A flash mob is an unrehearsed, spontaneous, contagious and dispersed mass action. Flash mobs first emerged in 2003 as a form of participatory performance art, with groups of people using email, blogs, text messages and Twitter to arrange to meet and perform some kind of playful activity in a public location. More recently, activists have begun to harness the political potential of flash mobs for organizing spontaneous mass actions on short notice.

Common uses

  • to organize a show of dissent on short notice
  • to quickly replicate a successful tactic in a dispersed yet coordinated way
  • to create a shared moment of random kindness and senseless beauty

Flash mobs have recently become a powerful tactic for political protest, particularly under repressive conditions. In the midst of a harsh crackdown on protests in Belarus in 2011, for instance, dissidents calling themselves “Revolution through the Social Network” began organizing impromptu demonstrations where protesters would simply gather in public spaces and clap their hands in unison. The result was the bewildering sight of secret police brutally arresting people for the simple act of clapping their hands—a powerful challenge to the legitimacy of an increasingly irrational regime.

The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt also involved flash-mob-like tactics, with organizers calling for protesters to gather initially in alleys and other protected spaces for safety before moving into the streets in larger and larger numbers. Blogger Patrick Meier explains the thinking behind this approach:

Starting small and away from the main protests is a safe way to pool protesters together. It’s also about creating an iterative approach to a ‘strength in numbers’ dynamic. As more people crowd the smaller streets, this gives a sense of momentum and confidence. Starting in alleyways localizes the initiative. People are likely neighbours and join because they see their friend or sister out in the street.

Another effective use of the flash mob tactic is UK Uncut. In October 2010, one week after the British government announced massive cuts to public services, seventy people occupied a Vodaphone store in London to draw attention to the company’s record of unpaid taxes. The idea quickly went viral: within three days, over thirty Vodaphone stores had been shut down around the country by flash mobs organizing over Twitter using the hashtag #ukuncut.

The revolutionary potential for dispersed, coordinated action using flash mob tactics has only begun to be realized. As Micah White wrote in Adbusters:

Fun, easy to organize, and resistant to both infiltration and preemption because of their friend-to-friend network topology, flash mobs are positioned to be the next popular tactic with revolutionary potential. . . . With flash mobs, activists have the potential to swarm capitalism globally. – Micah White, “To the Barricades Adbusters 94 (March/April 2011)]

Key principle at work – Simple rules can have grand results

Whether it’s a mass pillow fight (bring a pillow, hit anyone else carrying a pillow), or a bank shutdown (get in line, ask the teller for your entire account balance in pennies, and be disarmingly polite), the invitation to participate in a flash mob is easy to share, but when multiplied by tens or hundreds of people, can lead to complex, dispersed and powerfully effective actions.

By Dave Oswald Mitchell and Andrew Boyd. Reposted from website www.beautifultrouble.org.

Dave Oswald Mitchell is a writer, editor and researcher camped out at the intersection of the economic and ecological crises. He edited the Canadian activist publication Briarpatch Magazine from 2005 to 2010, and his writing has been published in Rabble, Reality Sandwich, Rolling Thunder and Upping the Anti. His interests include brevity, tactical media and going elsewhere.

Andrew Boyd is an author, humourist and veteran of creative campaigns for social change. He led the decade-long satirical media campaign “Billionaires for Bush.” He co-founded Agit-Pop Communications, an award-winning “subvertising” agency, as well as the netroots social justice movement The Other 98%. He’s the author of three books: Daily Afflictions, Life’s Little Deconstruction Book and the creative action manual The Activist Cookbook. Unable to come up with his own lifelong ambition, he’s been cribbing from Milan Kundera: “to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form.” You can find him at andrewboyd.com.