Flash mobs are the new “let’s make a viral video” of activism. They’re an idea that people (often supervisors or clients) have latched onto, thinking it will propel their campaign to greatness. Successful flash mobs like Target Ain’t People or Don’t Get Caught in a Bad Hotel resulted in a surge of interest in the progressive organizing space – and a lot of wasted choreography.
But flash mobs aren’t what they used to be, and that could be a good thing.
Let’s start at the beginning. A guy named Bill invented the flash mob. It started as a kind of cynical performance art (“cynical” being Bill’s own word) in New York City. He sent out instructions via email to a a group of friends, and it grew from there. The email informed people where and when to arrive, and what they’d do when they got there. Bill’s first flash mob targeted a Claire’s Accessories store in Manhattan – because, hey, who doesn’t want to turn Claire’s Accessories into a space of whimsy and mayhem. (A great interview with Bill on the making of the flash mob is here.)
The definition of flash mob (circa 2002): A flash mob is an event where a large group of people, having received instructions in advance, converge upon a place, do something odd there, and leave peaceably within minutes.
But the definition of the flash mob – especially in activist circles – is changing. One example is the flash mob as a stunt, performed entirely for a camera to capture it, with the purpose of driving an action or telling the story of a campaign. Here’s a great example of a flash mob stunt by MoveOn:
Or a flash mob can be, basically, a flash protest. Something that is planned at the last minute in response to an incident. This was demonstrated at this month’s Netroots Nation gathering in Minneapolis:
So, when field directors or clients ask for a “flash mob,” are they simply asking for a smaller, tactical protest with a creative element? I’m all for that. Anything that moves us away from organizing protests with the same tired signs, chanting the same tired slogans, is a win in my book. If organizers need to call it a “flash mob” to justify risk-taking and creativity, so be it.