Splash Mob

London’s first Flash mob took place last night. I wasn’t there, as I was doing Important Research (yeah, OK, I was watching Terminator 3 – it was average) but I’m interested in the phenomenon, which, from where I sit, looks to be largely stillborn.

The point of these things (in so far as they have one) is to introduce a moment of random strangeness into the lives of people observing the phenomenon – a bunch of people doing something faintly surreal, and scattering, leaving nothing more than bemused smiles in their wake. This isn’t going to work, if people spot a crowd of people doing something stupid, and mutter “Oh, another bloody flashmob”.

Which, given the level of media coverage that these events are now getting, is what seems pretty likely to happen. They’re not going to be strange and unexpected, because everyone’s going to have heard of them.

Earlier in the week, I was arguing that these things aren’t just a load of artwank – they’re (theoretically) a way of experimenting with new social technologies, part of a process of acclimatization to new group dynamics spawned by changing methods of communication. A chance for people to adjust to them in play, so that they can use them in seriousness, although I note that the technologies employed by the precursor of this sort of thing, the illegal raves of the eighties and nineties never really got much used outside the chemical scene.

I think I’ll have to amend my position, in light of the media circus, and the sheer pointlessness of forcing a shopkeeper to reopen his shop so that they could go and be “random” in it – neither anonymous, or likely to put a smile on the faces of the passing public, who will almost certainly not have noticed. The notion of a flashmob is an interesting one, full of potential, and not just artwank. But so long as it’s artwankers who organise these things, they’re going to remain a load of luvvie toss.

18 Comments

  1. As I said here, something with that much pre-planning and media coverage does seem a bit naff.

    If you were to get a whole bunch of people doing the degrees-of-separation thing via mobile phone notebooks, and organise something with less than 24 hours notice – just e-mailing and SMSing all your friends in a given city and saying “Flash mob, 6 o’clock, meet at place X”, then there’d be a lot more spontenaity behind it. Plus it’d have the advantage that anybody could “organise” a mob, rather than there being a single point of organisation. And it’d mean you’d never know who / how many people were going to turn up.

    And given the cost of SMSing between so many people, it’d turn out to be a scam run by mobile phone operators…

  2. Well, indeed. (Was it Larry Niven who wrote ‘Flash crowd’? I’m sure I’ve read the damn thing, but not being a Nivenite…)

    I suspect that there was a little too much in the way of ‘Oh, Tuesday’s not good for me, it’s my Pilates class. How about Wednes day?’ in the ‘organisation’ of same.

    A lot of that’s an ego-thing. Obvious, given the attendance of Ver Meejah.

    What if they gave a flash-mob and nobody came?

    Ha. Now there’s an idea…

  3. Also, this reminds me of the anti-war protests. Not the big, organised marches, the e-mails that went around asking people to gather in city centres when war was declared, to walk out of their workplaces and protest immediately. Establishing a network for flashmobbing would be useful for more serious protests like this.

    TBH, this could end up as a system to rapidly organise any sort of demonstration, from random arthouse appearances and bizzare activity to a bunch of anti-capitalist demonstrators trashing a randomly-chosen Starbucks on 30 minutes’ notice. Which is really fucking groovy, frankly.

  4. Who’s being a big stick in the mud then?

    I have to say I agree with most of what you’ve said though; it was quite ridiculous to plan and script what was intended to be “an act of randomness”. Although it will work and continue to happen because at a base level these people are simply attention seekers, and the media are certainly willing to give their attention.

    I reckon either the current organiser will try and make it more of a spur of the moment thing, or they’ll back off completely, disavow any knowledge of ever organising it, and some other wingnut will take over. The problem with ‘fads’ and ‘crazes’ is that they usually stay around for a lot longer than is deemed necessarily and will no doubt refuse to die completely.

  5. Well, they’re not truly random anyway, but anything where it’s been orchestrated to the point of arranging with a shopkeeper to open a closed shop is just a bit too organised.

    I hope they’ll have the sense to let it all cool down again before another go.

  6. Yeah. That’s where I see the notion going. The anti-war things worked OK, but it’s still a new idea, and if people get more used to it, another round of the anti-war stuff will work better, or so I hope.

  7. Not sure about the feasibility of something *that* decentralised, but it might be interesting to try getting people to sign-up for SMS/email with date and time info, and then just dropping it on them on the day, rather than a couple of weeks notice. I mean, you’d need a whopping massive subscriber base to pull in any serious numbers, but still…

  8. It was done in the past, way back when, in my youth and all that…

    It started on the road protests and specifically at the newbury bypass when they set up a nationwise telephone tree of people with a handful of contacts which slowly spread out hugely to pass on information.

    Also the whole reclain the streets and the better (imho) reclaim the land movememts used the techniques of the illegal rave telephone system to set themselves up…

    Last night was interesting, but needs tweaking… organised randomness just doesn’t work.. And it was organised by someone called Zee…. what can one expect…

    That and in terms of the actual event the instructions were overly artwankahish whereas it should have been simpler…….

  9. I would think that, now that the public at large has been made aware of flash mobs and what they entail, any future instances can potentially be less scripted and better accepted by the unaware; it seems that it’s freaking out a lot of the spectators that are being inadventantly pulled into such events, not so much in this instance but a lot of the overseas flash mobs have been backfiring rather badly.

    I like the overall concept though and hope they continue; it’s nice to see our ordered society get a small piece of non-violent chaos thrown at it, at least in principle. I’m dreading the first Flash Mob sponsered by Pepsi (or other) though.

  10. You could do it in the same way you can have multiple moderators on a mailing list, bulletin board, or what have you. People could join via a recommendation from one of the current leader types, with the understanding they could easily be dropped if their attempt(s) don’t wash well with the other moderators.

    I tend to think more people will be interested if they think it’s possible to get a hand in on the process.

  11. D’you mean giving other people the ability to send out flashmob notifications to the subscriber base?

    I think the UK’s Data Protection Act would mean that you would have to be very, very careful how you went about doing something like that.

  12. a bunch of people doing something faintly surreal, and scattering, leaving nothing more than bemused smiles in their wake.

    I think that if you live in London and walk around it a lot, you should find that this sort of “what the heck is going on there?”-type moment happens to you pretty often by means of real randomness, as opposed to fake randomness. (And if it doesn’t, you’re probably not getting out enough.)

    The other day I was in Great Marlborough Street and a bunch of about 30 to 40 people walked past me. All were Chinese, all were around 5 foot tall or less, all were wearing “Jedi pyjamas” type outfits in a range of pale grey, cream and white colours, most were very rotund or had their rotundity accentuated by their outfits, and most were wearing identical straw hats. I don’t know what they were about, but I bet they weren’t just responding a text message. But it was rather a nice moment.

  13. Sounds utterly ridiculous. If you have to get the store owner to open the store especially then it’s a complete farce. The amount of media attention turns it into a mere exercise in self-publicising for the organiser. And in the interview I read with him in the Guardian a couple of days ago, he sounded like a complete twat anyway.

    Organising GENUINE spontaneous protests rapidly is hardly a novel idea. It’s been happening since at least the days of the poll tax when the protestors in Scotland seemed consistently to catch up with the bailiffs every time they arrived to enforce a decree. There is nothing new about this besides the artwank overtones.

  14. Yep, that’s what I meant.

    I wasn’t familiar with the Data Protection Act before you mentioned it. I’ve googled it, and found what looks like an incredibly convoluted maze of modern privacy legislation.

    We have nothing like that over here, which will doubtless fail to surprise you.

    By the way, I’ve been thinking about it. I think Sting would make a great Prime Minister if you’re thinking of replacing Blair. Over here, we’ve gotten increasingly warm to the idea of employing some of our excess Hollywood figures in politics. It seems to me that you guys have to many pop stars.

    Or perhaps the Queen could adopt Madonna?

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