Anthropology of the Flashmob


A review of Scenes of Chaos and Joy: Playing and Performing Selves in Digitally Virtu/Real Places, by Denice Joy Szafran.

Denise Joy Szafran’s dissertation is an analysis of flashmobs, which emerged circa 2003 and have continued in various forms to the present. Driving Szafran’s inquiry is a question regarding the relationship between online and offline spaces. Namely, do the relationships to space that computer users cultivate in on-screen environments bleed into their experiences or expectations of physical spaces and public places? What happens when conflicting ideologies of public appropriateness meet in physical sites? How does the experience of virtual and real spaces as a continuum impact notions of play and performance? “Flashmobs provided the perfect expressive behaviors necessary to examine the link between digital and virtu/real existence and the effect those venues have on understandings and use of the physical urban world” (p. 72).

In her opening chapters, Szafran lays out the history of flashmobs and the terms of her analysis. The author’s training is in anthropology, and as she notes, the majority of anthropological and ethnographic scholarship that attends to digital cultures examines gaming communities. Szafran’s major intervention, then, is to analyze life online as it appears and develops outside of these immersive virtual spaces of play. How else do people demonstrate playfulness online? Szafran focuses on communities of play that “coalesce virtually and express physically” (p. 3). Szafran notes that her selection of research methods arose from the realization that traditional research methods, including but not limited to living among a group of people for extended periods of time, are both unworkable and nonsensical when engaging online communities buttressed by short-lived alliances in physical spaces. Szafran describes her methodological approaches therefore as being a combination of grounded theory, participant observation, and creative participation, the latter of which, she explains, “requires more active than passive observation and a desire to insert yourself not only as an extra face but also as one who… influences and is influenced by the behavior” (p. 23). Throughout the dissertation, readers are therefore not only treated to the author’s reflections on her experiences of flashmobs as participant and/or videographer, but also understand that she has taken a leading role in organizing some of them.

Narratives of digital cultures are frequently plagued by ahistoricity, and Szafran combats this tendency by providing a detailed account of evolving Internet and Web technologies, the emergence of intentional online communities facilitated by access to discussion boards and online games, and the varieties of play behaviors (including identity play) associated with these spaces. Szafran additionally notes various offline predecessors to flashmobs, including carnival and smart mobs, as well as the socially oriented arts practices of the Situationists, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, and Augusto Boàl’s invisible theater. Szafran also links flashmobs to political activism of the post-9/11 era, citing the activities of Anonymous and, the political affordances of the Twitter platform, and modes of mobilizing online communities for or against political parties and corporations. Flashmobs are thus contextualized within larger histories and practices of online communities, artistic urban interventions, and political organizing.

Having thus explored influences and historical threads, Szafran turns to the flashmob phenomenon proper, beginning with originator Bill Wasik’s infamous 2003 “love rug” experiment and his ironic and apolitical intentions. From there, Szafran tracks the emergence of groups that employed similar tactics whether or not they adopted the flashmob label to describe their own forms of public performance. The New York group Improv Everywhere led by Charlie Todd figures prominently, though Szafran notes that Todd began staging public “scenes” or “missions” in 2001–before Wasik’s famed first flashmob. Improv Everywhere, in turn, has inspired the formation of numerous groups that do embrace the term “flashmob” to describe their engagements with public spaces. These include Improv in Toronto, Societies of Spontaneity (in Boston), and Buffalo Flashmob. Not considering themselves beholden to Wasik’s definition of flashmob behavior, other groups have emerged to explore what the flashmob format can offer besides apolitical irony.

Chapters 5-8 constitute the bulk of Szafran’s discussion of flashmobs proper. In these chapters, the author describes the many events in which she has participated or that she has video recorded, thoroughly recounting over 15 events in addition to describing other events she did not attend. She considers theories of play and the experiences of “liminality” and “flow” that playful behavior can generate, drawing primarily from the fields of anthropology and performance studies. Szafran also delves into theories of performance, linking her analysis of flashmobs to theories of performativity, theories of performance in everyday life, and ethnography of performance. She additionally employs kinesic analysis and facial content analysis to examine the emotional tenor of the flashmob missions she describes.

Most gratifyingly, Szafran explores occasions where flashmob events “failed” in some way when participants did not adequately consider how their presence would impact others. Two examples prove especially revealing. First, in an interview with Ira Glass on This American Life, the band members of Ghosts of Pasha recalled that the Improv Everywhere mission “Best Gig Ever” left them feeling like they had been “punked” and ridiculed when their concert attendees turned out to be fake fans (note that this narrative conflicts with responses attributed to band members on the Improv Everywhere Website). Second, “Black Tie Beach,” another Improv Everywhere mission, did not take into account the Russian immigrant population that frequented the Brighton Beach location where the agents gathered, resulting in some rather upset and confused onlookers who brought a different set of cultural values and political histories to the encounter foisted upon them.

Those who participate in flashmobs have become accustomed to eviction and, increasingly, the threat of arrest as protesters and mobbers begin to lose their distinctions. But eviction and arrest are risks that individuals take when they agree to take part in such unsanctioned events. What Szafran points out is that the risks and effects of flashmobs extend into place-based communities, and that mobbers ignore these to their own detriment. Nor can enthusiasts export flashmobs to different national or cultural contexts without consequence. The very possibility of flashmobs is predicated on a Western-style configuration of the public sphere and its accompanying freedoms of speech and expression. But these are even under attack in Western democracies–they certainly cannot be presumed elsewhere. Responding to a proposed flashmob in Egypt, Szafran notes, “Americans’ understandings of appropriate and acceptable behavior in public spaces are much different from those of government and citizens in a country under martial law where there are already strict cultural scripts concerning gatherings” (p. 194). Szafran concludes with a gripping reflection on the G20 Summit protests in Toronto, further linking flashmobs to the embodied politics of public space.

What comes out most strongly in Szafran’s dissertation is the provocative assertion that how people engage with each other online and in virtual spaces changes their expectations of physical spaces in a way that may conflict with others’ expectations. Flashmobs “attempt to rewrite the cultural expectations of acceptable usage of urban spaces” but “many times when [mobbers] do affect these passersby, the memories left behind are not always pleasant or welcome […]” (pp. 203-204). Because those immersed in digital cultures may not realize a conflict exists, they may offend others through their willful naiveté or expose themselves to danger assuming that their public actions will not have consequences, or will only have positive consequences.

Szafran’s dissertation adds important first-hand ethnographic accounts of flashmobs to the growing literature on online communities. It additionally demonstrates that spatial awarenesses and communicational norms cultivated online can conflict with those cultivated offline, giving rise to misunderstandings.

Harmony Bench
Department of Dance
The Ohio State University

Primary Sources

Participation in and recordings of flashmobs with Improv Everywhere and Improv in Toronto

Online discussion boards and comment threads

Dissertation Information

University at Buffalo, State University of New York. 2011. 273 pp. Primary Advisor: Donald K. Pollack.


Image: Bollysquare at Dundas Square, Toronto, Ontario, July 11 2010, photograph by author’s camera.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like