Sunday, February 26, 2006

Maybe I take play too seriously


mcgonigal_flashmob
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.

I was very disappointed and disheartened by a recent Harper's article, in which the organizer of the first New York City flash mob, and the designer of the flash mob rule set that was then interpreted and modified by organizers all over the world, seeks to give the definitive word on the Mob Project. My stomach sank to read Bill call it "the most forgettable hipster fad," to hear him describe the mobs as exclusionary-by-design, and to realize that for Bill it was only the New York City mobs -- 8 out of thousands worldwide -- that mattered. The only other city's mob that he even deemed worthy of describing was the Boston mob dubbed "Ode to Bill", a tribute to... well, go figure.

I started composing a letter to the editor and then saved it in my drafts folder unfinished, determined to make my rebuttal in my dissertation, rather than the magazine. But after stumbling upon a few online responses to the article that expressed similar confusion about the content and cynicism of Mr. Wasik's article, I found myself finishing the letter.

Here it is, in case the editors at Harper's don't see fit to run it.

To the Editor:

Bill Wasik’s account of the mob project is a fascinating perspective on eight of the thousands of flash mobs that were conducted worldwide in the summer and fall of 2003. However, as one of the San Francisco flash mob organizers, I have to take issue with his article as a definitive account of the phenomenon. Here in San Francisco, for instance, we consciously designed events that would be inclusive and inviting to passersby who hadn’t already received the secret “insider” instructions. When we whirled across a pedestrian crosswalk at a famous cable car stop, the mob grew larger over the course of the 10 minutes as tourists and locals joined in. It was “transparent play”, not “dark play”—the rules were obvious to anyone who was watching, and there was ample opportunity to become a part of the experience. When we threw a massively multiplayer duck-duck-goose game in a public park, it was obvious to all nearby what we were up to—and that’s why many more people outside of the original network began to play with us. We picked a familiar childhood game so that as diverse a group as possible could jump in and take part. In short, we were explicitly working against what we perceived to be the exclusivity of the East Coast flash mobs. And that, I believe, is the true story of flash mobs—local organizers making their own decisions about which places are appropriate for play, and what kinds of play to design. Wasik invented the bones, the structure, of flash mobs—yes. But independent organizers in their own cities put their own flesh and blood on top of that skeleton. I have been enchanted and delighted by Capetown’s, Bogota’s, Montreal’s, and Warsaw’s interpretations of the flash mob, none of which looked like each other’s and each of which captured the imagination of local residents in their own site-specific, community-specific ways. That’s what makes the phenomenon interesting and meaningful in the long run: the diversity of spontaneous communities making their own public spectacles. Furthermore, I despaired to read Wasik be so dismissive of flash mobs, referring to them as a vacuous and forgettable trend. When I went to Singapore in the summer of 2004 to give a lecture about flash mobs—a lecture that was almost banned by the government because it was deemed a controversial subject matter—I met individuals who were profoundly moved and energized by the fact that three flash mobs had been successfully conducted in Singapore, despite the illegality of organizing more than four people in a public space without formal government permission. And when flash mobs were banned by the legislature in Mumbai, mobbers from all over the world joined together to offer the sole Mumbai organizer online advice and support (eventually, it was decided to move flash mobs to other cities in India.) Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that flash mobs are significant only in so far as they challenged local law. For me, the ultimate meaning lies in the lingering traces flash mob play has left in shared spaces. On more than one occasion, most recently a full two years after the fact, I have walked past the pedestrian crosswalk where we staged our first San Francisco flash mob and witnessed someone else whirling across it. I myself have continued to lead friends in whirling across it. Through our flash mob, we changed the source code of that site; a crosswalk at 4th and Market now frequently serves as a crosswhirl. Maybe I take play too seriously, but I am proud to have been a part of that change. Mr. Wasik, for many cities, flash mobs invigorated its cites and citizens for a great deal longer than the 10 minutes a traditional flash mob lasts. I’m sorry if ultimately that was not the point or the result of the flash mob experience in New York.

Sincerely,

Jane McGonigal

*

One further point that I didn't make in my letter, but that bothered me immensely about Wasik's piece. He speaks rather harshly about his own flash mob participants, calling them his "subjects", applying insulting labels, and basically making it sound as if he was just using them. I still have hundreds of emails sent among our own flash mob organizers in which we discussed how to make the mob as good an experience as possible for all involved. We debated which locations would give participants the best memories, what activity would leave them feeling positive, what would enable them to feel connected to each other and why that was good, what would make passerby feel magical, what would enhance the location... just all manner of positive things. We had the utmost respect for our participants. I personally felt TREMENDOUS responsibility to them. They trusted us, the anonymous organizers, enough to show up without knowing what they would be asked to do-- to commit to following our instructions--- I felt it was incumbent upon me to make it a positive, safe, memorable experience. During the mob heyday, I corresponded with dozens of other organizers in other cities and this was always the sentiment I saw reflected in their own decisions. The contempt Bill shows in his article to participants (whether he felt it at the time-- and I don't know if I believe he did, I think perhaps this is just posturing now) is the exception, not the rule. And I really want that to be something that is understood about the flash mobs. I believe the vast majority of organizers were benevolent and cared deeply about creating a positive experience.

12 comments:

qibitum said...

Thanks for the link and even more for the letter. I *know* how a dissertation must devour ones attention, but your public voice on this topic is, I think, much needed now.

Ariock said...

I just read part two. Good lord, he aspires to Milgram's authority experiments...as an art form? Ew.

I find it amusing that for all his snarky cynical evil intent, his "creation" was the impetus for a massive pillow fight. Sort of a reverse-Frankenstein's monster. If his article does anything, I hope it is to dispel the elitism and self congratulation that he seems to find as the heart and soul of his creation. Or at the very least make his "friends" think twice the next time they see he has sent them an email.

Jane said...

I know, Milgram... omg. Do you know how many times I have given a talk, only to have someone raise the spectre of obedience studies as a sure sign that someday, a puppet master will go too far and coerce players to do something evil? I feel like I have done a pretty decent job of dispelling that (I believe) misplaced concern... but now, an actual flash mob PM citing Milgram as inspiration! AAAH! I can't wait for my Puppet Master problem essay to come out... even if a PM has an authority fetish it doesn't mean a damn thing about the power of the players.

jay said...

Jane, there is not a doubt in my mind that the world is a better place with you in it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your letter, as I might not have read it otherwise.

Elliott Lynch said...

I agree with you, flash mob participants should never be called subjects, because noone's signed up to be in an experiment.

I'm surprised, in all of your writing that there is never any mention of art, or the larger category of 'performance art.' FromtThe work of Yoko Ono to more direct action and guerilla performance and dance of the recent 20 years, at least, in my mind always held a hand with the concept of flash mobs. I'm confused that noone has illustrated this simple elegance, that the individuals involved in the works were actually performers on a grande scale.

The only link I can find so far, is that everyone seems to be placing more weight on the method of communication versus, the actual participation or performance of the instructions. Maybe its some sort of academic viewpoint, that art, or performance can't include such technology. Ask http://www.learningtoloveyoumore.com/ Miranda July and her huge following? Isn't this art?

Just in passing. Food for thought I guess.

Jane said...

Hi Elliot! Great points. You might be interested in the article I published in the latest issue of Modern Drama about flash mobs and other forms of networked, pervasive play... it very much looks at the participants as performers. I do hesitate to call it "art" or "performance art" because I prefer to focus on the internal group experience rather than the external audience (local, or belated via blogging, news coverage etc.) The best experiences I've been involved with organizing tend to be the ones that don't require anyone else's attention-- the group sustains its own energy and dynamic. When we start calling it art or performance art, in my mind we start making an audience too important. Ultimately, I want pervasive play to be about the experience of the participants and not the reaction of onlookers... passersby are most positive influences when they can be incorporated as players. That's how I think about it anway... I try not to depend on the thrill of being watched or noticed as a core pleasure of play.

Lisa said...

I think Bill's views of Flash Mobs were always drastically different than our own. You remember the paparrazi mob, where we treated people coming out of the Montgomery BART like celebrities? I read an interview where Bill told a reporter we were "making a statement supporting public transportation". Yikes! I don't think he even understood the sense of wonder and play that captivated people.

The Dancing Kids said...

"When we start calling it art or performance art, in my mind we start making an audience too important. Ultimately, I want pervasive play to be about the experience of the participants and not the reaction of onlookers"

mmm hmm. The idea of active entertainment as opposed to passive entertainment. Even though you can interpret performance art in your own way, it seems to me that it is still something that is being dictated to you.

also you sure are sMrt for someone who broke her own ribs.

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Kirk Boyer said...

Hi Jane,

I just watched your TedTalk and I'm excited about everything you seem to be involved with. I'm going to be reading as much as I can on your http://www.avantgame.com/writings.htm page.

Anyway, does anyone do flash mobs for blatantly socially positive sorts of things? An example that almost feels corny is to have a flash mob gather in a particularly littered area to gather as much trash as they can, throw away the nasty bits and make some giant piece of artwork out of the more solid pieces like cans and bottles and such. I've only just started thinking about this, but I'm sure there are tons of things that can be done along these lines and even if it begins just by having existing flash mob groups do one such mob (rather than changing their entire schedule and scheme), it could be pretty cool.