Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On the Social Psychology of Flash Mobbing

""Are you with the mob?" whispered one anxious first-timer,
only to be shushed with a knowing nod and wink,
followed by a nervous giggle."
Flash mobs: A new social phenomenon?
(Hewitt, 2003)


I just had a call from Claire at The Canberra Times who was looking for a social psychologist to discuss flash mobbing. Apparently no other psychologists would talk with her - the topic was a bit too new/novel? (Isn't that what academics are for, at least in part - to respond to new phenomena? PS It turns out it isn't even that new - it's been around for 4 years!)

Claire said she was recording our conversation and, when prompted, indicated she could well quote from it. However, she refused my request to be shown any quoted text to be published so that I could authorise it. Apparently its normal journalistic practice not to check with sources before publishing from interviews. So I participated with some caution - the topic seemed reasonably benign and intrigued me. I was also in the middle of preparing social psychology lectures so had plenty of possibly related ideas floating around in my head. Claire also assured me that it didn't matter if I didn't know what flash mobbing was.

Anyway, after our chat, I twittered to learn more (Twitter is my new research tool), got some further helpful suggestions, and since I'd far rather quote myself than have someone else potentially misquote me, I figured I'd blog my initial thoughts on the social psychology of flash mobbing...

What is flash mobbing?

Imagine that you are in a public place when suddenly a large crowd turns up (seemingly spontaneously), performs some kind of out-of-the-ordinary behaviour, and then disappears... well you might just have witnessed flash mobbing!

Flash mobbing involves a temporary group of people getting together in a predetermined location to perform a brief action, and then dissipating. Just for kicks. Yup, that's the idea. Or as has been described by CNN, flash mobbing is where "jokers gather en masse at a moment's notice, perform an inane activity and then disperse quickly".

Inherent in these definitions it seems are at least the following criteria or characteristics:
  • relative spontaneity (i.e., rapidness of conception to action is valued)
  • parsimonius organisation (i.e., poetic simplicity is valued)
  • benigness (i.e., the event and its consequences are frivolous, fun, and quirky)
  • critical mass matters; size doesn't (i.e., any collection of people with a simple social contract can perform a flash mob)
  • virality (i.e., replicability and scalability)
Here's some examples of flash mob incidents:
Variations of flash mobbing

The term flash mobbing was coined in 2003. There are several variations and related manifestations of flash mobbing phenomena, e.g.,
  • Smart Mob is apparently a more generic term coined by Howard Rheingold which refers to a form of self-structuring technology-mediated social organisation which engaged in intelligent "emergent behavior."; mass media, however, appears to be more fixated on flash mobs
  • Reality TV shows sometimes 'trick' members of the public by creating a temporary crowd (e.g., 100 person flash mob chasing people) - this is (debatably) a specific example of a flash mob
  • Guerilla Gardening in which groups (usually environmentalists) radically transform a public space by gathering and landscaping/planting, often overnight.
  • Team Buying (or 'Tuangou') in which people who wish to purchase an item from a particular store find each other on the internet and then agree to turn up at the store at a specific day/time and bargain/demand a collective discount for their bulk purchse (becoming popular in China)
  • Culture Jamming, whilst not necessarily a form of flash mobbing, nevertheless seems to represent an element of flash mobbing which is often to make some sort of curious social statement by intentionally behaviour out of the norm and thereby drawing our attention to social assumptions and normative behaviour.
  • Critical Mass has been conducting cycling-related flash mobs since 1992 in which people "take back the streets" using their bikes and other forms of human-powered wheeled transport
  • Street Theatre, Psychodrama and other forms of participatory theatre and performance art also seem to have some parallels and intersections with flash mobbing. Perhaps flash mobbing is just another form of interactive street theatre?
  • Political and Economic Flashmobbing also looms on the horizon. To date, flash mobbing has been relatively benign, but Andrew Read called me to point out that there is real potential, for example, for flash mobs to collectively buy or sell in such a way as to significantly disrupt financial markets. Andrew pointed out that this occurred as early as the 1920's. Indeed we might stop to consider then whether the 2005 Cronulla Riots and the monks marching in Burma as political protest (2007) are examples of more serious forms of flash mobbing.

Why flash mob?

Given that a "need to belong" and be part of groups has been deeply bred into most animals and particularly human beings during our evolution, it is perhaps no surprise that people continue to seek group experiences, despite (or perhaps because of) societal fragmentations.

Perhaps with the breakdown in traditional groupings (such as sport on a Saturday afternoon), we are seeing an increase in semi-random, emergent groupings. Undoubtedly the spontaneity and creativity is also fuelled by internet and mobile phones which facilitates quick communication and networking. Some flash mobbers use SMS, some use email, some use Facebook, and some use slips of paper handed out, etc.

Still, why do it?

Crowd behaviour from a social psychological point of view is generally seen as arising from deindividuation. Groups are also inclined to polarise and become more extreme in their beliefs/actions over time. As a result flash mobbers may seek more extreme acts as they go on. Risky shift refers to this notion of groups taking on more risky or daring goals than individuals would on their own.

Deindividuation also means that individuals tend to adopt a 'group mind' whereby they tend to become more focused on the group goal and less on their own individual interests. By acting as a group, there is a also diffusion of responsibility. It's difficult to hold an individual accountable and make them identifiable when an act was performed by a collective.

This is my first take on the social psychology of flash mobbing. I'm interested in any other ideas or leads people have. And if you want to go flash mobbing yourself, search Facebook for a group in your local area (e.g., the London group has 8000 members).

Future directions?

Some questions/tasks for the future to consider:
  • Explore further the principle of simplicity of design - is it a criteria or just a characteristic?
  • Is flash mobbing necessarily benign? We could do with more definitional and taxonomic work on clarifying the meaning of flash mobbing and its variants. Can flash mobbing be political? Or does it then become something else?
  • Need to read Howard Rheingold on smart mobs - his name keeps cropping up as having conducted the most substantial academic and practical work around the broader phenomenon of smart mobs. Technology-facilitated, intelligent, emergent networks are a phenomenon it would seem worthy of further investigation.
  • Connect this with outdoor education, e.g., add flash mobbing as an example application of Technology and the Outdoors: Some Experiential Possibilities. Also connect flash mobbing with common adventure.
  • Join some smart mob and flash mob groups. Do some mobs. Create some mobs. Reflect on those mobs.
Further information

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Inspirational writing quotes

There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.
~ Jessamyn West

Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.
~ William Faulkner

You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you've got something to say.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

You have all the scenes. Just go home and word it in.
~Samuel Goldwyn to Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, its research.
~ Wilson Mizner

You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.
~G.K. Chesterton

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
~Elmore Leonard

The wastebasket is a writer's best friend.
~Isaac Bashevis Singer

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.
~Jules Renard, "Diary," February 1895

When a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence.
~Samuel Butler

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.
~Sholem Asch

Writing is a struggle against silence.
~Carlos Fuentes

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
~Ernest Hemingway, interview in Paris Review, Spring 1958

A man will turn over half a library to make one book.
~Samuel Johnson

The best style is the style you don't notice.
~Somerset Maugham

I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody's head.
~John Updike

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Lecture 8: Groups & Leadership (Some overview thoughts)

Lecture 8: Groups and Leadership (Materials)

I've always found groups and leadership fascinating. Perhaps its because of the delicious complexity and fascinating possibilities (for better or worse) when people cooperate with and work for one another. Many groups flop and flounder; some excel. What makes the difference?

A group can be a temporary, fleeting phenomenon. When you are in lift with other people even for less than a minute, for that period of time there is a sense of being a group and that impacts on behaviour.

The mere presence of single other person is sufficient for many interesting effects to occur. Zajonc and colleagues studied cockroaches in the 1960's and amazingly found that when faced with easy mazes, the creatures would run faster (and reach the destination which contained reward) when four fellow roaches were present. However, when faced with difficult mazes, the roaches were more successful (in terms of reaching the destination) when on their own. This illustrates social drive theory which proposes that we become aroused in the presence of others which will help performance if the task is easy and well-practiced, but will interfere with performance is the task is harder and the person is less skilled/practiced.

In some situations, groups are more efficient and productive. This is related to the 'wisdom of crowds' phenomenon whereby 'two heads are better than one'. But groups are also subject to problems such as the costs/hassles involved with communicating and coordinating, social loafing, groupthink (overly focusing on normative views) and group polarisation.

Social dilemma research has attempted to examine cooperation versus competition in an effort to work out what factors enhance cooperation. Getting to know and communicating with others generally helps. And one is also influence by the cooperative or competitive orientation adopted by others.

Leadership refers to the phenomenon that some people within a group wield disproportionately more influence over group members than others. We call these people leaders. Leadership theory has evolved from seeing leaders as endowed by birthright (e.g., race, royalty, class) to being stable, personality traits, to being behaviours which can be learned, to being a functional of leadership style plus specific situational demands, to evolving beyond a transactional or exchange economic model of leadership to a more transformational, humanistic approach of empowering individuals. In fact, there are situations, such as when group members have expertise and tasks are well defined, where it would seem where being without a leader could be more beneficial.