Past, Present and Future of Modern Activism in a ‘Flash’
A historic event was witnessed on 20 January, 2001: President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines was overthrown after the actions of a smart mob. The movement, ‘People’s Power II’, started when texts saying ‘Go 2EDSA, wear black’ were circulated, demanding the resignation of Estrada over charges of corruption. Thousands gathered in the streets with the result that Estrada finally lost power to the people. With this event, the ‘legend of “Generation Text” was born’ (Rheingold, 2002). In September 2000, thousands of British citizens protested against the sudden rise of gasoline prices; by co-ordinating their movements with the use of mobile phones, the Internet and radios in taxis, protestors blocked the fuel delivery at selected service stations (Nicholson). Since 1992, the activist cycling group, ‘Critical Mass’, comprising a group of people who get together with the help of texts and emails, have silently voiced their opinions by riding their cycles through the city. Chris Charlton, the founder of Critical Mass, considers it to be a ‘new kind of political space’ (Taylor, 2003). All the above can be considered to be examples of a smart mob which ultimately, in 2003, evolved to what is now called the ‘flash mob’.
The first successful flash mob was organised by a person popularly known among journalists as ‘Bill’. In an interview, Bill described how the concept of a flash mob started in Manhattan, New York on 17 June, 2003 when people gathered in a department store and pretended to buy a love rug for their commune where they apparently lived (Nicholson). Bill created an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and forwarded the message to himself. He wanted to create the impression that something was being circulated on the net that he had not created. He then forwarded the mail to about fifty other friends (Bill). The plan was to create an email about something amusing that would be forwarded or that would get people to come to a show. This show would turn out to be different from what was expected and be a surprise. A characteristic of the flash mob is that it lasts for a very short time and immediately after it is over, the people disperse. The concept soon became immensely popular and spread not only to different states in America but also to various centres in the world including London, Rome, Vienna, Amsterdam and Mumbai.
This paper will explore how flash mobs are being used in the field of political activism, with a focus on India. It starts by presenting the history of flash mobs in India and discusses how they are being used throughout the world for various political purposes. Using a case study of the use of flash mobs in college politics in Kolkata, I shall discuss the core characteristics of this new medium of protest. Even though many have criticised flash mobs and called them a form of ‘Dadaist lunacy’ (Taylor, 2003), others consider them to be the future of protest. I shall conclude by discussing the future of flash mobs and how they have the potential to become a powerful tool for making a difference.
Flash mobs in India
In India, the first flash mob took place in ‘Crossroads’, a shopping mall in Mumbai, on
4 October 2003. An email had been circulated asking people to visit a new blog for flash mobs in Mumbai. People had to fill in a form giving their name, address and phone numbers. On 3 October, the people who had registered received a text asking them to check their inboxes where they found the time and venue for the flash mob – ‘a mob site’ (Shah). At exactly 5 p.m., about 100 people gathered in Crossroads where they screamed, pretended to sell non-existent shares, danced and froze in the middle of their actions. After a couple of minutes, they opened their umbrellas and dispersed (Venugopal, 2003).
This first successful flash mob led to people organising different flash mobs across the country. These were not about creating a revolution or some new way of protesting against the system–the sole purpose of the mobs was to have some ‘serious fun’ (Venugopal, 2003). In less than a fortnight after the first flash mob, the Mumbai police had banned flash mobs in the city and, under the Mumbai Police Act, made it a criminal offence for more than four people to gather anywhere in the city for a common cause, without prior police permission. Subsequently, fourteen other cities where flash mobs had been held, banned them, saying that they were detrimental to the security and safety of the city (Shah).
Can the flash mob be used for political purposes?
In an interview, when asked about the political relevance of flash mobs, Bill replied that when they started there had been no political agenda. Flash mobs were not about expressing specific content, but rather had to do with just a ‘vague feeling’ (Bill). However, he confessed that later he was persuaded to consider the political relevance of the concept. There have been many debates about the political significance of flash mobs. While some believe that flash mobs are a new way of having some fun, others want to see this technique put to ‘more concrete political use’ (Taylor, 2003).
Despite doubts, flash mobs are often being used for various political causes. As an example, recently several hundred demonstrators gathered on the streets of Rome to protest against the conduct of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. This event was mainly coordinated through a page on the social networking site, Facebook, and different blogs (2009). The organisers claim that more than three hundred thousand people participated in the protests (Rome’s purple Berlusconi protests, 2009). Anti-Berlusconi protests were also held outside the Italian consulate in London, Amsterdam and various places in the United States.
In the last couple of years, similar protests have been organised in many other countries. As another example, we can consider the protests in Madrid in March 2004 when the government intentionally tried to cover up the details behind the bomb blasts in Spain. The entire protest movement was organised with the help of text messages and emails and within hours there were hundreds of people on the streets of Madrid. A huge number of people also gathered in cities like Barcelona and Galicia (Losowsky, 2004). Losowsky wrote in his article that it was immensely simple to organise such movements because texts and emails can be sent to groups of people just by the click of a button. ‘Groups of people can be mobilised quickly and effectively’ (Losowsky, 2004). Now it is much easier to mobilise a group people for a similar cause at the same venue than it was before the advent of smart phones and social networking sites.
Why can flash mobs be considered to be the future of protest?
Death of the leader
In his interview, Bill commented that except for the time when the flyers were handed out, the mobs basically became leaderless. He described how on one occasion, he was not allowed to enter a shoe store where a flash mob was being held as the shop became too crowded (Bill). The control was no longer in the hands of the person who created the concept and was taken over by the wider audience. Thus, as Barthes stated, we have the ‘death of the author’ and the ‘birth of the reader’ (Barthes, 1967, p. 3). Before, in any form of protest the leader was always important. Now however, due to technology, the leader is no longer essential. The entire model has become decentralised. In this context, Bennett commented that: ‘Even more important for explaining the flexibility, diversity, and scale of this activism is the way in which the preferences for leaderless and inclusive networks is suited to the distributed and multidirectional capabilities of Internet communication’ (Bennett, 2003, p. 24).
A constant factor to be debated about the flash mobs is the scepticism when someone tries to appoint himself or herself as the leader of the mob or the flash mob being specifically politicised or commercialized (Nicholson). This fear was realised to a certain extent when the famous Doonesbury cartoonist, Gary Trudeau, tried to use his cartoon strips to organise flash mobs to support the U.S. presidential candidate, Howard Dean (Paul, 2003). While some appreciated his creativity, most criticised him and accused him of trying to conform to a particular political ideology (Nicholson).
The decentralised, leaderless concept is a key aspect of a flash mob campaign as it sets it apart from all other forms of campaign where the presence of a human leader is of utmost importance. In flash mobs, technology enables people to be linked together to form a democratic unit in which every individual is equally important. Thus, in many flash mobs, instructions are given about where to go and what to do but there is never any briefing on how to do it.
‘The flash mobs became a media phenomenon above everything else’ (Bill). The love rug flash mob received much more media attention than any other political protest in New York city. In today’s world, popularity and visibility, to a great extent, depend upon the amount of media coverage an event gets. Often many important issues escape the attention of the people as they were not covered by the media. The flash mobs, being a completely new phenomenon, receive a huge amount of media exposure – beneficial for any group trying to spread awareness or protest with a cause. Initially, though reluctant, Bill decided to speak to every journalist who came to interview him, because he realised that ‘anything that grows the mob is pro mob’ (Bill). The flash mobs began in New York but very soon the concept spread throughout the world, mostly thanks to the media attention received.
After China, which has about ten million new subscribers every year, India has the largest mobile subscriber base in the world with about 450 million mobile subscribers. This number is growing exponentially due to the rapid rise in mobile subscribers in rural India (Santosh, 2009). However flash mobs in India are still a particularly urban movement. The people who participate in flash mobs are upper class, educated, rich people who have access to a mobile phone and the internet. They mostly consist of the ‘respectable, upwardly mobile young citizens’ (Das 2009).
If flash mobs are to develop, they need to be taken to the villages; despite the global
slow down, the mobile market in rural India has continued to grow (Bellman, 2009). Fatehpur, a small village in Bihar, India’s poorest state, has no electricity. However, it has a mobile tower connecting the people to the rest of the world (Yee, 2007). Farmer K.T. Srinivasa lives in Karanehalli. He has neither a toilet in his house nor does he have a tractor for his field. However, his mobile phone has changed the way he farms. He now can consult other farmers about the time of harvest or call the wholesalers to find the market prices, thus saving a lot of time and money (Bellman, 2009). About 60 per cent of India’s population is rural. People experience on-going problems such as a lack of education, child marriages, lack of electricity or water and no infrastructure development. However, with the advent of digital technology and the rapid spread of mobile-phone ownership in rural India, flash mobs could be effectively used to mobilise the people and bring to the attention of the Government the problems faced by them every day.
The beginning of a new revolution
The nature of protests will change and evolve over time and be influenced by changes in society and societies’ perceived needs and the development of new forms of media. The use of mobile phones and the Internet as a tool of protest is a passing phase and, with changing times and the advent of new technologies, these technologies will become obsolete. However, congregations and aggregations of people by means of texts, emails and social networking sites are here to stay for a while since ‘…it is in and it is new’ (Das P. , 2009). In this context an example worth mentioning is that of Iran’s ‘Twitter Revolution’, when thousands of Iranians around the world protested against American imperialism and the Iranian government, by means of Twitter and blogs. The participants in this revolution used the Internet for constructive political activism (Morozov, 2009, pp. 10-14). Recently, thousands of women started updating their Facebook statuses to various colours. After wide-spread speculation, it was revealed that this was a breast-cancer awareness campaign, reminding women to have checks. Women all over the world were updating their Facebook statuses according to the colour of bra they were wearing on that particular day. Malorie Lucich, spokesperson for Facebook, said that this was a brilliant example of a ‘grass-roots campaign’ beginning on a social networking site. It also shows how these sites can be used to ignite action amongst thousands of people worldwide (Hough, 2010).
In the next decade, such movements will become much larger and it is likely that flash mobs will become one of the most favoured means of protest, not only in college politics, but also in larger election politics, and be used for both organisational and political purposes (Das, 2009). Thus, in society there will be a latent mob, consisting of extremely well-informed people with strong opinions and when political saturation is reached, the flash mob shall show its face and act as a major pressure group, demanding instant action.
As is to be expected with any developing medium, critics are divided in their opinion about the potential of flash mobs being used for political activism, especially in a developing country like India. Here, about 25 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and people have to fight for the basic necessities of life like food, shelter, education and human rights (The World Factbook, 2007). In such conditions, movements organised by the means of sophisticated technologies, such as the mobile phone, may seem far-fetched to many. However, considering the rapid growth of mobile-phone use in rural India, there is undoubtedly the potential, in due course, for flash mobs to become the major tool of protest for the people in the villages, who will be demanding a better quality of life and amenities from the government.
In urban areas in India, however, while flash mobs may not be known by that particular name, the concept has been used on many occasions for various political and organisational purposes, especially in the colleges. The younger generation has always been considered to be the ‘agents of change who must be instrumental in organising the protest’ (Morozov, 2009). With the advance of technology and the increased dependence of people on technology, an intelligent choice is for technology to be used more constructively, especially in politically active places like India with its numerous problems.
In this ever changing and ever developing society, the future is difficult to predict. However, campaigning using a medium that people are most comfortable with will create a wave of awareness in society. The fire will be ignited, but it shall remain hidden till the final moment when it shall manifest itself for protests and demands for the right. Thus, as Morozov puts it, ‘In the past we needed a fortune or, at least, a good name to cause much damage. Today all we need is an Internet connection’ (Morozov, 2009).
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