Centre for Internet & Society

A fortnightly column on ‘Digital Natives’ authored by Nishant Shah is featured in the Sunday Eye, the national edition of Indian Express, Delhi, from September 2010 onwards. In this article published on February 6, 2011, Nishant Shah writes that citizens are organising, congregating, acting and thereby creating revolutions.

Imagine you are in your favourite mall, walking around, looking at familiar shops, staring at the latest fashions in the windows, chatting with your friends and scouting for food. And suddenly, a bunch of people, who were just there, as a part of the larger scene, start dancing. They churn out well orchestrated but easy-to-replicate moves and for the length of a song, they convert the mall into an impromptu dance floor and then disperse. Or how about when walking through a park, you suddenly see a crowd of young and old, coming together to have a vigorous pillow fight and then after a few minutes of riotous laughter, they disappear into the blue? What would you do if you were faced with something like this in the expected and safe environments that you are used to?

The next time you see something like this, remember that you have just seen a flash mob. Organise, congregate, act, disperse — that is the anatomy of a flash mob. It is a form of mobilisation where anonymous strangers, who are connected via mobile and Web-based communication structures, come together in public spaces to perform a series of pre-determined actions for a brief period of time. They are generally fun, create a lot of confusion for those not in the know, and infuse everybody with a sense of wonder. They fuel conversations by transforming regular places with something that is new and unexpected.

I was recently at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai, to speak about digital natives, flash mobs and how they have the potential to change the world. Flash mobs are often seen to be frivolous and seen to achieve “mere fun” more than anything else. While I do want to make a case for how “mere fun” is actually the strongest means of political subversion and protest, something else erupted that made us all spectators of History (with the capital H) in the last two weeks.

In Egypt, tens of thousands of protesters came out into the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other cities, to demand the overthrow of an authoritarian government that has been unable to meet the needs of its citizens. In a dramatic unfolding of events, starting on January 25, young people in Egypt used Facebook, Twitter, SMS, emails and other forms of digital communication to come together in an unprecedented show of protest on the streets.

What has happened in the last few days is now the stuff of legend. There were digital blackouts and information blockages. The internet was blocked in the country so that protesters would be left in the dark. Mobile phone companies and internet service providers were ordered to debilitate the entire communication infrastructure so that word would not spread — within or outside Egypt. But such is the strength of the digital medium that the signal was lost, but the voice survived. It found echoes and resonances around the world. In a matter of hours, “Egypt” and “Jan 25” emerged as the most tagged messages on Twitter, with more than 2,500 tweets per second. The civic hackers in Egypt found supporters around the world, who not only spread their message but also provided them with legal and political infrastructure to make sure that their voice was heard.

This revolution, in the first month of the second decade of the 21st century, is not only about the present but also about what the future will hold. The young — digital natives who are integrated with the circuits of technology mobilisation and networking — were able to use these platforms to fight for their rights for freedom, dignity and expression. And all this was orchestrated using viral networking technologies and digital communication assemblages. I do not want to go into analysing Egypt’s politics, but I do want to highlight that the democratic citizen-driven future is already here.

The ways in which digital natives are able to harvest the technologies of mass communication and outreach are an indication of how the contours of global governance are going to be shaped. Citizen journalism, citizen action and civic collaboration are the new weapons of social change and transformation that the young are able to use effectively. Across the world, flash mobs like these bring together virtual strangers in spaces of physical solidarity. True, a lot of them are fun and games. But in participating in these playful structures, digital natives also develop new cultures of trust, belonging, participation, collaboration and mobilisation that remind us that we do not inherit the world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. And they now have the power to ask us questions for which we might not always have the answers.

Original article was published by Indian Express

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