Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shirky and Flash Mobs

                Clay Shirkey’s “Here Comes Everybody” speaks to the effortlessness of the organization with social media in play and how it triggers collective action and collaboration like no other time in our history.
                Shirkey does delve into the specific technologies of how the collaboration took place, but he mostly details what the groups are doing as well as the end-result of their actions. One section that I was particularly interested in was his take on flash mobs.
                Of course, as Shirky says, flash mobs began as an almost ‘hipster movement’ in New York as performance art, but quickly gave way to more politically-driven activities such as the ones that he describes in Belarus with the ‘ice cream incident.’ However, the author limits the purveyance of the flash mob to political protests and quirky public demonstrations. Other issues are the location and purpose, as well as the bargain vs. buy-in social agreements.
                Flash mobs have been and are being employed for many other uses other than the ones stated by Shirkey. He speaks of the “triviality of the culture of the developed world for using flash mobs for amusement and distraction rather than for political engagement” (p.171). However, they have also been used for promotion and advertising. Take for example, the
Random Acts of Opera in Montreal article that details artists trying to find a way to get young people interested and actively engaged in the opera community. Or Oprah Winfrey’s audience kicking off a flash mob dance-off with the Black-Eyed Peas in an outdoor Chicago park to launch one of her new TV seasons. So as the  definition of a flash mob becomes more varied, it also becomes more complicated, especially when it takes on an anti-establishment tone.
                In the last couple of years, the city of Philadelphia has experienced ‘flash mobs’ that are anything but quirky or entertaining. I noticed this distinction about Philadelphia’s flash mobs on Twitter because I follow many musicians and writers from the Delaware Valley -- the metro area of Philadelphia which includes, Philadelphia, Camden, NJ and Wilmington, DE -- and so am in their circle of information for local news and events happening in the area. I noticed the news about flash mobs, but specifically because the news was rather negative, so I investigated further. My usual take on flash mobs is a random gathering of people singing Christmas carols at Nordstroms and then dispersing, however, Philadelephia has had a string of violent mob attacks where store-fronts have been trashed, pedestrians attacked and entire sections of the city closed off because of ‘roaming bands of youth’ – as the local police and press describe them.
                While Shirkey’s Belarus flash mobs stood as an example of antiauthoritarian demonstrations and social activism, these ‘flash mobs’ in Philadelphia were simply criminal. Shirky’s initial description of a flash mob – “…a group that engages in seemingly spontaneous but actually synchronized behavior” (p. 165) – does not detail the direct intent of these types of gatherings. But he does end the section with the following: “What the group does with that power is a separate question” (P.171). And so it becomes that in Philadelphia, and possibly even the entire East Coast and beyond – with a New York Times’ article  
Flash Mobs Take Violent turn in Philadelphia – will now see flash mobs as the gathering of young hoods making trouble for law-abiding citizens, and authorities seeing social media as a way to track this new enemy.
        “Police shut down LOVE Park yesterday afternoon after 10 to 15 teens were arrested for disorderly conduct and rumors spread that flash mobs were set to form. Officers stood guard at the entrances, telling passers-by not to enter the park. The park was shut down from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., said Lt. D.F. Pace, of Center City's 9th Police District. ‘We keep tabs on Internet chatter - especially these social-networking sites - and we received credible information that flash-mob activity was going to form here,’ Pace said.”
                So flash mobs in Philadelphia have become similar to what Shirky describes in Belarus: “…the real message lay not in the behavior but in the collective action….any coordinated public gathering….had a political dimension; mere evidence that [youth] were operating in any organized way was both a threat and a rebuke to the state” (p.167).                                
                The issue at hand seems to be what Shirly calls the promise, the tool and the bargain. The promise begins with people coming together and working towards doing something successfully, using the tools that best suit their effort and to bargain their expectations with each other.
                For example, in London, a protest in March that began with 250,000 peaceful protestors became violent when 200 demonstrators broke off from the bigger group to violently protest recent government cut-backs. The violence was not met with much approval or support by the community, and now authorities are concerned that anarchists will use the occasion of the April 29 royal wedding to hide amongst the throngs of crowds that are expected to attend.
                So, what is the flash mob organizer’s bargain with the outside world? What happens when they don’t have buy-in with the greater community?

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