The purpose of the study was to understand how the motivations of the participants shape the meaning and significance of flash mobs. The study consisted of online research, literature review, and semi-structured interviews of flash mob participants, most of whom reside in major cities in Texas including Austin and Dallas. I examined the major elements of flash mobs that emerged from the interviews with participants and observations of online videos of events. The findings indicate that the audience and social media played major roles in the organization and implementation of a flash mob. Using Habermas’ idea of the public sphere and lifeworld, Debord’s idea of the spectacle, and culture jamming, I discerned the effects flash mobs have on society. The public sphere and lifeworld are modes of communication and knowledge production.
Table of Contents:
Introduction and Purpose
People walk to a library on a campus–three people, book-in-hand. Determined, they continue walking, making their way to a giant fountain. They talk to one another, surveying the area, looking for people. Suddenly, a slow-moving group of people limp toward them. The group of three approaches this group; aim their finger pistols and make shooting noises with their mouths. More and more of these slow-moving individuals approach the three shooters near the fountain, so they decide to make a run for the gazebo to make a final stand against these creatures. These creatures are “zombies.” The people at the gazebo see another person who is still alive, but before he can make it to the gazebo to safety, he is surrounded by zombies and meets his untimely doom. The finger-gun wielding humans can no longer hold them back, and, soon after, the gazebo is overrun with zombies. Just when all hope seems lost, a golf cart with a camouflaged roof arrives. One person riding in the back mimics the motion of a turret, even the sound. This person unleashes imaginary heavy ammunition upon the “zombies,” leaving the area littered with their corpses. One survivor makes his way to the vehicle away from the battle scene. The corpses stay down for a while.
No, this is not a scene from a new post-apocalyptic film in movie theaters. It all takes place within the college campus of UNT. The people involved are members from a flash mob group called “Out of Order.” All around the U.S., as well as other countries in the U.K and Europe, events similar to this are enacted in public places as well as some public places such as malls and stores. These events are labeled flash mobs.
Although these events are often recognized as a form of culture jamming, my research goal is to understand the significance of flash mobs by incorporating Habermas’ (1991) idea of the public sphere and the lifeworld into my analysis of these events. Specifically, I use the idea of the spectacle to draw a comparison between the current trends and types of flash mobs and the idea of the “colonization of the lifeworld.” My objectives consist of: understanding what a flash mob is, public perceptions of flash mobs, types of people take part in a flash mob, the motivations of participants, and factors that affect the decisions of organizers. The other objectives involve the social aspects for participants, the purpose of the chosen venue, what makes a successful or failed flash mob, the meaning of the performance, what role the audience has in relation to the flash mob, and the impact that social media has on the mob.
Using semi-structured interviews as well as some archival data collection, I view the perception of flash mobs from the perspective of the participants. Also, I discuss two main factors that play a prominent role in the successful organization of flash mobs, the audience and social media. Lastly, I present evidence that shows how these factors affect the role that flash mobs, as spectacles, serve in the public sphere and lifeworld.
Culture Jamming, Flash Mobs, the Public Sphere, the Lifeworld and the Spectacle
Culture jamming is a broad category that can be understood as a form of activism employed by individuals to achieve a certain end (Lasn, 2000). This activism consists of a wide variety of actions, like “meme hacking.” Memes are “cultural units (ideas or values or patterns of behavior) that are passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation)” (Miller, 2010). Meme hacking simply takes a meme and edits it to alter its original meaning in order to cause the viewers to think about the assumptions and values that are transmitted through that image. This means that memes are both an outcome and aspect of a culture. Lasn (2000) and Goldstein (2003) state that culture jamming arose from the Situationist movement which is where Guy Debord (1967/1994) employed his idea of détournement. This means that the culture jammers attempt to spread their message by taking a quotidian idea or object, changing something about it, and, thus, causing people to think critically about the messages being transmitted through the object.
The Situationist movement arose from the remains of the Letterist movement in the 1950s and 1960s in France. With a refusal to accept the commodification of society via capitalism, the Situationist employed détournement and other tactics. Ford (2005) describes the history of the Situationist movement and describes the tactics as “… a set of counter-strategies, including active participation, freedom from work, and end to self-sacrifice, self-determination, the realisation of creative potential, and the valorization of spontaneity and play” (Ford, 2005, p. 108). Tactics employed by Situationists are employed by culture jammers, and so anything that meets the criteria that Ford describes can be considered culture jamming tactics as well. Therefore, flash mobs can be seen as an extension of culture jamming.
The manner in which culture jamming is currently presented in modern discussions is that of anti-consumerist movements. Not only that, but culture jamming has the purpose of educating individuals about the rampant consumerist ideas forwarded in society (Lasn, 2000; Sandlin and Milam, 2008). The enforcement mechanism of culture jamming depends on reaching out to everyday and unsuspecting individuals. Culture jammers use the same tactics as large corporations in terms of advertising, to engage people in discussions about the messages and values being transmitted (Sandlin & Milam, 2008; Lasn, 2000; Carducci, 2006).
Specifically, flash mobs are spontaneous events in which one or more individuals come together in a location to perform a certain act for bystanders to see and then disperse (Goldstein, 2003). The acts that are done in a flash mob are limitless and can include freezing in position, pretending to be a certain type of person (homeless, zombie, shopper), or even just a spontaneous march (Rheingold 2003, Goldstein, 2003). According to Molnar (2009), there are five distinct categories of flash mobs. The original archetype of a flash mob is referred to as an atomized flash mob, which began as a new trend that, according to Wasik (2009), “hipsters” would not be able to access. Hence, the purpose did not prioritize the observers as the main goal of the flash mobs (Molnar, 2009; Wasik, 2009).
Another category is the interactive flash mob which attempts to cause the unsuspecting audience to partake in the flash mob. This has a goal of having people rethink the normal everyday ideas of “public” (Molnar, 2009). The third kind might be the most popular and widely acknowledged “performance.” These flash mobs are aimed towards raising awareness of a specific artist and are executed by professional artists (Molnar, 2009). The fourth kind is the political flash mob that is more focused on raising awareness of certain agendas to observers (Molnar, 2009). The last kind is advertising flash mob that corporations use to alert observers to products and are pursued as advertising techniques because of the attention paid to them via internet media (Molnar, 2009). There is some overlap in these categories since political and interactional are similar. Perhaps the political ones are more overt about their intentions but the interactional ones help to highlight social commentary (Molnar, 2009).
Coined by Habermas, the public sphere is a place where people engage one another in a discussion about issues plaguing their society.
The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. (Habermas, 1991, p. 27)
The public sphere denotes a characteristic of a location which enables participants to engage in discussions. Essentially any place could be a public sphere as long as it meets the aforementioned criteria. Historically, the public sphere was created in salons where individuals met to discuss politics with one another. The actions that took place had the purpose of forwarding and preserving the public sphere.
The space of literary debate effectively constituted the infrastructure of what became political publics … as topics shifted from art and literature to politics and economics. And literary debate played a considerable role in generating the cultural resources necessary for critical and rational political debate. (Crossley & Roberts, 2004, p. 3)
This allows Habermas to view the public sphere as a battleground where citizens must be able to combat the private realms that are attempting to impose their agendas into other aspects of society, such as the home of the individuals (Crossley & Roberts, 2004; Spracklen, 2009; Habermas, 1991). Furthermore, the public sphere shows the processes of a society.
…[Habermas] explicitly relieved [the public sphere] of the burden of having to solve problems… For what the public sphere loses in terms of decision-making power it more than compensates for in terms of its ability to track the problem of capitalism down to their private lair. (Hirschkopf, 2004, p. 58)
This ability to track down issues will be useful in explaining the “colonization of the lifeworld” later on.
The other pertinent idea that Habermas introduces concerns the lifeworld and the act of colonization. In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas presents the lifeworld and the distinct modes of communication employed, communicative and instrumental rationality. The lifeworld refers to a general sense of understanding of the social world via codes and general knowledge. “…lifeworld is described as a ‘linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns’…. which are … necessary for the conduct of practical social interaction and communication” (Habermas, quoted in Gardiner, 2004, p. 40). The assumed knowledge about society demonstrates how formal institutions operate. This idea of the lifeworld can be considered epistemological in that the lifeworld helps in creating meanings and knowledge of the world that the individual occupies. The different communications help to create a meaning in the lifeworld.
Habermas believes that communicative action and rationality helps to create a desirable lifeworld. Communicative rationality consists of shared rational assumptions and knowledge. “Communicative action is emergent, contingent on actors and action, and [is] dependent on consensus over the hermeneutics of language” (Spracklen, 2009, p. 48). This means that people have to agree on the interpretation of words and the meanings assigned to them. This follows with the purpose of the lifeworld since both rely on the agreement of meanings and values of items.
Instrumental rationality attempts to be more coercive in assigning meanings: Instrumentality is purposive rationality and action, things done and ways of seeing the world imposed on us by the goal-seeking behaviour of actors and institutions that wish to limit our choice and our ability to get in the way of their goal-seeking. (Spracklen, 2009, p. 50)
This means that instrumental rationality helps individuals who are influenced by the private spheres, such as capitalism, go about completing their agendas. This becomes detrimental because it leads to meanings and knowledge about society, the lifeworld, being co-opted by external forces. This leads to a crucial part of this project: the “colonization of the lifeworld.” The colonization of the lifeworld occurs when instrumental rationality becomes the preferred mode of communication:
The key issue in Habermas’ ‘‘colonization thesis’’ is that everyday realms of action are increasingly organized, not on the basis of the norms we have mutually agreed (‘‘principles of social integration’’) but on the basis of the money and power that already drive our political and economic system (‘‘principles of system integration’’). (Habermas quoted in Edwards, 2004, p. 116)
Thus, values are transmitted via the lifeworld, and even affect the public sphere since the lifeworld helps to create the public sphere. This “colonization” shows how capitalism has come to affect flash mobs and their popularity.
If the lifeworld uses his instrumental rationality, then how is it possible to approach the colonization of the lifeworld? The answer might lie in the use of culture jamming. The anti-consumerist nature of culture jamming causes the culture jammers to attempt to disrupt the current trend of consumerism in society, which is the manifestation of the colonization of the lifeworld. Since culture jamming originated from the Situationist movement, there are strong anti-consumerist tendencies and ideologies in the tactics of culture jammers. Flash mobs follow the same rule. The colonization of the lifeworld is analogous and a fair way to represent the current way in which everyday life of individuals is chockfull of consumerist ideologies and tendencies.
According to Lasn (2000), Americans live in a highly consumerist world where advertisements play a significant role in shaping their consumption patterns. Americans look at advertisements, and even different forms of advertisements, and see how brands shape the value of an item, in terms of being “cool.” Thus, the society has difficulty taking part in communicative rationality because of the instrumental rationality that dictates how people come to understand that they must be able to purchase particular brands in order to obtain a sense of “cool.” This sense of “cool” establishes itself through advertisements. Such an advertisement might show how an individual, for example, could procure from purchasing an item. The advertisements serve to show consumers what they should aim to become. This representation of cool and which products serve to reach this level of “cool” is a prime example of the colonization of the lifeworld. The advertisements transmit the knowledge about what values a person should have (should have an Ipod and wear Nikes and Diesel jeans) and the consumers accept this as fact. The values created represent the use of instrumental rationality because the people in corporations want to increase their revenues and do so by deciding what being cool is. Since flash mobs are a form of culture jamming, I plan to observe how, if at all, flash mobs attempt to disrupt the use of instrumental rationality among audiences.
The spectacle is “a specially prepared or arranged display of a more or less public nature (esp. one on a large scale), forming an impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it” (Kan). Thus, this is a highly appropriate lens, no pun intended, to understand flash mobs since the basic component of a flash mob consists of an act done in public for all to see, or as Debord (Debord & Knabb, 1994) would say, consume. Made famous by Guy Debord, the founder and leader of the Situationist Movement, the Spectacle has been theorized by others as well. However, Debord’s use of the spectacle becomes important to the discussion at hand since he discusses the Situationist movement which appears to be more pertinent for the discussion:
Debord is highly critical of flash mobs because of the effect it has on its viewer. For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a “permanent opium war” which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life–recovering the full range of their human powers through creative practice. In Debord’s formulation, the concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of separation, for in passively consuming spectacles, one is separated from actively producing one’s life. (Durham & Kellner, 2001, p. 113)
The spectacle forces the viewers to accept the performance and aspire to recreate them simply because the spectacle is meant to symbolize what the real world should be. However, the very nature of the spectacle pacifies its spectator. “In contrast, the modern spectacle separates what is possible from what is permitted. The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence” (Debord & Knapp, 1994, 14). The spectacle takes center stage and spectators’ only option is to continue paying attention to it. Dominating all aspects of life, the spectacle has permeated all aspects of social life. Flash mobs can be considered spectacles because of the fact that they take place in the public realm and aim to have the unsuspecting audience consume them.
Given that there are different types of flash mobs, each of the distinct types have certain effects as spectacles. For example, advertisement flash mobs use the spectacle in the manner that Debord criticizes. Flash mobs consist of an unsuspecting members of an audience who are going about their lives. These lives, as Debord and Lasn note, are highly consumerist lifestyles. The advertisements are everywhere for the individuals to consume. Debord sees that spectacles are by-products of the highly consumerist lifestyle because the spectacle is meant to pacify these consumers from wanting realizing the true nature of their world. Therefore, flash mobs simultaneously serve to break the idea of the spectacle given that they do not comform to the idea of the spectacle as Debord states. Even though they are meant to grab the attention of individuals, they do not comform because there is no item being promoted to the individuals, something that Debord assumes is true of all spectacles. (Debord & Knapp, 1994; Lasn, 2000)
Debord and Lasn both state that the current society is a highly consumerist one. The problem with a consumerist society is that it tends to infiltrate the public sphere by introducing advertisements, which are spectacles. In Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas indirectly refers to the idea of the spectacle by speaking about forms of discussion that appeal to the senses rather than the mind which causes the individual to become passive (Habermas, 1991, p. 208). The analysis and description stated by Habermas is similar to the consumerist society that Debord talks about, and it should given that the culture jamming movement arose from the remains of the Situationist Movement. Other modernists have complained about the passivity that the spectacle produces which means that the rational debates over issues important to individuals have decreased in the public sphere (McKee, 2005, 108). However, the post-modern view on using the spectacle as a form of communication has not been as ill-received. Citing the example of the “Black Spectacle”, McKee posits that the spectacle represents a competing and legitimate form of communication in the public sphere.
Writers on the “postmodern” culture, by contrast, argue that because different cultures do, in fact, already use different forms of reason, a focus on a single universal version of rationality has a “repressive dimension, which might lead minority parties in a discussion to feel that their views are adjudged deviant (Christopher Norris, quoted in McKee, 2005, p. 117).
Post-modernists rationalize that the spectacle is a legitimate form of communication due to cultural relativism. This means that, flash mobs can be seen as a legitimate form of communication in the public sphere given that the participants can be viewed as a minority in society. The lack of a consumerist message tends to put them in the minority because they can be viewed as a culture jam. Using deductive reasoning, culture jamming is counter-cultural since it does not promote the consumerist ideology propagated in society and advocates anti-consumerist notions, and thus represents a minority view (Lasn, 2000).
The public sphere serves as a platform where individuals can communicate ideas to one another, but the ideas and cultural knowledge shared arise from the lifeworld. The colonization of the lifeworld serves as an example of the consumerist society Debord and Lasn mention. This colonization of the lifeworld occurs when individuals use instrumental rationality in order to create social knowledge for all to use (Edwards, 2004). When Habermas refers to the colonization of the lifeworld, he subtly refers to the manner in which capitalism has affected the processes and knowledge of the social world. In similar fashion, Debord makes a connection between the spectacle and the transmission of commodity in society.
Says Debord about the spectacle and its role:
If the spectacle… seems to be invading society in the form of a mere technical apparatus, it should be understood that this apparatus is in no way neutral and …The concentration of these media thus amounts to concentrating in the hands of the administrators of the existing system the means that enable them to carry on this particular form of administration. (Debord & Knapp, 1994, p. 13)
Therefore, Debord’s analysis about the use of the spectacle as a form of communication leads to the process that Habermas (1991) describes as the “colonization of the lifeworld”. Debord speaks about how the spectacle can be used as an “apparatus” and there are individuals in control of this “apparatus.” Borrowing his language, these “administrators” use this “form of mass media known as the spectacle,” to transmit the ideas of the “administration.” If the individual is substituted for administrator, instrumental rationality for the form of mass media known as the spectacle, and capitalism for administration, then the parallel becomes complete; thus, it is reasonable to understand how the flash mobs as a form of spectacular communication affect the lifeworld.
For the project, I initially planned on employing participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and some literature review or data collection from websites. This strategy would allow me to triangulate my findings because I could see for myself how people interact in a flash mob and how a flash mob occurs in real life. However, attending a flash mob proved unfeasible since none of the major organizations in Dallas, Austin, or San Antonio organized an event during my data collection stage. A limitation I faced was not being “in the loop,” which caused me to miss out on a flash mob event in Houston. Therefore, the research tools employed changed in order due to these limitations to include semi-structured interviews, literature review, and data collection from online websites.
According to Molnar (2009), the flash mob organizations are mostly based in cities, so that Dallas would have one major group and Austin would have one. Given the prominent role that social networking has in the organization of flash mob events, looking at websites allowed me to choose my population. Looking at social networking sites, there were two sites that stood out. An Urban Prankster site, created and affiliated with Improv Everywhere, is dedicated to allowing people to communicate with one another about flash mobs. The website has groups which are delineated from one another geographically. I narrowed my focus to main cities in Texas, initially Dallas, but then Austin and San Antonio. Each of these groups had a page on the Urban Prankster website and had members so I catalogued all of their information in the following fashion: “agent name”, age, gender, number of “missions” completed, and special skills. This allowed me to see what trends emerged among participants and allowed me to examine the types of individuals who are inclined to be in a flash mob. However, going through the posts on the website showed that the activity on the group pages had decreased so perhaps another mode of contacting individuals would be necessary. Inspired by Kozinets’ (2002) ethnography on Burning Man, I knew I had to be involved in an active forum and use that forum to go about contacting the people who associated themselves with flash mobs and were on Facebook as well. I moved to Facebook and began to see if some of the people I catalogued were also on Facebook and could be contacted there.
I found another organization in Dallas that described itself as an interventionist art project to raise awareness over an issue. I came across this organization when using the Google search engine to find more groups or instances of flash mobs in Dallas. I requested an interview with the head organizer of the group to gain entry into this group since this flash mob had an inherent purpose which contrasted with the other flash mob groups I have found. After exchanging series of emails, I sent my interview questions via email, as the person wanted to have the interview conducted via email. About a week after I sent out my questions, participants returned the completed interview questions back and I could evaluate the depth of information provided in the answers. These returned questionnaires proved unsatisfactory because the individuals did not go into much detail in their answers. When I asked about other key personnel I should contact, I was referred to the website for participants. I contacted them but they did not reply.
After participants were contacted and they expressed interest in participating, the interviews were conducted in one of three ways: phone, in-person, or email. Phone interviews tended to last about thirty minutes, while in-person interviews lasted from a half-hour to an hour. Both of these data collection tools provided detailed information about flash mobs. However, email interviews had a tendency to turn out less-than-useful information due to the brevity of the answers. This lack of detailed information could be due to the structured interviews conducted through the email. When talking to individuals, it is possible to ask follow-up questions as well as stroke the conversation; however, with an email, clarification questions are asked in a separate email and the responses tend to have about the same level of content as the first. Most participants preferred email or phone interviews. Given the small amount of information that email interviews produced, I began to encourage phone or in-person interviews so I could obtain better data from the participants.
The other data collection tool employed was the semi-structured interview. During my literature review process, I began to see a priority placed on social media and a large audience available at the location of flash mobs. This helped to formulate the questions for the semi-structured interview. To see about other trends I could have been unaware of, I asked, “Can you tell me about your first flash mob? Why did you participate in it?” This helps to show motivations that individuals had, along with some perceptions they have about what a flash mob is. Another question aimed at seeing the motivation and perception is, “What makes for a good or ‘successful’ flash mob? What makes for a bad flash mob?” This shows the criterion for a flash mob as well as the perception of it and the role that the audience may play in determining the success or failure of one. The question, “For people who are new to the concept, how would you describe what flash mobs are all about?” This question lets me see the perception that participants and organizers have about what constitutes a flash mob and the important elements that are crucial to having a flash mob.
The effect and possible purpose of a flash mob might depend on the atmosphere so asking, “How does the atmosphere of a flash mob affect the experience of participating?” explores this hypothesis. It shows what effect the flash mob participants want to have and why there might be different types of flash mobs. Finding out the importance of performance allows for the flash mob to see what priority a meaning or cause has in relation to performance. The questions: “So is there a performance element to a good flash mob? Can you explain?” allows us to examine the role of performance; if performance is high, there could be a trade-off with a cause. To fully develop the discussion on the audience and the venue, asking, “What role does either the venue or audience play on how successful they are?” proves beneficial. It allows the interviewee to further develop pre-existing themes and references to audience participation and even the success or failure being dependent on the venue chosen.
A question had to be formed in order to gather more ideas about the perception of flash mobs via the participants and what they plan to achieve or gain out of the flash mob. “What kinds of people take part in flash mobs?” serves to inquire into that aforementioned subject. Interviewees will look to see a common characteristic about flash mob participants more than a common demographic among them. To find out if there is a social aspect to it, “Is it a big social experience? How?” leads to conversation in that direction. This can help to expose a perception of the social in flash mobs as well as motivation for people to partake in these events. Lastly, seeing how events, like guerrilla theater, are similar to flash mobs but categorized differently, I ask, “What do you know about guerrilla theater? How do flash mobs compare?” The goal is to understand what makes flash mobs unique and distinguishable from a similar event as well as the perceptions of flash mobs and even the misuse of the term “flash mob” by participants and the general public.
Given that there are several flash mob organizations all over the nation, it proved important to quickly limit the population to only flash mobs in Texas. The main population is over 18 and has been a part of, or has tried to organize a flash mob, in a large city in Texas.
While collecting data, I conducted nine interviews: two in person, five over the phone, and two through email. The interviews and cataloguing showed that there are important elements of flash mobs such as the motivation for partaking in flash mobs, the perception of flash mobs, social atmosphere, the role of the venue, performance, the role of organizers, and characteristics of flash mob participants. When speaking about social media, I refer to the online websites which are meant to encourage some sort of interaction between individuals. The sites mentioned and discussed with participants are Facebook, Urban Prankster network, and Youtube. Facebook is a social networking site where people can come together to talk with one another as well as socialize with one another. The Urban Prankster network, sponsored by the New York-based group Improv Everywhere, used to be the premiere site where people would organize the flash mobs events, but recently the site has been replaced by Facebook. Youtube is a site where individuals can post videos to share with everyone, and this site has been used by flash mob participants to post their videos online for all to see. The audience refers to the unsuspecting spectators of the flash mobs. The participants play a crucial role so it is important to understand what kind(s) of people take part in a flash mob as well as their motivations. Following that, it makes sense to see how the participants affect the decisions of the organizers. Organizers affect the social atmosphere of an event as well as choosing the venue for the event.
Perception of Flash Mobs
To understand what factor has shaped the understanding that the interviewees have of flash mobs, I examine the perception they have. According to the interviewees, the definition of a flash mob is more or less “…a group of people show up and does the same thing… for a certain amount of time, for shocking people and bringing joy” (QMS interview 7-26-10). This means that a flash mob has these basic components: spontaneous, a varying amount of people, an unsuspecting audience, and an action performed by the participants. The action which is performed varies and can be as simple as standing still for a couple of minutes to a highly rehearsed action. This lack of a concise type of action makes it difficult to determine precisely what a flash mob is.
Most of the participants state they have heard of flash mobs due to the group Improv Everywhere. Improv Everywhere states on their websites that they are not solely a flash mob group but more of a performance art group. This small detail allows for flash mobs to be thought of as an all-encompassing term to describe performance art. Another similar type of performance art style is called guerrilla theater. The basic components for guerrilla theater are an unsuspecting audience and a performance in a public space. However, there is a distinction between flash mob and guerrilla theater. Guerrilla theater is seen as “higher end in the world of outdoor performances. Higher class and guerrilla theater denotes more planning and preparation than it does spontaneity” (PLK interview 7-19-10). This means that the two fall under performance art, with guerrilla theater consisting of a higher element of performance. However, when I spoke to a guerrilla theater participant, she mentioned a prior project which consisted of the participants protesting nothing at city hall. The performance ended with a musical number. The action did not necessarily consist of a strong performance aspect since the people walked around with protest signs; however, the most performance intense aspect was the musical number. That musical number made the “happy protest” a guerrilla theater event. However, when I interviewed a flash mob participant, this person stated that they performed musical numbers in a variety of locations for their flash mobs. If both flash mob participants and guerrilla theater participants claim that the performing of musical numbers is a flash mob and guerrilla theater event, how can both be considered distinct? The answer is based on the role that Improv Everywhere plays in defining and exposing people to flash mobs.
Since Improv Everywhere is not just a flash mob group, a highly forgotten fact, then not all of its events are flash mobs. However, the common association that Improv Everywhere has with flash mobs means that individuals perceive all of the Improv Everywhere projects as flash mobs. This means that the other performance art events that Improv Everywhere organizes are seen as flash mob even though they might be highly rehearsed events. Therefore, flash mobs become this all encompassing term to describe performance art that is done in public spaces for people who are not part of flash mobs. The novice participants of flash mobs consume this definition of what a flash mob is without even questioning the possibility of how the definition conflicts with other types of performance art such as guerrilla theater. This acceptance of flash mobs as being synonymous with performance art shows the effect that social media has in propagating an idea even though it may be inaccurate. The perception cements the belief of flash mobs becoming mainstream and losing some of their ability to champion certain causes.
Characteristics of Flash Mob Participants
One common characteristic shared among the participants is boldness, especially when carrying out a flash mob.
A: Is there a type of person that partakes in flash mobs? Is there a stereotypical flash mob participant?
WS: I they would have to… have a certain lack of inhibition. If you’re self conscious you’re not going to be able to … dance in the middle of a crowded room or be comfortable with people getting in your faces in a freeze someplace.… (WS interview 7-20-10).
It appears that the only thing that the participants have in common is boldness since both children and senior citizens take part in flash mobs. This also means that age and education cannot be definitively determined. However, there appears to be a collection of artistic individuals who take part in flash mobs. Most of the interviewees stated that they saw artistically inclined individuals taking part in flash mob. The majority of individuals referred to either dancers or people with some sort of theater background. Looking at the catalogued information from the Urban Prankster and Facebook site bolsters this belief. The Urban Prankster site has a section where the people can list their special skills. The majority of the individuals stated that they have some background in theater including dancing, singing, and video production, as well as having a lack of inhibitions. This shows the role the audience plays in providing the artists a venue for them to show the world what they can do.
The motivation for partaking in a flash mob appears to be getting an audience reaction. This means that the participants want to perform their act in public and they want to see how people react to the flash mobs.
A: What impact have you wanted your flash mobs to have? Is it targeted for people? Is it targeted for people watching?
PLK: It’s a combination of the people that are performing and the people that are watching. The people that are performing get the joy and experience of being a part of this and making that impression on a stranger. Whereas the people watching, some that don’t know what’s going on and they get the unexpected experience and the joy that they get from seeing this happen sporadically and randomly in front of them. (PLK interview, 7-19-10)
The interview indicates that flash mob participants want to be acknowledged by the viewers because they describe how looking at the audience reactions gives them personal satisfaction. The other participants speak about this idea of doing something in public and knowing that there are people watching them. This purpose of simply taking part in a flash mob stems from this personal satisfaction, however, there are other individuals.
Given the attention that the flash mobs garner, some participants speak about raising awareness towards an issue or a message. Possibly due to my small population sample, participants rarely mentioned this but there were a few that took part in flash mobs for these reasons and one group attempted to have all their flash mobs raise some sort of awareness.
A: So, what do companies hire you for? I was reading through your site and you said that companies can hire you so what do they hire you to do?
LS: To promote an artist, charity, social cause or campaign. It’s connecting a really current, fun way of getting people together in celebration with current ad campaign or cause or charity. It’s a way to get their name in the press or create buzz about them while giving back and doing something that’s fun. (LS and BC interview, 8-2-10)
While this flash mob group is an actual corporation, they later state that they research into their sponsors before agreeing to represent them, so, therefore, the flash mob serves to promote and raise awareness of something that the organizers, and subsequently participants, believe in. The causes promoted differ and include hunger, disaster relief, women rights, and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) related causes. Another group has done work to raise awareness of homelessness. Each of those participants takes part in a flash mob not only for the public-ness of it but also for promoting a cause that they care about.
A motive for taking part in a flash mob is for recognition. This explains why people post videos on Youtube. The participants want to allow friends and family of the participant to see their endeavors.
It is like passing around a good joke, it’s to make you feel something and inspire people. People who participate get to share how proud they are to be a part of it. They get to say, “Look what I did” and pass that around and that is spreading joy. (LS and BC interview 8-2-10)
The recognition aspect of partaking in flash mobs still exists except the individuals want to have the people close to them witness their actions and feel the same way that the bystanders felt while viewing the performance live. The performance is no longer ephemeral since the event can be viewed repeatedly by all for as long as they want. The recognition stays with the person and the effect of shocking people still exists because different people on the internet can look at flash mob videos and have a similar reaction as the people who saw it live. This means that the messages being transmitted via the flash mob can be shown to different individuals as well. The capacity for the flash mob to raise awareness over a social cause, charity, or any other message increases since the audience that views the video hypothetically increases to the hundreds of millions if not billions around the world with internet access.
Given that the video can be seen by a larger variety and number of individuals, the joy increases for the creators.
The same group that I did the last four with, did a Food Court Musical rendition in our school cafeteria which has 16,000 views. They’re excited about that and it’s a social capital type of thing so people know what you’re doing, friends and strangers. (BLJ interview 7-29-10)
This means that the creators know how many people view their video through the use of the video views on the video’s page. The need for recognition manages to manifests itself in another way using Youtube or other video hosting websites.
Furthermore, the last documented motive is incentives. I use the term that the interviewee mentioned and I interpret this to mean some personal goal other than the aforementioned motivations. In a few of the flash mobs, the interviewees spoke about flash mob events that had large turn-outs.
LS: We have a bigger turn-out when the incentive is really great. So you know we had a huge turn-out for Haiti and our biggest turn-out yet was for Janet Jackson. She ended up showing up and which they did not know she was going to show up. Everyone was such a fan of her’s and they knew there was a chance so that was a big turn-out. For In The Heights, they were huge fans of the show and of Miranda and they were getting free tickets to the show. (LS and BC interview, 8-2-10)
The opportunity for the participants to gain something else other than simply watching the reaction of the audience meant that more people were inclined to get involved in a flash mob. The incentives, to borrow the language of the interviewee, give the participants more motivation to do something that will be done in public and that will stand out due to strange and spontaneity of that act.
The Role of the Organizer
Depending on the flash mob, planning in advance, in some ways, is important to a successful flash mob because otherwise you look sloppy. The more polished [the routine], the more surreal it is for the outsiders and they know that you spent time doing a dance routine or getting your outfit together. (BLJ interview, 7-29-10)
The organizer plays a crucial role in determining how the event will turn out. All of the components that make up a flash mob–the audience, the action, the place and time–are all taken into account by the organizer. The organizers attempt to account for all of the variables in a flash mob. However, the aforementioned quote perfectly describes the idea and some themes that the organizer must take into account. The goal of the organizer is to present something to the audience to get a positive response from the audience which means that the audience members pay attention to the event as well as enjoy it. Those are part of the ideas that cross an organizer’s mind when planning an event.
The organizer chooses the act that the participants will perform in a highly occupied area because they want to be noticed.
Said one organizer:
You get a huge response when people recognize the song and the choreography is accessible. We do it through instructional videos so if they click on the video and actually learn the dance at home, that’s going to help with all of the fear and get them to show up. (LS and BC interview, 8-2-10)
The primary motivation of the participants stems from being acknowledged by the audience. Organizers want to make their event accessible to the participants in every way possible because the organizers take some pleasure in being able to have a successful flash mob manifest itself due to their leadership. The turn-out of participants help to create the aforementioned impact of the flash mob. The larger the number of participants, the larger the impact on the audience, which means that all of the people involved in the flash mob achieve the goal they set for themselves. If an event is too detailed, then the amount of people willing to take part in the flash mob decreases since they view it as inaccessible. Most of the organizers tend to view the simple events as the ones that will get a bigger turn-out simply due to the aforementioned fear and accessibility factors, so the organizers work to make events accessible to their participants.
The audience-oriented organizer must then carefully choose the venue as well as the time to ensure an abundant amount of on-lookers. A participant speaking about the organizer in regards to the “failure” of the flash mob said,
… the lesson to be learned is that flash mobs only work when there are… only people who are not affiliated with the flash mob who happen to be there, on hand. So that way you know you can see their reaction to what’s going on….You go to where people are at. (WBD interview 7-28-10)
If no one is there to see it, then the participants view the flash mob as a failure since no one saw it and reacted to it. The flash mob results into a gathering of people to perform their routine or act and must be willing to gain satisfaction from the reactions that each participant has or simply enjoy the routine itself.
When it comes to getting people for future flash mobs, it helps to have an example [Youtube videos] of what you’ve done. If someone is going to join a group for the first time and join a flash mob for the first time, it’s a lot more likely that they’ll join if they see that you’ve done good work in the past. It helps to build a reputation of your organization. (PLK interview 7-19-10)
The group has to establish itself as a legitimate group in order to continue creating flash mobs by obtaining a core group of individuals that will take part in its flash mobs. Organizers know that the participants expect certain outcomes from the flash mobs. Simply looking at the videos online, a pattern emerges in the content of the videos. The videos show the performance done by the participants but it also shows the reactions that individuals have towards the performance. It is safe to hypothesize that the videos follow this format because of the need to appeal to the participants, thus proving that the videos hold multiple meanings to multiple individuals.
Organizers must teach the routine to the participants, some use social media to show the participants. “We do it through instructional videos so if they click on the video and actually learn the dance at home, that’s going to help with all of the fear and get them to show up” (LS and BC interview, 8-2-10). Not only does the use of videos online help to recruit individuals but it serves as a way of letting the participants easily learn how to perform the flash mob, which helps to guarantee a larger turn-out. Social media helps the organizers reach out to the different people that want to take part in a flash mob by dispersing information, in this instance it was the routine.
In another instance, the use of social networking sites helps organizers communicate and spread word of a new flash mob. The flash mobs originated from the use social networking to spread word, via text messages or even email (Rheingold 2003, Wasik 2009). As mentioned before, the preferred mode appears to be the site Facebook. As mentioned in the performance section, the Urban Prankster site was made for flash mob participants and other performance art groups to get together and organize events. However, that site has become sparsely used for groups based in Austin, Dallas, or even San Antonio.
A: So how long does it take to plan a flash mob? It seems like you put a lot of thought into it.
PLK: That flash mob took six weeks to plan, conceive, and organize. Other ones can simple be, have an idea, send out Facebook messages getting people to show up. It spans 6 weeks to just a couple of days. (PLK interview, 7-19-10)
The constant use of social networking sites allows the organizers to use them to make sure that people know about the upcoming plans. The fact that a flash mob can be created and done in a couple of days shows the effect that social media has on the flash mobs because, from an organizer’s perspective, they are crucial due to the quick nature of contacting people.
The social atmosphere refers to the environment that the flash mobs create in terms of how conducive it is to interact with other individuals. The flash mobs tend to help create some sort of connections with participants or even fortify pre-existing bonds among friends that take part in flash mobs together. Flash mobs attempt to have large amounts of participants involved in the events planned.
Based on the interviews, there is some sense of social interaction that takes place among the participants. The atmosphere for the flash mob events tends to evoke some general sense of fun since it attempts to make the audience enjoy the performance. The participants are seen to socialize with one another by communicating. A few participants have spoken about how they have spoken to a few other participants who were strangers. Other than that, participants who attend flash mobs with friends speak about how doing flash mobs serves to strengthen the ties that exist among them. Explained one participant:
It’s generally friendly and it’s a bonding experience, its uh… in most cases you go to it with your friends. It’s a fun thing to do with friends. It’s sort of, out of the ordinary. It’s not a typical thing you do with friends. If it’s something you do with friends and the flash mob works well, it’s a memorable that you and your friends can enjoy and look back on, fondly for years. (WBD interview, 7-28-10)
The flash mob functions as a special event not only for the audience but for the group of friends that participate in flash mobs together. Flash mobs are seen as social events where everyone gets along with one another and friends are gained. However, strangers can only hope to create acquaintances. These acquaintances only meet with one another when they attend flash mobs but outside of the flash mobs setting, the people do not meet or socialize with one another.
Another aspect of the joy stems from a sense of purpose that a group mentioned. This view is not overt in all of the interview participants but some have mentioned this. There is this need for the individuals to attempt to connect with other individuals. Most of the participants stated that they partook in the event in order to achieve a sense of unity among the friends that they have come with, as WBD earlier mentioned, and some organizers have stated that they attempt to create face-to-face encounters among online communities.
S: … If someone walks away from this with a positive experience, that’s what we wanted. We’ve even had, I don’t want to forget this. We’ve had a family connection happen. We have this little girl (“Angela”) who does all of our flash mobs and this other little girl (“Emily”) that does all of our flash mobs. They’ve been doing our flash mobs for a year; they finally sat down a couple weeks or a month ago and they realized that they are cousins.
A: Oh wow,
S: And they never knew they were cousins.
LS: On Saturday I was sitting next to Louie, and he goes, “Has anyone ever told you that your flash mobs are bringing families together?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He told me the story and I was like, “Oh, I had no idea that you guys figured it out, too.” (LS and BC interview, 8-2-10)
The excerpt shows how flash mobs create a community since the participants get to know more about one another, like the girls did or even just how Louie and LS talked about this family connection. Participants tended to speak about how others formed friendships rather than themselves. This sort of conversation shows how much the people get to know one another simply by sharing a common interest and taking part in flash mobs. Not only that, but, the excerpt serves to show how participants are capable of getting to know one another just by being a part of the event. However, this proves to be an exception to the general trend of the social atmosphere of flash mobs.
Pre-existing Friend Interaction
Participants have stated that they have not been able to reach out to other individuals besides the ones with whom they attended the flash mobs. These individuals tended to stay and interact solely with one another at the event. I attended a meeting to plan a guerilla theater event in Austin. At this meeting, I was introduced to everyone in attendance and got to know more about each person’s background and interests. Some of these participants inquired about one another’s family and work. This shows that the people did get to know one another and interact in a manner in which they truly formed an acquaintance or even friendship. The events which have some sort of rehearsal schedule tends to cause the individuals to have more frequent interaction with one another so they have more of an opportunity to socialize with other individuals than individuals who attend flash mobs without rehearsals.
Role of the Venue
The venue atmosphere stems from the participants of the flash mobs and the unsuspecting audience. Participants indicated that the impact which they want to have on the venue “shouldn’t entirely disrupt the natural order of things… [nor] halt or negatively impact the natural order of things” (PLK interview, 7-19-10). The flash mobs want to create a sense of positive mayhem in the venue that they are occupying. The interaction in the venue is meant to create a fun atmosphere through the performance of an unusual event. The event can be seen as a prank or simply a self-contained event, where the participants of the flash mob just attempt to entertain individuals by causing a scene.
The scene then triggers a reaction from individuals. According to some participants, the reaction can be one of three: negative, neutral, or positive.
They’ll seem extremely uncomfortable and try to leave or completely ignore you… There are people sitting in complete shock, they’re not offended or anything but just shocked. The third group is absolutely thrilled, taking out their video camera, taping it, yelling that their friends come over, laughing and clapping. (QMS interview, 7-26-10).
These types of reactions have been echoed by other participants and one attempts to explain the negative reaction from the audience.
Those people couldn’t care less. There was something strange happening and they were there to get their own food. … Maybe they didn’t want to give us the satisfaction, the pleasure of seeing their reaction to it. They clued in on that and didn’t want to, who knows what their motivation was. (WBD interview, 7-28-10)
This indicates that the participant believes that the on-lookers should pay more attention and be more receptive to this display. The unusual activity of the event warrants this response, so flash mobs attempt to stage something in a location where the action will stand out to garner that response from the audience. The neutral reaction consisted of people watching the flash mob in shock. This reaction was only mentioned by one individual and the other members spoke about having the binary of a positive or negative reaction from the audience. This type of reaction would fit within the category of a positive or successful flash mob, in that the flash mob wants to get the attention of the audience. So even if the audience members do not call their friends over or start laughing as would be preferred, the simple act of looking in disbelief can be viewed as a success for the participants. The audience reacts positively the majority of the time since the organizers attempt to choose an adequate location so that the unsuspecting audience will enjoy the performance.
Following the discussion of the perception of flash mobs, the performances originate from the social media. The videos on Youtube “either amuse those who didn’t run across it, or inspire future schemers” (KAW interview 7-19-10). Another interviewee spoke about getting an idea for a flash mob from combining two videos he’s seen on Youtube. The social media serves to store the past flash mob events so that way the new creators can look to them to recreate one or to have a new idea hatch from viewing them.
Furthermore, participants are encouraged to pitch ideas for a flash mob. The manner in which they do this is via the use of social networking sites such as Facebook or Urban Prankster. These sites allow for individuals to join flash mob groups and to communicate with one another if they so choose to do so. The organizations tend to ask for input from the participants in order to share the leadership burden that they have as well as to ensure that the participants have a stake in coming to the event as well. The sharing of the leadership helps to make the organization sustainable since that means that the group does not solely rely on one person’s ideas and schedule in order to create these events. The lack of a successful chain of command is shown by looking at Flash Mob Austin group page on the Urban Prankster website. The leader appears to have abandoned the site because no one else has been able to organize an event. The activity on the website is down from when it first began. I learned of the lacking infrastructure of the group when I attempted to attend a nonexistent meeting in early July.
A major theme echoed in the findings reflected how crucial the audience was in determining the many factors of a flash mob, such as the motivations of participants, the actions of the organizers, and, consequently, choosing a venue. This focus on the audience bolsters the claim that flash mobs should be viewed as spectacles since spectacles demand attention and take place in public places for all to see. The flash mobs appear to have a strong reoccurring purpose of obtaining a reaction from audience of onlookers, the people who do not have prior knowledge of the flash mob event. Referring back to the definition of a flash mob, a flash mob has to be, “seen by other people or at least one other person that does not know what is going on that… is out of the ordinary…someone doing something in public that someone else sees that is out of the ordinary” (PLK interview, 7-19-10). The component of the definition includes stressing the issue of it being spontaneous to a crowd in that the flash mob participants expect to catch the audience by surprise.
The Effects of Flash Mobs on the Public Sphere and the Lifeworld.
In order to determine the significance of flash mobs, flash mobs must be viewed as spectacles in order to see how they impact the public sphere and lifeworld. The impact appears to depend on the overall purpose assigned to the flash mob by the participants and organizers.
The public sphere. There are two ways to interpret the form of communication that the spectacle creates. There are the modernist and post-modernist views, which respectively condemn and praise spectacles as a form of communication. If the flash mobs attempts to promote something that the audience can consume via purchasing, then the flash mob can be viewed through a modernist lens. This means that the flash mob is condemned because of the content of it helps to perpetuate the current consumerist ideology. As mentioned earlier, Habermas does not deem sense-appeasing communication such as this as legitimate. This illegitimate communication keeps the participants from thinking critically, something that Habermas believes is a pre-requisite towards forming arguments to have an active public sphere crucial for the ideal society of Habermas.
On the other hand, the flash mobs that do not have any meaning or message which perpetuates the consumerist ideology should be under a post-modern lens. As stated earlier, the belief of the participants tends to focus on living in the moment and wanting to cause scenes in order to distract individuals from their normal passive consumption of consumerism. This means that they want to show individuals that there is more to life than simply being passive consumers of products created by corporations. These types of flash mobs attempt to re-establish a more active public sphere, especially the flash mobs that attempt to raise awareness of a social problem. Thus, they subvert the spectacle because of the manner in which they try to get the audience involved in their project and to teach them about the issue. They do this so that the audience attempts to do something to help resolve the social cause after the flash mob is over.
The lifeworld. Similar to the relationship that flash mobs have to the public sphere, flash mobs can positively or negatively affect the lifeworld. Again, it depends on what type of flash mob is being produced. Given that spectacles are analogous to the forms of rationality discussed by Habermas (instrumental or communicative), and that flash mobs have the potential to be scrutinized by either the modernist or post-modernist view of spectacles, the purpose of the flash mob plays an important role in determining the effect of the flash mob has on the lifeworld. If the flash mobs are created in order to promote an artist or show and “create buzz” about a new product, then the flash mob uses instrumental rationality and reinforces the current consumerist ideology that permeates all of society.
The flash mobs that do not perpetuate this consumerist ideology tend to be seen as using communicative rationality since they either do not have an agenda to complete, or, the agenda that they do have attempts to raise awareness about a social issue. Either way, the type of rationality that they employ cannot be seen as instrumental since there is no manner in which the individuals attempt to spread an agenda that benefits capitalism. Therefore, these flash mobs can be seen as offering a sort of resistance to the colonization of the lifeworld because they attempt to take one of the incarnations of the spectacle, which spreads the ideology and changing the ideology being spread. This détournment would appease the late Debord.
Further research on the subject of flash mob could shed light on how effective flash mobs are in achieving their goals by interviewing the unsuspecting audiences. This research would see what significance flash mobs actually have rather than attempt to theorize what significance flash mobs have on society.
- Carducci, V. (2006). Culture jamming: A sociological perspective [Electronic version]. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(1), 116-138.
- Crossley, N. & Roberts, J.M. (2004). After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Debord, G., & Knabb, K. (1967/1994). Society of the spectacle. London: Rebel Press.
- Durham, M., & Kellner, D. (2001). Media and cultural studies. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Edwards, G. (2004). Habermas and social movements: What’s new? In N. Crossley & J. M. Roberts (Eds.), After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere (pp. 113-130). Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Ford, S., (2004). The situationist international. London: Black Dog.
- Gardiner, M. E. (2004). Wild publics and grotesque symposiums: Habermas and Bahktin on dialogue, everyday life and the public sphere. In N. Crossley & J. M. Roberts (Eds.), After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere (pp. 24-48). Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Goldstein, L. (2003, August 10). The mob rules [Electronic version]. Time, 176(8). Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/current/
- Habermas, J., (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Hirschkop, K. (2004). Justice and drama: On Bahktin as a complement to Habermas. In N. Crossley & J. M. Roberts (Eds.), After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere (pp. 49-66). Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Kan, L. (n.d.). Spectacle. Retrieved August 4, 2010 (http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/spectacle.htm)
- Kozinets, R. V. (2002). Can consumers escape the market? Emancipatory illuminations from burning man. The Journal of Consumer Research, 29(1), 20-38. doi: 10.1086/339919
- Lasn, K., (2000). Culture jam: The uncooling of America. New York: Quill.
- Mckee, A., (2005). The public sphere: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Miller, G. (2010). Wordnet: A lexical database for English. Princeton University. Retrieved from http://wordnet.princeton.edu/
- Mitchell, W.J.T., Almeida, E., & Reynolds, R. (2004). Theories of media keywords glossary. Chicago: University of Chicago, School of Media Theory. Retrieved from http://csmt.uchicago.edu/projectsglossary.htm
- Molnar, V. (2009). Reframing public space through digital mobilization: Flash mobs and the futility(?) of contemporary urban youth culture. Retrieved from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic497840.files/Molnar_Reframing-Public-Space.pdf
- Rheingold, H., (2003). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge: Perseus Pub.
- Sandlin, J. A., & Milam, J. (2008). Mixing pop (culture) and politics: Cultural resistance, culture jamming, and anti-consumption activism as a critical pedagogy. Curriculum Inquiry, 38(3), 323-350. doi: 0.1111/j.1467-873X.2008.00411.x
- Spracklen, K., (2009). The meaning and purpose of leisure. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Wasik, B., (2009). And then there’s this: How stories live and die in viral culture. New York: Viking.