Flashmobs and other crazy stuff that just might work

Flashmob in Kaiserslautern, by Leobard, via Flickr

The first time I’d ever heard of a flashmob was in class about two years ago. I typically leave one class session open and ask students for suggestions about what they’d like to discuss during that time. I prepare lecture, class activities, and some readings in response to their stated interests. I find that it supplements the rest of the semester well, filling in gaps as students perceive them, and I also think that it demonstrates to students my sincerity in wanting to make the course useful for their future practice.

So, back to flash mobs. One student asked for some discussion of them during that ‘open lecture’, and I smiled and said, “sure, we’ll figure something out on that,” thinking the whole time, “flash mobs? I think I’ve heard of those…”

The research that I did for that class was really instructive for me, especially as I discovered examples of the use of flash mobs to highlight the importance of the public transportation system and, in many cases, its inadequacies. Very cool stuff–essentially, a large group of people organize over a very short time, via viral emails or social media or text messages, and assemble in a public place for a quick, coordinated but not rehearsed, action, and then disperse just as quickly. Many times, these gatherings lack any kind of recognizable social aim (Global Pillow Fight, anyone?), although I suppose that they are always interesting from a sociology perspective, studying how people communicate and come together and how technology can be used to coordinate actions more effectively.

My interest in flash mobs was sparked again recently, when I stumbled across this example: a United Way flash mob to highlight the drop in charitable giving and its likely impacts. Here’s the social networking site that describes the United Way flash mob (so much for the United Ways not being on the cutting edge of organizing and advocacy work, hunh??); it includes some really cool video of the action. And here’s the blog post that initially led me to the example.

Now, some purists might argue that this wasn’t a “classic” flash mob, in that there was considerable public information in advance (many flash mobs are organized in semi-secrecy), and the traditional media was actively courted. But I’d argue that that is part of the genius of this strategy: they’re applying some new techniques to take advantage of the best of what works in “old media” as well as in new.

And that led me to think about some different kinds of applications for similar tactics, places and issues in the social change realm today that could use a little flash mob action. Granted, this is not a totally foreign concept for social workers and our ilk–we’ve had the cut-out silhouettes to represent domestic violence victims (and, in some cases, even people standing still or lying on the ground to represent fatalities)–but, for many nonprofit organizations, this type of tactic is beyond what we normally feel comfortable with. Still, desperate times call for “creativity”, no?

  • For cuts in school funding: Parents tutoring their kids in a shopping mall parking lot? Some kind of mass crossing-guard activity?
  • For immigration reform: Immigrants and non-immigrants exchanging money, maybe, or something to highlight immigrants’ contributions to the economy, or an impromptu ‘wall building’ to highlight the increasing militarization of immigration enforcement?
  • For inaffordability in higher education: I’m thinking dozens of college students trying to fit into a couple of student desks, brought somewhere out in the open
  • For health care reform: There are so many options here, from people playing dead to filling out Medicare applications in mass to a collection of over-the-counter medications
  • For unemployment: People holding up “Help Wanted” signs (because, after all, they want help), or showing up in their former work attire at a predesignated time or place

    The key distinction between these ideas and the kinds of direct actions that have characterized successful community organizing efforts for years is that there’s no extant relationship with the participants in advance–this is in addition to, not as a replacement of, the kinds of mass actions that you might do as part of your organizing. It’s an opportunity to attract people to an idea, not to a relationship with others, and it appeals, in particular, to those who are not as rooted in an organization or community but want to express an opinion on a certain issue or, sometimes, long for the chance to be a part, even briefly, of something larger than themselves. As a result, it tends to attract attention, albeit briefly, of those tuned out to those more entrenched actions (see the woman looking at the group in the above photo).

    What do you think? Have you ever experienced anything like this? Have you ever participated? Would you? Would this fit your issue/organization? What would it take to pull it off? How can I help?

  • 4 responses to “Flashmobs and other crazy stuff that just might work

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this story – I hadn’t heard about the United Way flash mob event, and I agree – it’s a great iteration on the flash mob idea. I think, in older times, we just called it an action 🙂

      • What I think is different, Debra, and I’d be interested to hear your take, is the idea that flash mobs often ‘skip’ a lot of the relationship-building, organizing work and go straight to a mobilization–where the action itself is what draws people, as much as commitment to the cause. I think there has certainly been that thread in more traditional organizing in the past (there are people who just really like to go to marches, for example), but it seems to have intensified that appeal. As with anything, I think that there’s a real risk that we become infatuated with the tactic, rather than thinking critically about how it can fit into our strategy, but I was excited about this example, too.

    2. Melinda,
      I agree with you, partially. I know of two nonprofits that organized flash mobs in Jerusalem (Nefesh B’Nefesh, and Birthright Israel), but both times the mobs came together and sang funny songs, and were primarily used for publicity/extending awareness about the organization. In both of these cases, those who participated were a mix of already-engaged activists and new ones who wanted to be part of a flash mob. That said, I see your point about how these types of actions do tend to go straight to mobilization.

      I would modify my comment to say that this can be a new kind of action – and because it requires little time commitment – the tactic in itself can bring in people that aren’t already cause activists. However, I’d venture to say that it couldn’t be pulled off without a core base of committed, bought-in, cause activists. Thus, it is related to both “old-fashioned” actions, and flash mobs.

      Two editorial thoughts – I like this kind of melding of types of activists: it expands the activist base, but it also means that the ones that join because of wanted to participate in “quick” actions aren’t as likely to be committed to becoming leaders.

      • Thanks, Debra, for those additional examples and commentary. It sounds like there is, then, some danger of ‘shallowing out’ of traditional forms of engagement, perhaps instead of or at least in addition to the potential for bringing new people into a cause. In that case, then it does seem to be more of a ‘high-tech’ variation of action tactics, which have always relied on that mix of the hard-core committed and the more peripherally involved. The description of those other two flash mobs is interesting to me, too, because the flash mobs that I’ve seen much more commonly fall into that category of overall awareness-raising, which is why this particular United Way example excited me; they certainly had a goal of increasing awareness, in the run-up to a campaign, but the action included specific content around the impact of declining funding, indicating a more targeted message that they were also trying to communicate. As always, I so appreciate your insights and how they help me to advance my knowledge and my thinking about this work. Thank you!

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