Archive for the “Flash Mob Ethnography” Category

Reflecting on the lifestream at the end of week 12, this flexible and highly engaging tool seems to reflect many of the course themes. The early readings articulated ‘narratives’ or ’stories’ about digital culture, and the parallels with the lifestream did not escape many course participants, including myself. My very first summary responded to storytelling as an analogy for digital culture,and I see the lifestream as usefully understood in terms of an individual ‘narrative’ of digital culture, or the way-points of a journey, from beginning to end. Furthermore, the notions of multi-modality and Transliteracy are present in the multiple modes of video, text and sound that constitute the lifestream. The act of lifestreaming is an exercise in multi-modality: forming understanding with the use of many mediums and numerous modes, beyond the domination of text. The collecting and documenting of culture studied in the virtual ethnography stage is apparent in the way the lifestream has documented, recorded and archived the web. In a sense the lifestream is a experiential study of the crossovers between academic and wider society in the digital domain, a transcript of my immersion in digital culture. Finally, the posthuman issues of disembodied information and distributed cognition are manifest in the fragmented and dispersed documentation of study that is the lifestream. If the lifestream represents my understanding, it is thoroughly enmeshed in the work of others, and distributed through networks of human and non-human.

Lifestream activity has stimulated much exploration of web services and environments, and this has greatly enhanced my professional practice, supplying a plethora of potential educational tools and techniques. However, the lifestream itself has perhaps been the most interesting tool, demonstrating sound pedagogical value. I found the lifestream to be a highly motivational tool for continued participation in this course. Recording, not only visited websites but ‘real world’ books and films, allowed those areas of research not traditionally acknowledged or documented to be registered as legitimate engagement with the course. Regardless of the assessed nature of the lifestream, such a transcript provided direct feedback concerning my course activity, and this was highly motivating. Moreover, the lifestream demonstrates active and learner-centred study, as opposed to the passive reception of knowledge. Although guided by the weekly course themes, the lifestream represents my own exploration and reflection, my individual response to the topics of study.

Ultimately, the theory of ‘gathering’ put forward by Edwards (2010) best reflects my understanding of the performative activity of lifestreaming. Rather than accepting any one definition of ‘digital cultures’, the lifestream records my personal gathering of knowledge related to this theme. In this sense, I see it as fragile and temporal. If I were to study such a course again, my lifestream would be very different, and so I think would be my understanding of the term ‘digital cultures’. The practical activity of lifestreaming is inseparable from my knowledge. The lifestream has been both my knowing and my doing of digital cultures; the theory and the practice as one.

Edwards, R. (2010). The end of lifelong learning: A post-human condition? Studies in the Education of Adults, 42/1, 5-17.

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My micro-ethnography was indeed micro, and I feel somewhat premature in setting out this conclusion, although the prospect of gaining additional time to wallow in the work of others is perhaps a reward worthy of such uneasy haste. The fundamental question that I proposed last week was whether the flash mob could be considered a community, and I am not sure whether I am able to answer such a question.

To reflect on my ethnographic approach, I am not sure that I was able to fully immerse myself in the flash mob world, and rather obviously, this was probably due to my lack of attendance at an actual, and physical, flash mob event. However, I may be revealing something quite crucial here: without face-to-face participation, it is perhaps difficult to feel part of the community. Moreover, in a community of sudden intensive participation, it was perhaps better to approach the study in a similar fashion. My concentrated method involved a few intensive hours on my laptop after work, which was perhaps not a terrible way to conduct this research.

I got the impression that participation in the virtual dimension of the flash mob community was quite passive, and by this I mean that the major role appeared to be waiting around for notification of a flash mob event. Authentic communication in the flash mob world is actually very limited, as it is focussed temporally around the physical event, and restricted to simple communication, such as date time and location. In my experience, people did not engage in discussions of flash mobs, and the virtual presence was thus quite limited. Moreover, I think this silence, and sparse use of communications technologies in fact indicates a deeper cultural meaning. I propose that flash mobs actually discourage a virtual presence intentionally in order to preserve the spontaneity of the event, and the feelings of exclusivity nurtured by those involved. To have an online presence is to be locatable, defined, and surveyed, attributes that seem to work against the subversive traits of the flash mob.

So, if waiting around for the announcement of an event is indeed a real dimension to being part of the flash mob community, I certainly did experience it. However, I suspect that the intensity of explosive communication, sudden travel, and unforeseen meetings are really integral to feeling part of the group. Moreover, much of my observation involved past events, an this gave a tangible sense of being isolated from participation.

I think I was able to adhere, in a way, to keeping the ethnography ‘mobile’, by observing a number of websites, twitter feeds, and videos of events. I certainly felt as if I was observing the wider flash mob community, rather than a single, bounded group of people.

In this short time frame I have been unable to follow an flash mob from planning, to explosive communication, to documenting the event, and I think this would be very valuable in witnessing the flows of information, through and across various web services. This would have provided a kind of map of communication flow, from beginning to end, that could have been presented in interesting ways.

Using different media has been fascinating, and influenced by much of the activity in ededc group. The video streaming and Twitter visualisation were certainly valuable in presenting facets of the ‘community’ in stimulating ways, and this actually increased my sense of being involved in the community. To combine videos, and compile Twitter streams gave provided a feeling of working with the community objects themselves. I find myself returning to a good old fashion journal entry for this conclusion, and I am really feeling its sense of isolation from any sense of community, despite the advantages of reflection.

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The above image links to the Twitter Parade I have created for #Flashmob (and will take a minute or so to load). This Twitter visualisation seems rather apt for the Flashmob community, as it presents the flow of Tweets using animated characters who march across the screen. Perhaps this representation is a way to visualise the virtual community in terms of the physical face-to-face meetings.

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I have created a You Cube (thanks to Michael for the link) to present a number of videos from You Tube related to my ethnography.  I have chosen six videos, each of which document a UK Big Freeze flash mob in a different location.  Edinburgh, London, Birmingham, Bristol, Bath and Truro are represented.  This You Cube presentation is designed to show the physical, face-to-face dimension to the UK Big Freeze community.  Furthermore, these ‘freezing’ events were intended to happen simultaneously, and so this presentation is designed to combine the video documentaries in one space.

UK Big Freeze Flash Mobs on You Cube

Note, I have had some streaming issues with this, so please let me know if you have problems.

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This first post is intended to record, in a written mode, my ‘arrival’ in the flash mob community, if it can be described as such. My ‘arrival’ simply took the form of exploring three different websites that may serve as community spaces for flash mob participants. This initial exploration has admittedly been passive, and did not involve any interaction with ‘community’ members. In addition, the websites involved would only represent a partial arrival in the flash mob community, as a large dimension of this phenomenon includes face to face meetings.

UK Big Freeze

The UK Big Freeze website appears to display much information that might be associated with a community space. The ‘big freeze’ appears to be a particular type of flash mob event. The home page is interesting, in that it not only defines the ethos of the ‘big freeze’, it even provides a guide as to the role of community members. Under the heading ‘Where do I come in?’, participants are guided into joining the forum and submitting ideas about the next event. Arrival and this space certainly feels rather easy, in that I feel very clear about what the community is, and what my initial participation should involve. It seems as if there is a single entry point for all into this community. I don’t get the sense that there are members of more experience, such as insiders or devotees, who might engage in a different way to me. Moreover the actual task suggested in ‘Where do I come in?’, is to become involved the planning of the next event. It is clear from the structure of the website that there is some kind of top down organisation, yet this request for group cooperation gives the sense of a much more horizontal hierarchy. Joining the discussion forum appears to be one way to formally join this community, as it would require the creation of an account, with a unique username to represent myself in the group.

A second page actually defines the term flash mob pretty clearly, and I am now wondering whether there is a rift between the organisational approach of UK Big Freeze and the foundational ideals of the flash mob itself. The UK Big Freeze appears highly organised, with a central ‘base’ embodied by the website, yet other definitions of the flash mob seem to highlight its spontaneity. Does the centrality of a community website work against the idea of the flash mob, with its properties of mobility, hortizonalisation and fleeting collaboration? My arrival at the UK Big Freeze website does not feel challenging, in the sense that it appears, at least on the surface, to be a rather standard structure for a community web presence, if such a thing does indeed exist. The website seems to be a fixed and stable base, rather than a community in flux. The lack of participation in the forum page is perhaps an indication that the flash mob community prefer the spontaneity for the face to face events, rather than the drawn out discussions that web communications facilitate. This is a bit of a revelation in my research. Perhaps web presence is deliberately kept to a minimum amongst the flash mob community, and it is distributed rather than centralised. Does the true ethos of the flash mob privilege communication over static information, connection and movement, rather than singular presence. This would certainly reflect the kind of exclusivity engendered in the original idea of the flash mob, with its shades of counter culture, and subversive tactics. The Facebook and Twitter links at the bottom of the page suggest that the community does indeed spread its communication across multiple services.

This website appear to serve as a central space to advertise UK wide flash mob events. Much of the emphasis appears to be on upcoming events, and a high profile twitter feed displaying additional flash mob related material. Arriving at this space does provide a sense of community centrality, where an explorer such as myself can find out about up and coming flash mob events, and advertise my own. In comparison to the ‘Big Freeze’ space, this feels less as if I am joining a pre-conceived, pre-organised community, and more like a participatory, open-ended environment.

There is a fascinating FAQ page which defines the ‘flash mob’, and even provides advice about how to organise and attend such events. Of particular interest in the following sentence:

‘Yes you can do a commercial version of flash mobbing but don’t expect any help from traditional Flash mob organisers – if you can find them.’

This felt like insider information, after my initial explorations of the surface material. After and interesting comment from James in my initial post, it was intriguing to see a distinction made here between ‘commercial’ flash mobbing, and what seems to be considered the ‘traditional’ version. Moreover, the ‘if you can find them’, suggests a subversive nature to this community. Are ‘real’ flash mob organisers hard to find? Perhaps their presence on the web is not easy to pin down.

The subtitle of this website, ‘out of knowhere’ is interesting. At first I thought this was a spelling mistake (a subconscious scepticism about the intelligence of those involved in flash mobbing?), however perhaps this is a comment on the web space itself. ‘Knowhere’ could suggest a place where one can obtain knowledge, in this case about flash mob events. It would then be a comment on the centrality of the space, in a flash mob culture which has no centre.

This space is fascinating in comparison to the other websites that I have been exploring. The website feels pretty sparse. There is no introductory statement defining the community, and no definition of the flash mob ideals. Moreover, there is no space for discussion, or community membership. The single page seems to be a simple repository for flash mob adverts, mostly from the United States, with at least one from Europe. My exploration, and possible participation, seems much reduced in this community. As an observer, I can view information relating to flash mob events, such as date, time and location, and some brief directions about what is expected of participants. The alternative to observing is to submit details of the flash mob event myself, using the form fields on the right of the page. The simplicity of such an act gives me a strong feeling that organising an event is egalitarian; there is no hierarchy of organiser and participant. Additionally, the organising of an event feels pretty simple. There is no requirement to provide reams of information, or create a dedicated website, the filling in of a simple form would suffice. Overall, the emphasis appears to be on the face to face meeting.

My arrival at this website is certainly making me consider where the emphasis of the flash mob community is actually situated, and what these different spaces actually facilitate within the community. The digital communication here feels minimal, as if it is a rejection of the information-rich website or community forum. Am I sensing here an ethos of action over communication, as if any theoretical consideration of the flash mob event is inconsequential; what is experienced in the event cannot be put into words.

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This blog post is intended to be an introduction to the micro-ethnography that I intend to undertake over the next couple of weeks, and an attempt to articulate my thinking in relation to the core readings. After much deliberation on the notion of community, and ethnographic practice itself, I have chosen to consider phenomenon of the flash mob as an interesting, and challenging notion of community. I suspect that much of my research will be questioning the nature of community itself, and whether the flash mob can indeed be considered in such terms.

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I think the flash mob is an interesting idea to consider for ethnographic study because it seems to challenge the notion of community. Flash mob crowds, although there have been various levels of preparation, seem to appear from nowhere, suddenly forming an intense and cohesive group who share a concentrated, often energetic collaborative experience, and yet disperse afterwards into the crowd, returning to their previous lives. Described in these terms, it seems that the flash mob bears little resemblance to traditional notions of community. None of the long term relationships or built up trust, as described by Kozinets (2010) seem to be present. Moreover, the notions of ‘newbie’, ‘mingler’, ‘insider’, or ‘devotee’ seem to be problematic in a community of such fleeting interaction. Furthermore, the sense of place, or site is brought into question, as is our notion of a singular ‘cultural unit’ (Hine 2000, p61). Perhaps the flash mob encourages us to consider community in terms of ‘connection, difference, heterogeneity and incoherence’ (Hine 2000, p61).

However, I think there is something in the transience of such communal gatherings that seems to comment on the way that digital technologies plays with the idea of community, and importantly the sense of digital culture. The networks that we join and maintain on the web are constantly in shift, and we engage with fleeting connections. Social interaction online could be considered to organise and reorganise in similar ways to the transitory gatherings that are apparent in the flash mob. Anonymity, rather than long-term trust is perhaps something that web participation encourages, and connection with unknown people is an experience that has been magnified by networked technologies. Paradoxically however, for all their similarity to the information flows of the web, flash mob events take place in a specific location, yet that location is itself transient and unpredictable.

An initial problem that I will have to work with is what exactly constitutes a flash mob community. Very simply, is it the presence I can detect in various communications media on the web, or is it the physical gathering itself? The entire premise of the flash mob appears to be the physical gathering, as participants disperse afterwards, which itself seem to be a comment on the momentary nature of community. These flash mob events are purely face-to-face, however there are also the virtual communications that happen before (planning), and afterwards (documenting), and I think these would have to be include in a full account of the community. In fact, it is here that the flash mob seems to trouble the distinction between virtual and actual community. Kozinets (2010) references Carter in describing how a virtual community becomes the ‘real world’ for its participants (p38), yet the distinction between real and unreal in the flash mob seems less clear. Is the physical gathering the actual community, or the virtual one? The digital communication between participants before and after the event could be considered much more ‘actual’ that the event itself, yet it takes place in the virtual domains of the network. Moreover, the boundaries of such a community seem to be problematic. This quote from Hine appears to sum it up rather well, ‘how can there be a holistic study of a site if its boundaries are unstable and only occasionally enacted?’ (2000, p59). How can a holistic picture of a flash mob community be understood when the participants are momentary members, being derived, potentially, from any where in the world?

So, how might an ethnographic study of flash mob culture be undertaken. What is interesting about the flash mob, is that it is not itself a culture of immersion. It is a community which only becomes cohesive and functioning for very short periods of intensity. Thus an ethnographic approach would perhaps require s similar pattern if study.

Considering Hine’s (2000) three areas of discussion: travel and face-to-face, modal communications, and objects, appears to be a useful framework to begin my thinking. Any in-depth study of the flash mob may require both the conceptual travel of immersion in web content, and the physical travel of attending a flash mob event. It would seem counter intuitive to rely on conceptual travel when the crucial element, and shared interest of the community, is the physical event itself. Immersion in web content should probably focus on flash mob groups themselves, rather than theoretical insights, in order to avoid the ‘bad old days’ of second hand accounts (Hine 2000, p44). Physical travel may be valuable, however Hine’s (2000) reference to Van Maanen suggests even such physical presence is not enough. One has to leave behind ones ‘analytical framework’ (2000, p46), and travel does not necessarily achieve this.

There is a big question regarding how much I should interact in such a micro-ethnography. I have also considered questioning flash mob participants or organising groups, in order to gain more inside information. However, as Hine suggests (2000, p49), to seek face to face interaction would be somewhat of a paradox, in that such a meeting would not be ‘the world the way it is for informants’. The whole ethos behind the flash mob appears to disregard any contextualisation or thoughtful opinion (probably much to the delight of its detractors), and concentrates solely on action and participation. Locating evidence of ‘identity performance’ (Hine 2000, p49) could be sought in the various online spaces related to flash mob activity, which I think would provide some insight, but not much interaction. I think it will be useful to include both textual, image and video accounts of community activity, in an attempt to achieve a kind of multi-modal documentation. However, these, are of course, one way artefacts. Interactive sources of information, as Hine suggests (2000, p50), would allow me to ask questions and clarify any issues or understandings.

Hine’s three reflective approaches (2000, p53) have proved useful. To include internal and external accounts would provide a reflexive, balanced approach, and to this end I could include in my own descriptive blog entries, those account I find online. I wholeheartedly agree that ethnography is a personal indulgence, which would reveal more about me than flash mobbing (Hine 2000 ref Moores 1993). Moreover, I hope to make my writing itself conscious of its fantastical constructions, rather than its bearing on truth.

Finally I have used Hine’s Principles of Virtual Ethnography’ (2000, p63-65) to generate some ideas for this ethnographic practice.

  1. Sustained presence. I will maintain observation on a number of flash mob community pages, social network groups, and twitter streams. In such a way I will be enacting part of the life of a flash mob participant.
  2. Culture and cultural artefact. I will endeavour to analyse the properties of discovered media, as well as interpret their cultural meaning.
  3. Ethnography as mobile. The space in which the flash mob operates is certainly made and remade. I hope to engage with sense of place that both online and offline interactions create.
  4. Flow and connectivity. It would be interesting to witness how communication moves, increases and decreases in relation to the physical meetings. Locations are surely theoretically irrelevant. Although it would be hard for me to attend an event on the other side of the globe, being part of planning and viewing the event would be possible.
  5. Boundaries. To experience both the web presence and an actual event would be useful, although not sure now practical. Attempting to understand how these element relate to .virtual’ and .real’ would be a effective outcome.
  6. Temporal dislocation. Sustained engagement may actually be impractical and pointless for a community of transient interaction. Hopefully I will be able to witness enough in the short time of this micro-ethnography.
  7. Strategic relevance. In such a short space of time, my won brief story is probably al that is achievable.
  8. Mediated interaction. The level of interaction may be limited. However, I will attempt to document my interactions using different media, which may give a sense of how I have experienced the elements of the community.
  9. Absence and presence. In the light of the fleeting nature of the flash mob, it may be that most of my research involves past events and communications. Yet, this will of course be a valid ethnographic approach. That which is documented online may constitute an important part of the community itself.
  10. Virtual and adaptive. The flash mob does have a very physical face to face element, yet a consideration of its virtual dimensions may prove just as useful in understanding any notion of community. A good approach throughout, just as I may be interrogating the notions of community, may be to interrogate the idea of ethnography itself within the regular blog posts.

Hine, C (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 of Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66

Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Chapter 2 ‘Understanding Culture Online’, Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage. pp. 21-40

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