Flash Mobs: The Purposeless MicroRave

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 19 September 2003

I surrender to the media hype. Here’s what I think about Flash Mobs, writing about Flash Mobs, and writing about writing about Flash Mobs.

I’ve gotten more email than I want to count asking me about Flash Mobs. And phone calls from countless journalists from countless local papers, all charged with writing something about these spontaneous cell-inspired gatherings.

From the perspective of a guy who used to be considered a cyberpundit (an oxymoronic title, as I see it, since this is a medium that undoes artificial expertise), it’s like the old days: a phenomenon happens that seems inexplicable, or at least worthy of some ink, and then everyone and his sister (or everyone and her brother) wants to write about it, or produce a segment about it.

So, either Flash Mobs are the biggest net-related news story since the AOL/TimeWarner merger fiasco, or this is a dry news season for interactive technologies. Either way, comment has been demanded, so comment shall come. Here goes:

No, I don’t think that flash mobs in their current form are a big deal. As I see it, they are a result off the same urge that led kids to hold raves in the 90’s: the urge to connect with people in real space and real time.

And, like rave, it seems important that these mass gatherings occur with no agenda whatsoever. They just happen. They are not overtly political, and no statement is made other than ‘let’s do this thing.’

I get that part. I wrote about it way back when in Cyberia: raves were self-consciously agenda-less. It was not about taking power, fighting power, changing our relationship to money, or any of these things. It felt as if to impose an agenda on such an emergent phenomenon would be dirty or inappropriate. But what we didnt’ realize - and a good part of the reason rave didn’t survive so very well - is that there were agendas. We were creating an alternative economy, an alternative music business, an alternative to crooked, cop-controlled nightlife, top-down media celebrity, and corporate-directed youth culture.

Flash mobs - unlike truly smart mobs - do things that have no clear point, such as dancing like chickens in a department store. They do not exhibit mass intelligence. In fact, they are directed from above, not below. They are not emergent phenomena, at all. This makes them ripe for exploitation.

The threat to them now, of course, is that people will try to impose agendas on them. Marketers will create ‘fake’ flash mobs to draw attention to retail environments. And they’ll likely do this long before activists decide to use flash mobs to publicize an ActUp or PETA campaign.

And then people will become suspicious of flash mobs - is it a real one, or not? Who is calling this one? Is it a reputable flash mob syndicate member? Get ready for flash mobs called on the same day or night by competing conveners.

The real problem with flash mobs is that they are contentless. Unlike, say, a Madagascar Institute spectacular (a hastily convened but miraculously conceived mass guerilla theater event in New York), or even a 60’s-style “happening,” they do not match the energy of the crowd with a lasting experience, or even a lasting memory or insight.

They certainly show our need, as people, for mass experiences unmediated by television or profit-driven sports conglomerates. But they also show just how little we understand about why we’ve lost our ability to assemble meaningfully, or how to win it back.

Sorry, but intelligence and creativity are prerequisites for a social revolution. Mobs can’t just be flash. They have to be smart.