Getting it Out There: Smart Mobs, Improv Everywhere and Engaging Dance Audiences

By Kegan Marling


A few weeks ago, a good friend told me I needed to check out a YouTube video she had come across—The Sound of Music at Central Station in Antwerp. Google it. Watch it. Admire how current technology has enabled a Belgian commercial to be viewed nearly 5 million times. While YouTube and social networking sites can be great for killing time, these mainstream technologies are now being better utilized by artists as a means for engaging audiences. And as our tools for communication expand, so too can our sphere of impact—we just need to make the connections.

In a recent meeting for the latest round of the ONSITE program at Dancers’ Group, Patrick Makuakane started talking about guerilla style hula. At once I knew this could be the appropriate time to get over my disdain for the way-too-trendy Twitter and tap into my Facebook addiction to see what might support the project.

My interest with the ONSITE program has always been its focus on engaging a community that might not otherwise see or be interested in concert dance. We definitely catch quite a few “accidentals” by choosing high-traffic locations—when Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre performed The Shifting Cornerstone last year as our first ONSITE project, over 39,000 people witnessed the performances at the corner of 3rd Street and Mission. This time we’re shaking things up a bit by piling Patrick’s company, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, onto a bus and traveling to multiple popular spots throughout San Francisco. But we all still felt it needed some guerilla communication (wiki this term). Enter: the smart mob.

A concept introduced by Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, a smart mob is a self-structuring social gathering that uses technology to function as an efficient singularity, creating a type of collective intelligence. Smart mobs utilize wireless networking, GPS integration, and interactive whiteboards among other technologies, to carry out activities ranging from pillow fights to political protest. I’ve recently participated in two different smart mobs in San Francisco—both falling more along the lines of pillow fighting.

The Mobile Club

My first smart mob experience was mobile clubbing at the Van Ness Muni Station. Also known as a silent disco, mobile clubbing is an event where people meet at a specified time and location to dance to their own music using an mp3 player with headphones. Public locations such as train stations and malls are often selected to encourage spontaneous participation. Although the lack of audible music can often be jarring for people passing by, it helps prevent run-ins with the authorities. And if the event does get closed down by the police, groups often simply move to a new location.

Mobile clubbing often encourages unique and expressive dancing because of its emphasis on use of large spaces and each individuals’ ability to select their own music. Locations selected usually offer participants more space than that found in a club, allowing for the dancing to be more expansive—participants have been known to dance on benches, dumpsters, statues and any other surface that can be found nearby.

Improv Everywhere

Around the same time as my first experience with mobile clubbing, I heard about the comedic performance art group Improv Everywhere (based in New York) and their MP3 Experiment at Dolores Park. The group carries out public missions that cause scenes of “chaos and joy.” Some of the group’s missions use hundreds of performers and are similar to flash mobs (an expediated form of the smart mob), while others utilize only a handful of performers. They have organized and carried out over 80 missions, including the No-Pants Subway Ride (with over 1200 participants), staging a “spontaneous” musical in a Los Angeles food court, and synchronized stillness at the Grand Central Station (another YouTube video to admire—it’s received more than 17 million views).

For the Dolores Park MP3 Experiment, those aware of Improv Everywhere were invited to download an audio file onto their mp3 player and instructed not to listen to it in advance. We then synchronized our watches to an atomic clock on the website before heading out to the park. At the predetermined time (2pm), we all pressed play. The audio file was a mix of voice instructions, games, and music. Participants followed the ridiculous instructions delivered thru their headphones while folks passing through Dolores Park tried to figure out why a mass of people were all silently jumping around in unison.

The MP3 Experiment is sometimes confused with mobile clubbing, but the key difference is that everyone is actually listening to the exact same thing. While mobile clubbing allows everyone to move with their own style and rhythm, the MP3 Experiment required that participants follow group choreography and work in unison with those around them. It was a startling contrast in experiences.

There’s great potential in the smart mob as a model for engaging audiences, and this form is being strengthened as more people tap into Facebook, Twitter and similar social networks. At the time of writing this, we are still two months away from Hit & Run Hula and while we haven’t figured out all the details, there will certainly be some smart mob activity (and probably a download or two). If you want to catch the action, connect to the Dancers’ Group twitter feed or join our Facebook group. We’ll be updating our network—letting our community know how to join the hula party, where the Hula Bus will be and how you can get involved.


How to Start a Smart Mob:

Step 1: Have an Appealing Idea
Smart mobs rely on group participation and they aren’t terribly fun if no one shows up. Formulating something compelling is harder than you think and you shouldn’t under estimate its importance. Strong ideas will help those in the know kick it off, and encourage random folks passing by to join in. A good foundation for an appealing idea might include absurd behavior (cardboard tube fighting), deviance (Critical Mass), costumed rampaging (Santarchy, Zombie Mob) or benign disruption (spontaneous applause in a library). Participants also expect the event to be free of corporations, free of hierarchy, and free of charge.

While smart mobs tend towards the humorous, the potential for serious activity like feeding the homeless or picking up trash is also an option. It just might not have quite the same turnout.

Step 2: Timing and Location
Is the event at 2am on a Wednesday night? Will I need a car to get there? You might want to reconsider your event, since these are not ideal scenarios. Ease and convenience are key to good flash mobs. For activities that require little preparation from the participant, a popular time to begin is the end of the workday, around 5-6pm; and for whatever reason, Thursdays seem to be most effective. For elaborate events requiring costumes or props, try heavily populated shopping or tourist areas on Saturday afternoons.

Step 3: Get the Word Out
Participation. Participation. Participation.

The two most common methods for smart mob instigation are anonymous emailing and discussion group postings. You can easily create an anonymous email account to send notices to random people in your address book. Ask them to send it along to another 20 people. Sometimes it helps to write the email from the anonymous account to your personal account, and then forward it on to your friends. That makes it look like you didn’t start the whole thing. Follow up with online postings at sites like Craigslist, Laughing Squid, The Urban Prankster Network or Yelp.

Step 4: Enjoy
You provided the idea, the timing and the marketing. Now step back. Resist the urge to control. With a compelling idea, your mob will self organize and create something more than you could have ever conceived. So recede into the background, capture the whole thing on video and upload that baby onto YouTube.

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of In Dance.

Kegan Marling is a visual & movement artist and arts consultant from the San Francisco Bay Area. Influenced by artists Della Davidson, Lea Anderson, Brian Thorstenson and Joe Goode, their work focuses on alternative queer communities, dance and theatre artists, body positivity and documenting queer pursuits of play – including gaymers, pups, drag artists, wrestlers and faeries. Their work has appeared in venues & publications including the de Young Museum, Frameline Film Festival, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, National Queer Arts Festival and SF General Hospital. (