Flash mobs exemplify a complex cultural and technological phenomenon. Until present, flash mobs have been considered as a purely aesthetic concept. Today, flash mobs demonstrate a remarkable protest potential and use the existing communications infrastructure to coordinate their actions and publicly express their disagreement.
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Hirsch and Henry (2005) describe the use of the TXTmob technologies and their effects on individual and group intentions to join protest actions. It should be noted, that flash mobs are often described as “a short-lived fad in which people used email to coordinate semi-spontaneous public performances involving dozens of strangers in coordinated acts that resemble absurdist theater” (Hirsch & Henry 2005, p.1456).
Yet, flash mobs are no longer apolitical. Based on Hirsch and Henry (2005), flash mobs use reliable information dissemination mechanisms and well-developed communication protocols to organise individuals or autonomous units around a common political goal.
TXTmob as an information dissemination technology helps to create a big picture of what is happening all over the city (Hirsch & Henry, 2005). Therefore, flash mobs and information dissemination technologies are slowly turning into a serious means of expressing political dissent.
Mobile telephones are being increasingly compared to remote controls, micro-computers, and collective social devices (Silva, 2006). Rapid transformations in the mobile phone interfaces lead to subsequent re-conceptualisations of the space and social relationships, which they mediate (Silva, 2006). Flash Mobs are the direct products of re-conceptualised spaces and relationships through mobile telephones.
The first flash mobs were observed in London, Berlin, and San Francisco; they would consist of dozens and hundreds of people using cell phones to gather suddenly and perform some specific act (Silva, 2006).
Silva (2006) suggests that flash mobs reflect the process of creating a hybrid reality – they show how communication networks are embedded in definite spaces and locations. Flash mobs are apolitical by nature, but they have features that make them very close to political demonstrations, namely, the ability to make the logic of networks physical and mobile.
In this sense, the political and military potential of flash mobs can hardly be overstated. Flash mobs are the products of brilliant coordination among individuals and autonomous units, whose results affect the processes and changes at macro-levels, including politics and culture.
Goodale (2010) tries to show how flash mobs fit in the conditions and circumstances of holiday environments. They help like-minded folk to gather on a holiday occasion, share fun and positive emotions, and celebrate Christmas. The author writes that the flash mob mentality is essentially about giving people a sense of belonging and an opportunity to join a crowd for fun (Goodale, 2010).
Flash mobs contribute to the creation of an iconic image of holidays (Goodale, 2010). They celebrate common humanity and become more purposeful and sophisticated (Goodale, 2010). They merge with performance art and produce ideas with spontaneous turnout (Goodale, 2010).
That flash mobs celebrate common humanity does not mean that they cannot be used as a tool of political action. Goodale (2010) recognises that the flash mob mentality can lead to the creation of refined political messages. As the digital tools of information dissemination are becoming more sophisticated, events similar to flash mobs may require political intervention and suppression at a global scale.
However, it is difficult to imagine what kind of political action can restrain the rapid proliferation of communication, messages, and flash mobs. Also, it is not clear how future technologies will transform flash mobs and their political and aesthetic potential. Flash mobs can be short-lived but the consequences of their political action can affect the structure and direction of political relations for years ahead.
Flash mobs started as an act of performance and served a reliable carrier of aesthetic values to the masses. Nevertheless, gone are the times when flash mobs and social networking formations served the cultural needs of societies. Pillow fights and group disco routines are no longer relevant; rather, text messaging is used to promote aggression, vandalise property, and assault pedestrians (Urbina, 2010).
Urbina (2010) sheds light on the future of flash mobs – small groups of young people that use text messaging and emails to organise for criminal purposes. Their message is neither political nor cultural. All they want is fight, assault, offend, and vandalise.
The growing frequency of flash mob crimes is a serious trend in big cities (Urbina, 2010). Flash mob crimes raise the questions of class and race, since most teenagers taking part in them are either poor or black (Urbina, 2010). The reasons behind flash mob violence are unclear.
Such gatherings are a relatively new form of urban crime in Philadelphia, and how to reduce the incidence of organised crime and juvenile delinquency is an open question. All these articles imply that the flash-mob phenomenon can hardly be limited to cultural considerations. Connectivity as the product of text messaging and e-mail communication can pose a serious threat to peace and stability at the macro-levels.
Hirsch, T. & Henry, J. (2005). TXTmob: Text messaging for protest swarms. CHI, 2(7), 1455-1458.
Silva, D.S. (2006). From cyber to hybrid: Mobile technologies as interfaces of hybrid spaces. Space & Culture, 9(3), 261-278.
Goodale, G. (2010, December 23). ‘Tis the season for flash mobs, you say? They’re just getting started. Christian Science Monitor, 2.
Urbina, I. (2010, March 24). Mobs are born as word grows by text message. The New York Times.