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?
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?