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When the digital spills into the physical

Nishant Shah, Director-Research, Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, tells us why flash mobs are an interesting sign of our times, and not just a passing fad

What is a flash mob?
There are many different forms of flash mobs, if you look at their content. In terms of structure, it has to do with a bunch of people, who are connected to each other by common technologies but don't necessarily know each other, and yet, come together in a public space to perform a set of pre-decided actions. Congregate, Orchestrate and Disperse -- that is the anatomy of a flash-mob. Hence it is different from other kinds of mobilisations, because it is very rare for anybody to know who is the organiser of a flash mob.
There are no long speeches, political expositions or agendas used in order to bring people together for a flash mob. Once the brief performance has been done, people don't stay back to form communities and discuss. The word 'flash' draws its inspiration both from 'flash-floods' and 'flash-in-a-pan', both referring to the immanence and suddenness of a flashmob.

What is a smart mob?
Howard Rheingold coined the term smart mob in a book by the same name. Smart mobs are a more inclusive form of digital technology-based mobilisation. Rheingold uses the term to refer to a series of sharing, collaborative, performative engagements that have emerged around the world, especially with young people using the Internet. The people don't know each other, but through different Peer-to-Peer (p2p) protocols, are able to share their resources towards a particular purpose. So it might be a group of friends who want to dance at the train station, or geeks sharing their idle computing time to search for records of UFOs, or people using location based applications to meet each other in caf �s and form friendships. Smart mobs are essentially different from flashmobs because they have a specific agenda and are geared towards a longer, sustained and enduring practice of community belonging and building.

What role does the Internet and digital technology play in organising flash mobs?
One of the fundamental tenets of flash mobs is the condition of anonymity. The web offers the necessary condition where the intended participant does not have to disclose any personal information. They are able to interact, communicate, receive and share information while giving out nothing more than their email addresses and cellphone numbers. It would have been impossible to think of a flash mob without the use of these technologies because while the postal service would also offer similar conditions (though the physical address is more of an identifier), the flash mob also requires a speed and scale which would otherwise have been impossible in an analogue world.

What is a flash mob best suited to achieve? Is it a form of celebration, a protest, campaign, a quick way to poke fun, or be ironic?  
I would say the flash mob is a tool -- a process that can be deployed for anything that you want. You can use it as a form of celebration or protest. You can also use it to bully somebody, to destroy public property or create conditions of danger. However, that is true of any tool that we use. A hammer, for example, can be used to hit a nail, or hit some one. The flash mob is a symptom of how our digital and physical realities are merging. It uses the aesthetics of p2p, interaction with strangers, gaming elements with more control over the spaces that we occupy, 'avatar'ification which allows for a pseudonymous existence, etc. to organise something in the physical world. And it is these spillages of the digital into the physical (and vice versa) that make flash mobs significantly more interesting than just a passing fad.

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