror at a certain patch of sky, or even better, the top of a building. If the experiment works, a group should soon form, and even though nothing has happened, by virtue of a number of other people noticing your actions, something has happened – a happening has occurred. If anything, the notion of the flash-mob thrives of this idea of a happening having happened, despite nothing actually having happened. If you see what I mean .

However, many would like to see the techniques developed in flash-mobbing put to a more concrete political use, despite the flash-mobbers' continued assertions of political neutrality. The website why-war.com gives links to a site dedicated to the work of the author Howard Rheingold, whose most recent work centres on the notion of the Smart Mob. He states that:

"Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for co-operation." Unsurprisingly, flash-mobbing is included as part of the smart-mob phenomenon. However, Rheingold's notion of the smart-mob has a political element – contributors to the why-war website argue that they would like to see this political element in flash-mobbing, as it has the potential to become a new and effective form of political protest."

But what use, we may ask, is a political protest with no figurehead, no slogans, no chanting and no single issue? Simply swarming areas in order to undertake surreal, meaningless and harmless tasks is hardly frontline radicalism. Or is it? Naomi Klein argues that the idea of the amorphous, multiple issue mass is the direction in which modern political protest is heading. She refers to the idea of hubs and spokes to describe the kind of grouping and organisation that has been demonstrated within the amorphous anti-globalisation/anti-WTO movement, arguing that the movement's lack of a single agenda should be seen as an asset rather than a fault on the part of the protesters. As she puts it:

"Thanks to the Net, mobilisations occur with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and laboured manifestos are fading into the background, replaced instead by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information swapping. What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralised, interlinked pathways of the Internet – the Internet come to life."

The activist cycling group Critical Mass provides a good example of a type of protest similar in form to the flash-mob. Critical Mass run cycling rallies all over the world, in which thousands of cyclists will peacefully travel through a major city, blocking traffic as they go but causing no major disturbance beyond this. Chris Carlsson, founder of Critical Mass, says that:

"We conceived Critical Mass to be a new kind of political space, not about protesting but about celebrating our vision of preferable alternatives, most obviously in this case bicycling over the car culture … it is as much street theatre as it is a (semi)functional commute." He argues that Critical Mass has no purpose other than its own continuation as a movement, yet it is apparent that Critical Mass rallies offer a peaceful yet effective way to voice one's discontent about the structure of city life and overemphasis on the car. As such, critical mass could be described as a single issue group, in that it focuses on the bicycle as a symbol of an alternative, more desirable lifestyle."

Despite the similarities between flash-mobbing and these varied kinds of activism, it seems to me that the flash-mob is simply too weird a phenomenon to be hijacked by a political cause, or even to be bracketed in with the activities of the anti-globalisation movement. When hundreds of strangers can be found staring at a life-size model dinosaur in Macy's in New York, asking for non-existent books in a bookshop in Rome, reverently staring at sofas in a furniture shop in London, or spinning round in circles for ten minutes on a busy street in San Francisco, it is clear that a sense of play, rather than politics, lies at the root of the flash-mob.

However, we should be wary of assuming that play is never political. Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens, argues that play is the fundamental starting point for human culture. From this perspective, flash-mobbing could be described as the ultimate attempt to encourage us to get back to our roots. Members of the Surrealist movement had similar aims, focusing on play and games as a challenge to reason. As Mel Gooding puts it in the preface to his Book of Surrealist Games

"We have lived far to long in the dreary region of the homus economicus, our lives shadowed by principles of self-interest, utilitarian 'necessities', instrumental moralities. But we are permitted to hope; to revive those great and optimistic words of Breton: Perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights. We must welcome, as did the Surrealists, the re-entry into modern life of the homo ludens, the imaginative man at play, the intuitive visionary."

It could be argued that even this understanding of play as the root of all human activity is far too high-faluting an explanation for the phenomenon of flash-mobbing. For those who feel that this is the case, I would refer to the words of a Berlin tourist guide, Tobias von Schönebeck for the most apposite explication of the flash-mobbing phenomenon. For, on finding out that the flash-mob he had just witnessed in Berlin could be traced back to a trend started in New York, Schönebeck pointed out:

"This is just the sort of thing that happens when you forbid New York to smoke."

Perhaps we need look no further for an explanation of the existence of flash-mobbing.