Flashmobs the new electronic literature?


After talking about the definition of electronic literature in class yesterday, I decided to go online and see what some different definitions were online. I went to Wikipedia (I know, not the most reliable source of information) and its definition was similar to ours; any digital born literature meant to be consumed on the computer that could not exist without the computer. That’s why I was surprised Wikipedia listed Flashmobs as a potential form of electronic literature.

Improv Everywhere was listed as an example of Flashmobs, a group that pulls pranks such as “No Pants Subway” and “Best Buy Takeover” all around New York City. They plan their events online and find volunteers through their online mailing. Improv Everywhere then trains the volunteers to pull the prank, then afterwards uploads the prank onto the internet.  Below are some of their most publicized videos and successful events.






Though I red a few articles arguing that this is a form of performance based electronic literature, I am not convinced. Very little literature is involved. In fact, everything is improved and, in most of their pranks, they don’t even speak. If anything this could be argued as electronic art, but even that is stretching it. The only argument for literature based flashmobs are the recently started musical flashmob. Improv Everywhere’s most current musical is breaking out into song on Santa’s lap at a local mall (see the clip above). For this particular prank, I understand the reasoning behind calling it electronic literature. Creating the script and lyrics to produce a musical takes literary talent. However, like previously stated, most flashmobs don’t include literature at all.

Totally removing the literary argument, we must remember the other integral part of what E-lit is. Electronic literature (or art) mandates that the piece be consumed electronically, produced for the sole purpose of viewing it on the computer. These flashmobs and musicals are put on YouTube to become a worldwide sensation, but that is not their purpose. The founder Charlie Todd states, “Our missions are a fun source of entertainment for the participants, those who happen to see us live, and those who read our website.” Like Todd says, the purpose is entertainment and there are many ways that Improv Everywhere can be seen: live, on TV shows, the news, as well as their YouTube channel. This negates the core of the definition of E-lit, therefore proving the argument of flashmobs being a form of E-lit invalid.

  1 comment for “Flashmobs the new electronic literature?

  1. February 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    This is an interesting discussion. Mainly for the sake of argument (because I don’t think there’s really much at stake in determining e-lit/not e-lit), I think flashmobs of the sort perpetrated by Improv Everywhere can indeed be considered e-lit. Let’s take a look at your objections:

    Very little literature is involved. In fact, everything is improved and, in most of their pranks, they don’t even speak.

    What I think you’re saying is that there is no text, no exposition, no lyricism, poetry or prose. And you’re right. I don’t think those things are necessary for literature, however. If we defined literature as having to have words, we’d have to exclude certain graphic novels, for example, and I’d rather not. Instead, we can look more generally toward anything that manipulates signs in order to express meaning — narrative, in other words. In that sense, many Improv Everywhere events surely qualify, because their typical premise is to ask bystanders and youtube viewers to reinterpret a specific event within a new context. One of my favorites, for instance, treats a little league baseball game as a major league game, complete with rowdy fans, programs, and a jumbotron. Little Billy on the mound in a “big league game” means something different (even if there’s quotes around it) than Little Billy on the mound in a normal game.

    What’s different, I think, is that the world has become the text and, therefore, acts more playfully. You note that these events are often highly coordinated and rehearsed, lacking (therefore) the spontaneity of theatric improvisation. What IS spontaneous, though, is the shift from “real life” into “storybook life” and back out again — and that’s the symbolic switch that gets flipped comprising the narrative.

    Finally, while the events are significant first to the participants, the fact that Improv Everywhere has a popular youtube channel (1 million hits on that one video) indicates how the electronic consumption of their texts really is pretty important. In that sense, the original performance doesn’t matter that much as a moment of reception, because really the ones performing are the unwitting bystanders who get swept up in whatever narrative is going on.

    So, to reiterate, I’m not sure I really disagree with you, but arguing the point is kind of fun. 🙂

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