Here Comes Everybody


Excerpts from the book by Clay Shirky

Chapter 7: Faster and Faster


Flash Mobs


Early one June evening in 2003, more than a hundred people arrived on the ninth floor of Macy's Department store, where [Page 165] they proceeded to look at one particular large and very expensive rug. When the puzzled sales assistant asked if they needed help, the members of the group explained that they lived together in a commune, were shopping for a "love rug," and made all their decisions in a group. Then, ten minutes later, the crowd suddenly dispersed, heading in different directions with no obvious coordination.

The event was the first successful flash mob, a group that engages in seemingly spontaneous but actually synchronized behavior. The form was invented by Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's magazine, as a kind of street performance, as well as an ironic commentary on the conformism of hipster culture. Wasik, working as the anonymous "Bill from New York," would e-mail instructions to a group of people, spelling out when and where they were to converge and describing the activity they were to engage in once there. Later flash crowds involved getting dozens of people to perch on a stone ledge in Central Park all making bird noises, a "Zombie walk" in San Francisco, and a silent dance party at London's Victoria Station. These mobs had some of the flavor of flagpole sitting -- harmless but attention-getting fun. But as the novelist William Gibson noted about technology, the street finds its own uses for things, and after their flagpole-sitting phase, flash mobs entered the political sphere.

The first use of a flash mob for political expression appeared soon after the "love rug" mob. Howard Dean's U.S. presidential campaign proposed a flash mob in Seattle in September. (the invitation was published in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoon.) The next year protesters staged a flash mob against Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin in his home city of St. Petersburg, [P. 166]two weeks before the Russian presidential elections. About sixty youths turned up in Putin masks, wearing shirts with anti-Putin messages like "Vova go home!" (Vova is a nickname for Vladimir.) The use of flash mobs as tools of political protest, though, has reached its zenith in Belarus.

Belarus is one of Europe's most repressive countries. A former member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it was cut loose after the collapse of European Communism during the 1990s. In the main, the former Soviet states embracred free markets and democratic processes, but Belarus retained a state-run economy and acquired an autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, who was first elected in 1994 on a platform of eradicating corruption. In the intervening years Lukashenjo has ruled over the country with increasingly unchecked power. When he ran for reelection to a third term in March 2006, he won nearly 85 percent of the vote, a result that European election observers said was rigged. In protest, more than ten thousand people turned out in Minsk's Oktyabrskaya Square. The Lukashenko government, which had vowed to crush any opposition in advance of the election, arrested hundreds of protesters and jailed the leading opposition candidate after the election. Lukashenko had learned the lesson from the Leipzig protests. The problem for the opposition was how to decide to protest in an environment where the state exerted that much control.

In May someone posting under the name by_mob used LiveJournal, a piece of bloggins software, to propose a flash mob for the fifteenth of that Month. The Minsk flash mob had little of Wasik's intentionally confounding feeling--the idea was simply that people would show up in Oktyabrskaya Square [p.167]and eat ice cream. The results were one part ridiculous and three parts depressing; the police were waiting in the square and hauled away several of the ice cream eaters, all while being documented in the now-standard pattern as other participants took digital pictures and uploaded them to Flickr, LiveJournal, and other online outlets. These pictures were in turn recirculated by bloggers like Andy Carvin and Ethan Zuckerman, political bloggers who cover the use of technology as a tool for social change. Images of a repressive Belarus thus spread far beyond the borders of Minsk. Nothing says "police state" like detaining kids for eating ice cream.

The ice cream mob was not an isolated incident. Flash mobs were held to protest the banning of the Belarusian Writers Union ("Show up at the Supreme Court, read books by the writers in the organization") and the closing of the newspaper Nasha Niva on the day it was to be shutdown ("Gather in Oktyabrskaya, reading copies of the _Nasha Niva_"). In the fall perhaps the simplest flash mob ever proposed took place: "Walk around Oktyabrskaya smiling at one another." This action produced the same reaction from the state; attendees reported that the police were using the presence of a pocketknife to try one of the smilers with weapons possession.

The police weren't reacting to the ice cream eating, reading, or smiling itself. The chosen behavior was intentionally innocuous, because the real message lay not in the behavior but in the collective action. After the postelection protests in March, any coordinated public gathering, especially in Oktyabrskaya Square, had a political dimension; mere evidence that the Belarusian youth were operating in any organized way was both a threat and a rebuke to the state. The government has [P.168]reason to worry: the historical lesson from Leipzig suggests that any forum for public expression is dangerous, because no matter how innocuous the original form of organization is, if the state is seen to tolerate it, it can become a forum for more focused discontent. The threat from a group eating ice cream isn't the ice cream but the group. The Lukashenko government is thus worried about coordinated ice cream eating--but if they have learned the lesson of Leipzig, why don't they just stop the mobs before they even gather? What good is having a secret police if you can't spy on dissidents and disrupt their activities? With that strategy, after all, photographs of the police dragging people out of the main square are far less likely to show up all over the world.

Here is where the change in social tools since 1989 manifests itself. In Leipzig the early organization of the protests was fairly visible, and the protests themselves were fairly invisible. In June 1989, for example, the GDR canceled the entire Leipzig Street Music Festival, organized by independent citizen groups, and arrested all the participating musicians. The degree of advanced planning required made the festival an easy target. Meanwhile the protesters themselves were visible only to other Leipzigers, because the government had such tight control over media. The problem Lukashenko faces is that in the intervening years our social tools have made it possible for protesters to reverse the formula. Now the organization of group effort can be invisible, but the results can be immediately visible. Because the cost of sharing and coordinating has collapsed, new methods of organization are available to ordinary citizens, methods that allow events to be arranged without [P.169]much advance planing. Because the mobs were proposed via weblog, the state had no way of keeping track of who had seen the plan. They could not break up the plot, since there was no plot; the event was proposed in public, so there was no secret information to uncover. Even if the government had the surveillance apparatus to know the identity of all the blog readers, it had no way of knowing which of them were planning to attend.

Using the state's reaction against itself is a kind of jujitsu. The protesters in Belarus believe that the government will be less willing to use force if it knows it is being observed by the outside world, particularly by Western Europe and the United States. As a result, the opposition wants to create widely observable protests, while the government wants to prevent such events from taking place or, failing that, to prevent documentation of those protests from being distributed widely. But with flash mobs the government can't intercept the group members in advance, because there is no group in advance; like the Mermaid Parade photographers, the group is latent until the event itself occurs, then is formed on the spot, as a result of the actions of the individual participants. (Also like the Mermain Parade photographers, the by_mob proposer did not and could not know in advance who might show up.) By using the public tools, the original proposers of the flash mob forced the state to react after the fact, but that's only half the battle. A protest isn't a protest unless it's public, and this is the second half of the change. Once the state does react, the flash mob attendees can document and publicize the proceedings, using camera phones and photo-charing websites that are much harder to [P.170]control than traditional media. Even though there were only a few days between the announcement that Nasha Niva would be closed and its final day of publication, the opposition was able to get a few hundred people to turn out on that day. This speed of organization is accompanied by relative permanence of documentation. In late April 2006 someone going by the name freejul created a LiveJournal account. On the twenty-eighth, he or she posted pictures from the Nasha Niva flash mob, then another set of photos from a May I Event in solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus. The last post from the account as on May 5, a little over a week after the first post, but the pictures are still there for all to see. Another advantage of blogs over traditional media outlets is that no one can found a newspaper on a moment's notice, run it for two issues, and then fold it, while incurring no cost but leaving a permanent record.)[sic]

Because so many people have access to the Web, the Belarusian government can't stem the formation of flash mobs in advance, and because the attendees have cameras, it can't break up the mobs without inviting the very attention it wants to avoid. In this situation, the Belarusian government is limited to either gross overreactions (a curfew in Oktyabrskaya, a ban on eating ice cream or the internet) or to waiting for the mob to form, then disrupting it.

Such protests may not succeed in toppling the government. The Leipzig protests were driven by forty years of discontent, the Lukashenko government is not as all-controlling as the GDR was, and the West was considerably more committed to the fall of the USSR and its client states than it is to the democratiza[P.171]tion of Belarus. And all sorts of groups may use this technique. John Robb, author of Brave New War, calls the current generation of terrorists "Open Source Guerrillas" and notes all the ways they are adopting social tools and patterns to coordinate their efforts. Like the Belarusian protesters, the terrorist networks are less tightly integrated with one another and thus are harder to detect or intercept before they act. But whoever is using these tools, political action has changed when a group of previously uncoordinated actors can create a public protest that the government can neither interdict in advance nor suppress without triggering public documentation.

One might choose to bemoan the triviality of the culture of the developed world for using flash mobs for amusement and distraction (the love rug) rather than for political engagement. This judgment is accurate enough, but only because it is a restatement of the original observation, that people with more at stake are making the most of these tools. Why? Social tools create what economists would call a positive supply-side shock to the amount of freedom in the world. The old dictum that freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press points to the significance of the change. To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly. Naturally, the changes occasioned by new sources of freedom are most significant in less free environments. Whenever you improve a group's ability to communicate internally, you change the things it is capable of. What the group does with that power is a separate question.

Banal Tools in Remarkable Context



Evan Williams is a natural inventor of social tools. In the 1990s his company, Pyra, was working on a complex project management tool that they could sell to businesses, but while doing so, they needed a project management tool for themselves. Instead of simply adopting their own tool (which wasn't ready and was in any case too complex for a little company), they wrote just about the simplest application one could imagine. It was a website that would take text that a user entered into a form, and post it onto a webpage, with the most recent additions at the top of the page. The tool, simple as it was, turned out to be far more compelling than the software they were supposed to be creating, and they ended up working more on the in-house tool than on their nominal product. They named their product Blogger and launched it to the world. It spread like wildfire--hundreds of thousands of users adopted it within a few months. (Blogger was ultimately acquired by Google.)

Evan's next idea was audio blogging, where users would [P.183]post short recorded bits of sound to a website, to be listened to by others. This idea didn't take off in the same way, but it did get him focused on mobile phones. His next idea relied on text messaging, the short written messages many people can send from their mobile phones. His service, called Twitter, was simplicity itself. To use Twitter, you create an account for yourself, and then you send Twitter a message, via te Web, by instant message, or from your phone. This twitter (the word is used as both a noun and a verb) is a short snippit of text, usually an update about what you are doing. The message goes to your friends who are also on Twitter and, if you like, gets posted to the Twitter "publis timeline," a webpage with the most recent public twitters.

Much of the content on the public timeline is inane. On a random Saturday afternoon, here's a random sample of teittering:

> jmckible says "Just had to blow out my DS slot NES stylye"
> truejerseygirl says "Hosting a CD Exchange party tonight. Made jello shots, bought the booze and chips, but haven't burned all the cd's yet. Eek Im a slacker"
> laurence says "At Maker Faire"
> Josh Lawrence In friggin' heaven because I'm eating Trader Joe's gourmet chocolate fudge.
> Mike Barrett mrmanager07 WOOO summer courses are FUUUN

[P.184] Many of the public posts have this sort of quality--video games, pop music, and Jell-O shots--where the publicly available content is not likely to interest most users. Like weblogs that are written for small clusters of friends, most twittering is for the benefit of friends rather than for the general public. These twitters are interesting not so much because the messages themselves are informative, but because the receiver cares about the sender. Tou probably don't care that laurence is at the Maker Faire (a Silicon Valley event for the DIY movement), but if you knew laurence, or were at the Maker Faire yourself, you might. As always, socially embedded messages are more valuable than random public broadcasts. Even accepting that Twitter creates a kind of peripheral vision for what someone's friends are doing, though, it can seem awfully banal. Until you see Alaa's feed.

> Going to doky prosecutor judge murand accused me and manal of libel 10:11 AM April 04
> Waiting for prosecutors decision might actually spend the night in custody 01:57 PM April 04
> We are going to dokky police station 03:31 PM April 04
> In police station no senior officers present so we are in limbo 04:29 PM April 04
> We will not be released from giza security will have to go back to dokki station 07:59 PM April 04
> On our way back to police station 10:25 PM April 04
> We are free 11:22 PM April 04

Alaa Adb El Fattah is an Egyptian programmer, democracy activist, and blogger living in Cairo. Here he is documenting [P.185]his arest, with his wife Manal, in El Dokky, a Cairo neighborhood, as episode that ended twelve hours later with their release. His arrest was ordered by Abdel Fatah Murad, an Eqyptian judge who was attempting to have dozens of websites blocked in Egypt, on the grounds that the sites "insule the Quran, God, The President and the country." When Egyptian prodemocracy bloggers started covering the proposed censorship, Murad added their sites to the list he was attempting to ban.

What does a service like Twitter, whose public face is so banal, offer Abd El Fattah and the other Egyptian activists? Some of the vale is fairly prosaic--free speech activists are harassed or detained in several countries in the Middle East, so they use Twitter to alert one another as to whether they've passed through various security checkpoints (often at airports); the absence of a message may mean they've been detained. On other occasions, though, it provides a way to spread real news. Here is how Alaa reported the news of the arrest and continuing detention of Abdel Monem Mahmoud, another Cairo blogger.

> they've arrested ikhwani blogger monem ( we must organize a campaign 10:07 AM April 13
> turns out Monem did not turn himself in yet, he is hiding from police until lawyers find out more details, but they did break into his home 03:31 PM April 13
> In case you don't know momen got arrested early today at cairo airport 04:17 PM April 15
> monem appeared before shobra prosecutor and he [P.186]will be detained for 15 days. 07:50 PM April 15
> Monem and co start hunger strike due to maltreatment 0:36 PM May 07

Abd El Fattah and Mahmoud do not see eye to eye politically--Abd El Fattah is a secular blogger, while Mahmoud is a member of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood--but both have an interest in free speech, and these tools allow citizens to report the news when they see it, without having to go through (or face delay and censorship by) official news channels. Twitter also offers an ability to coordinate these users' reactions to the state. As El Fattah describes Twitter "We use it to keep a tight network of activists informed about security action in protests. The activists would then use twitter to coordinate a reaction." Because prodemocracy activists are watched so carefully, Twitter allows them a combination of real-time and group coordination that helps tip the balance of action in their favor. One early use of Twitter had El Fattah and a dozen or so of his colleagues coordinating movements to surround a car in which their friend Malek was being held by the police, to prevent it and him from being towed away. Knowing they were being monitored, they then send messages suggesting that many more of them were coming. The police sent reinforcements, surrounding and thus immobilizing the car themselves. This kept Malek in place until the press and members of Parliament arrived. The threat of bad publicity led to Malek's release, an outcome that would have been hard to coordinate without Twitter.

The power to coordinate otherwise dispersed groups will continue to improve; new social tools are still being invented [P.187]and however minor they may seem, any tool that improves shared awareness or group coordination can be pressed into service for political means, because the freedom to act in a group is inherently political. The progression from Leipzig to increasingly social and real-time uses of text messaging from Beijing to Cairo shows us that we adopt those tools that amplify our capabilities, and we modify our tools to improve that amplification.