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


Sean FitzGerald said...

Flash mobs are usually organised using SMS messages. Considering you researched and announced this blog post via Twitter, one has to ask the question... will the organisation of flash mobs move to these new types of microblogging tools?

Fiona said...

Hey James,

There was actually a Flashmob in Canberra that a few of my friends were involved in through Facebook I think. They had a spontaneous pillow fight in Floriade and then Garema Place a few weeks back.

There was even an article on page 3 of the Canberra Times about it (but it doesn't seem to be archived on the net to share it with you). Maybe that's the reason for your phone call... a follow up story maybe??

I've posted the video of the whole event up on my blog (psychfi)from youtube.

I look forward to reading the article!


Andrew at UC said...

The type of behaviour I mentioned to James is called a bull or bear raid. A bull raid had a large number of buy orders placed on the stock at the same time some rumour is spread that will send the price up and create a chain reaction pushing the price even higher. The people who started the raid sell out at the higher price. A bear raid is the same thing in the opposite direction - a large number of sell orders are placed along with rumours to send the price down. The people who started the raid buy to cover their short position when the price is fallen. Both actions are illegal but sophisticated use of new communication tools may catch the regulators napping.

greg said...

It seems like their must be a leader for a flash mob to start. someone or two has to start it. I once started banging a drum in the street at 2am and 40 people came out of the woodwork, not to kill me, but to jam along. then we all went back to wherever...

Lucy said...

Hi, I really enjoyed reading this article. Having just taken part in a flash mob event I can say my motives were to do something out of the ordinary, let loose and have a laugh...

Mrs. Freud said...

Hi James,

I am also part of the flashmob group on facebook. I havent had a chance to participate yet, but its quite an exciting prospect. Firstly, because it will be so funny! Secondly, to get a reaction and see the reaction of the people around you! Thirdly, as you mentioned there is the factor of deindividuation-- if an individual did such a random thing on their own they would likely be labelled negatively 'freak' or 'random', but as a group it will have a greater impact and people will wonder what they've missed! I think the latest flash mob idea was to learn a song and all show up and spontaneously start singing as part of a choir! I'll keep you posted if i ever make it to a flashmob event!

Karen Woods said...

This is an interesting connection I'd like to explore. It would be particularly interesting to include a phenomenon which is relatively new (maybe) and integrating with the fascination for modern technology - mobile phones, youtube, facebook etc.

Even though new styles of socialisation are taking place (such as online forums etc), flash mobbing seems to suggest that humans still need to get together in person, in groups to share common goals or ideas, even if the goal appears to be just getting some attention. Perhaps underneath, the goal of each individual is not just to fulfill the need to belong, but also the need to show other people, that they belong to a group of some kind - which is in itself a way of displaying social acceptance.

The bigger the group, the bigger the opportunities for word of mouth to spread to many more people - eg. 40 people each having 6-8 close friendships as well as larger numbers of acquaintances/colleagues - all could hear about the flash mob event - if the event is spectacular enough to get mentioned in the media - the people in the flash mob group may feel a touch of fame or at least importance, and certainly belonging.

However, as experienced by many seeking fame, you can be just as easily forgotten.
The interesting difference I think with flash mobbing, is that, even if the event gets media attention, the individual's are very unlikely to ever be identified - so the emphasis seems to be on group belonging and maybe doing something a little different, unexpected, spontaneous.

It could be an option for people seeking a 'safe' thrill as opposed to an individual who enjoys sky-diving to get a thrill. And a lot cheaper too.

So is flash mobbing just a cheap thrill?

My Blog said...

Hi James,

My brother in law was in the floriade flash mob in Canberra. it is a well orchestrated movement and was planned through facebook. There are identifiable organisers :)

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My friend told about the flash mob in Canberra. It is very well shared and described. It is helpful also.
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