The Problem With Flash Mobs: The Word 'Mob' Is Your First Clue

Earlier this week, Los Angeles experienced the power of social media -- and not in a good way -- after a popular DJ named Kaskade tweeted an invitation to his 92,000 Twitter followers to attend a "block party" to celebrate the opening of a music documentary about the Electric Daisy Carnival, a series of raves (I just totally dated myself), at Hollywood's famous Grauman's Chinese Theater.

"Let's see if the magic of social networking will work today," Kaskade tweeted -- and boy howdy, did it ever. The Los Angeles Times quoted Michael Duddie, the general manager of the Supperclub entertainment venue, who happened to witness the rapturous response: "In two minutes there were 100 people, in three minutes there were 1,000 people, and by the time he got to the corner of Hollywood and Highland there were 3,000 people around me. Cars couldn't go anywhere." The incredible speed of the response was due primarily to the availability of Twitter on smartphones, according to Duddie: "He sent out a tweet and everybody's pockets just buzzed."

While the minute-to-minute description may be an exaggeration, given how long it takes to get anywhere in L.A., by all accounts the "flash mob" did indeed coalesce with remarkable speed: according to the police, the designated meeting point filled up to overflowing less than half an hour after Kaskade's invitation went out. There were so many people that the flatbed truck carrying the DJ and his equipment had to be diverted down a side street, which only succeeded in spreading the chaos, according to Duddie: "Another 1,000 kids ran down the street at top speed -- right down the middle of the street with traffic coming at them. It grew out of control."

Chaos is an apt description of the "near riot" that ensued, as would-be party-goers -- deprived of their life-giving techno -- became rowdy, jumping on and vandalizing police cars and throwing objects at the police, who responded by shooting a volley of non-lethal bean bags at the worst offenders. Kaskade was compelled to tweet: "EVERYONE NEEDS TO GO HOME NOW! I DON'T WANT THIS TO REFLECT BADLY ON EDM OR WHAT WE ARE."

And that is the real question about social media and flash mobs: it's not so much how social media is used, but rather who is using it -- their character and intentions. While some critics might be tempted to dismiss any spontaneous event catalyzed by social media as potentially dangerous and even criminal, the fact is, it depends entirely on the participants. How many of these sorts of gatherings have gone off peacefully, without causing serious disruptions? It's possible to organize a spontaneous meeting of 1,500 people in a way that doesn't require riot police to intervene -- provided you don't invite the wrong people.

1 comment about "The Problem With Flash Mobs: The Word 'Mob' Is Your First Clue ".
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  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., July 29, 2011 at 7:25 p.m.

    I guess I _sort of_ get your point, but I wonder if it might be phrased more clearly. What do you mean, exactly, by "their character and intentions?"

    If you're not familiar with specifics, it's easy to read your story as if it were describing a latter-day version of the Compton Riots. Here, however, we're talking about a sophisticated, 40-year-old House/Electro DJ/producer -- a guy born in Evanston, IL -- a Brigham Young graduate -- who tweeted to his sophsticated audience in order to attract some fraction of them to a launch party for a documentary about a (admittedly, hella big) electronica/rave festival held in LA between 1997 and 2010, when it moved to Las Vegas.

    This doesn't automatically bear all the earmarks of havoc. He seems to have gotten about a 1% response from his list. The big problem seems to be that nobody did the scaling math (i.e,. "Okay, this guy has 92000 local followers -- most of them are young and mobile -- it's evening, nobody's at work or school -- and the Daisy Festival got 130,000 people last year -- so ... multiply, multiply, multply -- I'd say the chance of getting -TOO MANY PEOPLE- is fairly high!). And the rest of the story is just random mob behavior ... indeed, fairly 'soft' mob behavior, considering that nobody got killed, few got hurt or arrested, and Kaskade was apparently able to disperse the crowd without it 'wilding' through adjacent neighborhoods.

    So okay -- "character and intentions?" Seems to me this guy and his posse were, at least initially, just out to have a good time. Granted, if he were an opera producer with 5000 followers, mostly over 60 years of age, things probably wouldn't have gotten out of hand. But how many senior-citizen flash mobs have you heard about? Flash-mobbing, per se, is something that only young, mobile, single folks without a class or a meeting to go to in half an hour participate in, right? (The sole exception to this rule, perhaps, being hipster audiences at hipster technology industry events -- i.e., sure, you could get a flash mob going at E3 or SXSW among the gainfully-employed hipsters -- but that might also turn into a riot if you told them to meet in a small classroom and then didn't give them their Felicia Day appearance.)

    So what kind of application for flash mobs can you think of that would a) work, and b) not run at least some risk of turning ugly, simply because it caused way too many young, single, mobile, out-for-a-wild-time types to show up at one place?

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