Flash mobs inspire study

The Kansas City flash mob that turned violent on the Country Club Plaza last summer has attracted local university researchers who are studying the social media phenomenon.

People at both University of Kansas and the University of Missouri began working in September to find out why teens participate in these electronic callouts to suddenly mass in a particular location.

“I don’t think we have good information about why they use social media to form flash mobs,” said Hyunjin Seo, assistant professor of journalism at KU. “Understanding them is the first step to solving problems that might arise when a flash mob turns violent.”

The effort is not to stop teens from participating in flash mobs for fun but to understand the mob mentality, she said.

Ten focus groups of teens from diverse ethnic groups were questioned by Seo, Brian Houston, MU assistant professor of communication, and Leigh Anne Taylor Knight, Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium director.

The focus groups helped develop a survey currently circulating in area schools and community centers. From those come quantitative data for a report for Kansas City Mayor Sly James’s office.

With summer just a few months away and warm weather already here, city officials said they are eager for information to help improve safety should more gatherings erupt.

“Frankly Kansas City only put a Band-Aid on the situation last summer when we issued a curfew,” said Dan Rotert, mayoral spokesman. “We need to figure out how to deal with this on a more proactive long-term, preventive way.”

James actually watched as last year’s flash mob of hundreds of teenagers looking for summer-evening fun on the Plaza turned ugly. Three teens were shot just a few yards from him, and a panic ensued.

The city immediately issued a curfew for children under 18. Community leaders gathered to offer solutions to teens’ summer boredom, Rotert said, “but kids know more about this than the adults who were talking about it.”

So the city instigated the study, paid for by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

“Our thinking was, you won’t know if you don’t ask,” Rotert said.

James sought input from mayors around the country whose cities had experienced similar and worse flash-mob violence. The website violentflashmobs.com lists about 150 incidents, from schoolyard fights to assaults to mobs of teens coming together and ransacking mall stores.

After talking with her focus groups, Seo doesn’t think the flash mob here was arranged with violent intentions.

“But since it goes out on Twitter and Facebook, anyone with violent intent could show up,” she said. “We just really wanted to find out what teens think about flash mobs.”

Boredom, she said, came up repeatedly about why teens would attend a flash mob. They also suggested specific entertainment alternatives — more movies, bowling alleys, places to host talent shows — and where they should be located. Very specific solutions will be in the report, Seo said.

Students said they have used cellphones and Twitter to call groups to the cafeteria for a spontaneous dance number during school lunch, or to the football field or basketball court to pump up the crowd with a moment’s notice dance number during a ball game.

Flash mobs have become so popular that Fox television, with Howie Mandel as host, created a program, “Mobbed,” around the concept. On the show, hidden cameras follow as hundreds of strangers are called on to fill a street with song and dance for some person’s special announcement.

James intends to share the report with other cities.

“I think there is an opportunity to collaborate with many other cities,” Seo said. “We see a lot of potential for future engagement with community centers and organizations.”