Flash Mobs: Just An Early Form Of Self-Organized Entertainment
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Sep 22 09:15:00 GMT 2003

When a communication medium is young, it can serve as a projection screen for people’s hopes and fears about technology and the direction society seems to be heading.

I know this because I have been the person that the reporters call to comment on a certain kind of story. Ten years ago, when somebody got married or murdered through a relationship that started in a chat room, I fielded the interviews about virtual communities. This summer, the projection screen was "flash mobs" and it was superficially about these enigmatic, frivolous events that were happening all over the globe: in the summer of 2003, hundreds of people showed up at a department store in Manhattan, claimed to live in a commune, and asked about a "love rug." Then in Rome, the throng asked for a non-existent book. In Amsterdam, customers to a grocery store were greeted like royalty. The phenomenon spread through America, Europe, Asia, South America. But this isn't a flash mob story. It's a commentary on the flash mob stories.

Because it happened in public, because the person who apparently started it all, known only as "Bill," decided to remain a private figure and eluded the press, and because it had a catchy name, the flash mob phenomenon caught on in the mainstream media as well as online - where it was declared "over" weeks before towns in this hemisphere or that stopped organizing them. Reporters love this, and they love to ask me what it all means. Self-declared experts like me like to give newspapers and magazines, radio and TV journalists their good lines and headlines in time for deadlines, and the journalists know it. They can come to us for pithy analysis, while they carry our messages – albeit often in a distorted form.

Almost every reporter who called about flash mobs wanted to know whether I thought the phenomenon was rather meaningless. After all, the flash mobs didn't do anything but amuse themselves. It was the way they said it. It was assumed that "rather meaningless" is a serious condemnation, put-down, rebuttal. "Of course, it's meaningless," I would reply. And that gave me a springboard for noting that not only is there nothing wrong with having fun, but that there definitely is something wrong with a society when having fun is prohibited. "Is it meaningful for a hundred thousand people to pay to sit in a stadium and watch men in tight pants kick a ball around a field?" I liked to add. I don't think this quote has ever failed to hit the cutting room floor, although I swear I've said it dozens of times to dozens of reporters.

Did I think flash mobs were a fad that would go away soon? An obvious question. It's impossible to avoid asking it. And equally obvious that the answer would be "yes." But I always had to add, and sometimes would be quoted: "Flash mobs will have to mutate imaginatively, and to amuse more bystanders than they annoy, if they are to continue."

But whether or not people in the future use the Internet and their mobile devices to self-organize urban performance art, the fact that peer-to-peer media enable people to organize their own entertainment will not go away. The millions of massive multiplayer gamers and the smaller crowds of flash mobbers are both engaged in varieties of self-organized amusement. Instead of buying a ticket and waiting in line to consume packaged entertainment fed them by others, online gamers and flash mobbers are making their own entertainment.

Self-organized entertainment is the overlooked ubermessage of flash mobs, I suspect. The disinfotainment monopoly afforded by the few-to-many capabilities of broadcast media are not the only game in town any more: p2p self-entertainment isn't going to go away. Napster and flash mobs are only the beginning. Whether they ever share another music file again, tens of millions of people know that a new medium for distributing cultural content has been born. And whether they all assemble in some downtown to do something absurd before dispersing, the people who participated in flash mobs, those who reported the story, those who furnished quotes to the reporters, those who read about it in the newspaper or online or saw it on the tube or heard it on the car radio have all had practice in technology-assisted collective action.