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Flash-in-the-Pan Mobs?

By Thomas H. Sander

Is there a greater social purpose behind the recent flash mob craze than releasing steam in these stressful post-Sept. 11 days? In a typical flash mob, scores of individuals convene with the help of instant messages and cell phones to await the often-zany instructions of their unknown leader. A San Francisco flash mob, for instance, was told to play a giant game of duck-duck-goose, and a Harvard Square flash mob flocked to the Harvard Coop this summer to ask for greeting cards for a friend named “Bill.” Since the first flash mob in June in New York City, they have spread kudzu-like to over 40 cities worldwide, and many cities have held multiple events.

One way to evaluate flash mobs is to consider them through the lens of “social capital.” A rapidly accumulating body of evidence shows that social capital—comprised of social networks and the associated norms of trust and reciprocity—is useful to a host of public goods. Social capital promotes more responsive governmental institutions, improved education, safer streets, economic growth and even general health and happiness. But as Stanfield Professor for International Peace Robert D. Putnam described in Bowling Alone, this valuable stock of social capital has dwindled over the last generation, both in formal and informal spheres.

Could flash mobs be an antidote? Probably not, at least as they are currently configured. Flash mobs feed off social capital, with friends inviting friends, but there is little evidence that they create new friendships or deepen existing ones—if that is even their intent.

There is promise, however, at the intersection between technology and social capital, where flash mobs were born. Telephones and the Internet, unlike the passive medium of television, are both used actively and could potentially knit us more closely together. Our society is in a giant period of experimentation, and we may be inventing the technological building blocks of new social connections. For example, Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs—organized in the same way as flash mobs, but with more serious intentions—details how these active technologies helped Philippine and Seattle protesters redeploy themselves on the fly. Peter Ackerman, an expert who studies the non-violent overthrow of repressive governments, believes that high-tech concepts like smart mobs offer potentially powerful frameworks for political resistance, because the process of organizing takes place under the radar of their governmental opponents and is therefore harder to suppress.

The intrinsic appeal of flash mobs as fun and spontaneous outlets for social energy may eventually make them useful for the generation of social capital. In Making Democracy Work, Putnam observed that stronger local civic networks, such as those composed of choral groups and soccer clubs, helped to explain why some Italian regional governments were more responsive, even though Italian citizens sang or kicked soccer balls only because they enjoyed it. Fun activities like flash mobs may thus contain a hidden tonic for new social capital.

Other e-tools may also prove to be socially useful. E-vite.com makes it easier to invite others to social events. Wi-Fi makes it easier for conference attendees to comment silently laptop-to-laptop during a speaker’s remarks. Meetup.com may make it easier to arrange face-to-face meetings of people with shared interests—whether their interests are in Britney Spears, Howard Dean, Harry Potter or veganism, to name only a few real groups. Instant messaging, listserves and e-mail may seem like second nature to us by now, but they greatly facilitate sharing information and forming social organizations.

Whatever the potential of new technologies like these, however, high rates of extinction mean that many go belly-up almost as soon as their victory is predicted. Company of Friends, for example, which was designed to convene readers of Fast Company in small groups, is now defunct. So is UpMyStreet, which attempted to localize discussions among Londoners and ultimately facilitate face-to-face get-togethers.

Although the road to hell is lined with technological predictions, it is possible that flASH mobs contain the seeds of a more useful craze when combined with the political and cultural goals of SMart mobs. In these “SMASH mobs,” as one might call them, hundreds of smokers might appear in Groucho Marx noses and glasses and smoke surreptitiously outside City Hall to make a political statement about Boston’s recent ban on smoking in public places. SMASH mobs might also combine fun with social-capital building: hundreds of Cambridge residents might be told to don a funny hat, visit a specific local restaurant and join another patron in a funny hat for lunch-time conversation.

The Crimson’s readers could certainly concoct other examples that employ the organizing techniques and fun of flash mobs to strengthen social capital or promote political and cultural change. Flash mobs have an “all dressed up with no place to go” quality; let’s give them a destination.

Thomas H. Sander is executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America at the Kennedy School of Government.

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