One of these days I’ll develop the discipline to write longer pieces here independent of a local reading series (for shorter, more frequent posts check out my Tumblr blog) but until then here’s the piece I read at Paper Machete this weekend. If you’re in Chicago and haven’t checked it out, next Saturday at 3pm is as good a reason as any: the show moves to larger digs at The Horseshoe in Lincoln Square and features Chicagoan/SNL cast member Paul Brittain and Schadenfreude’s Kate James.
This piece is about the recent string of downtown Chicago robberies that many are calling “flash mobs.” I get into why this is a misnomer and the lazy reporting that got them tagged this way. Plus, links to relevant material! Sadly, you will have to wait for the podcast to hear my “caveman” voice.
Well, this is quite the flash mob we have going here today.
That’s what a flash mob is, right? Groups of otherwise unconnected strangers, driven by text messages or social media communication who gather together for some event? I know I invited all my friends via Twitter, Facebook and text. And The Paper Machete has a website where they talked about today’s lineup. Plus, there was something on The AV Club.
Plus, it’s not like any of us already has some kind of loose affiliation or acquaintance? Right…? Gang…?
I’m obviously getting ahead of myself but I do want to talk about how all of a sudden a term meant to describe seemingly-spontaneous coordinated dancing or shitty fake improv suddenly became the hot new trend in violent muggings in the tony Gold Coast and Streeterville neighborhoods. And like most annoying trends it seems to have started in Brooklyn.
But let me back up and set the scene here: We’ve had a longtime Daddy figure for a mayor replaced by a younger guy who’s untested in the role, a city with a $650 million dollar deficit contributing to economic decline in the city’s neighborhoods and a police force with 800 fewer cops than there ought to be and a superintendent who’s barely been on the job for a month – and wasn’t officially approved for the job until earlier this week. Tack on reports of downtown youth violence robberies during the last few months and whispers of potential violence causing the Memorial Day weekend closing of North Avenue Beach and things. were. just. a. little. tense. leading up to last weekend.
According to the Wall Street Journal, 12 crimes involving large groups of young men – half were robberies and the other half were non-violent crimes – occurred last weekend in the Streeterville/Gold Coast area. Of the robberies, five of them were committed by the same group of people and ten of the people in that group were arrested. 19 other young men were arrested for the other six, non-violent crimes.
While these crimes and their victims are very real, the organization of the groups through social media has been overreported. Or perhaps reported is the wrong word. On Wednesday, a Chicago Police Department spokesman said there was no indication any of the assaults or robberies were coordinated using social media. So maybe the word we’re looking for here is “completelymadeup.”
So how did these attacks end up reported as “flash mobs”? This brings us back to Brooklyn. And 40 cent hot wings.
In October of 2009, a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Brooklyn started running a Tuesday night special: hot wings – 40 cents each, which based on my extensive Google-based research of hot wings menus is about a 20-50 cent savings over the price of your average wing. What was later described in the New York Times as an unauthorized flyer discussing the special was posted to various social networking sites and caused an increasing number of teenagers to overwhelm the spot over the next three weeks, culminating in a Veteran’s Day Eve melee in the area around the mall that ended with two shootings and one stabbing. This was followed by other non-poultry-related incidents involving large groups of youth in Philadelphia and South Orange, N.J., in 2010 and, more recently, robberies in St. Paul, Minnesota and St Louis earlier this year though few of these mention any social media involvement. Let’s just say they…fit the description.
So back to Chicago. We’ve got a national context for two years of sporadic violent incidents involving youth, which are, in some cases, coordinated using text messaging and social media. It’s a meme, as the Internet would say. Then while doing research for this piece I remembered a report from CBS 2 back in March about businesses along the Magnificent Mile experiencing groups of teens coming into their stores grabbing as much as they can and running away. “Apparently, they’ve been Tweeting each other,” said the reporter. There it is: Twitter was to blame. Despite the lack of direct quotes from police, the victims or the alleged attackers mentioning any form of social media. And nevermind that plenty of people who use Twitter or Facebook manage to get through their days without knocking over a Filene’s Basement.
And that’s when it all came together for me. This has way more to do with the Gold Coast and what it represents and social media and what it represents. And it can all be explained by a little something called terror management theory.
[OK truth be told I’m only saying this because I heard about terror management theory for the first time on Wednesday while listening to the How Stuff Works podcast and it sounded really cool. Had my iPod shuffled differently during my morning commute I might be telling you the only way to truly understand these attacks is to listen to the Sound Opinions review of the new Fleet Foxes album. But hang with me and I swear this will make a kind of sense.]
Terror management theory essentially posits that all human behavior is motivated by the fear of mortality and that every societal construct we create is meant to distract us from a fear of death: political parties, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, even Bravo’s The Real Housewives series which is ironic because every time I remember that show exists I want to fucking kill myself.
According to this theory, symbols that enforce our cultural views are fiercely protected and anything that threatens those views is dealt with in a highly punitive manner.
Now, think of the Gold Coast and Streeterville, where these attacks occurred. What’s over there? Tiffany’s, Water Tower Place, the American Girl store, parks, countless tourist attractions and various economic engines for the city. Basically, high affluence in a low-crime area. For a city that wants to convince itself it isn’t broke and suffering from an increase in gang activity, you don’t get much more symbolic.
So how does social media enter into the picture? On almost every level, social media is changing the way we communicate and learn about our world. Rather than reinforce the individual societal constructs we have in place in our families, neighborhoods or countries, social media is exposing us to yes, congressional penis, but also cultural worldviews that differ wildly from our own. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: On the day after the next court ruling on gay marriage, gun rights or abortion, visit the Facebook page of any family member you purposely only see at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s the interpersonal equivalent of finding a potentially cancerous mole on a part of your body you can’t see without a mirror.
Flash mobs make the perfect scapegoat. They’re symbolic of technology many people don’t understand and are still struggling to legislate and use to create new economic models. And if it wasn’t flash mobs, it would have been something else. When I was a kid, blue star LSD tattooswere the neighborhood bogeyman. For my parents, I think it was communists. I’m sure even cavemen were like “Have you heard of this new form of fire that can start by rubbing two sticks together? Someone really needs to start monitoring the sale of sticks.”