Are flashmobs a construct of evolutionary biology?
Posted May 09, 2012
—Merriam-Webster’s example for the use of the word twitter
It happens multiple times a day, in a mowed field that lies within commuting distance from New York City. They show up out of nowhere in large numbers, like an eruption. They’re there for a brief time, and then, disperse. Repetitions of these co-created performances confirm that these are no random acts of improv. Unarmed of cell phones or Twitter, these rapid-assembly-happenings are clearly a different sort of communal performance. I call them Flashmob Robins.
In their summer location in upstate New York, coordinated acts of collective behavior by North American Robins (Turdus migratorius), large brown migratory thrushes, famous for their reddish breasts, consists of as many as 30 birds, with a core group of 18. In early March, their long, morning song starts just prior to first light as they move from their roosts to the treetops surrounding the field. At around 7:00 a.m. come territorial songs and the first flashmob field-advance of the day, as they rapidly assemble on the grass from different directions, hop around, run, forage and eat together for a brief time, and then suddenly, they’re gone. The dynamics of this scene, that will be repeated again later and throughout the day, most certainly is evolutionary—genetic and innate—a pattern that evolved long before instantaneous communication technology and the term ‘flash mob’. However, the determinants that shape this behavior is likely related to the human phenomenon, and begs for explanation: ‘How do robin flock members communicate with each other in order to coordinate their behavior and orchestrate their flash-mobbing?’
Mechanisms supporting collective behavior are either physical or chemical, and almost all bird behaviors relate to survival and reproduction. Singing and visual display are two common ways birds communicate. The robins’ vocalizations during the breeding season are diverse with sounds that range from long-winded, melodious song to intense alarm sounds and hissing. Without the protection of massive numbers of law enforcement in riot gear in the field, or someone on the scene to tweet about the Red Tail Hawk overhead, feeding in flocks helps the birds warn each other about predators.
PEEK! Tut tut tut tut is one of their warning calls, but the screech Seeeeeeee along with vertical up and down tail movement, is the alarm that means Danger! Cats! (Vocalizations can be heard at the American Robin Dictionary of Songs and Sounds.) This territory the robins call home also happens to be the turf of a large colony of feral cats. In hunting parties, these are cats that have shown no fear while corralling a fleeing rafter of 19 wild turkeys. Despite this threat, by working together, each individual robin gets to do the same thing more safely and so they reach their common goal—essential nutritious worms and grubs.
Like bird flocks, fish schools, and mammal herds, humans, too, are evolutionarily set up for social, preplanned, and self-organized actions: the cohesion needed to approach significant problems and threats to common good. Like the Robin network, the Internet, apps, and twitter amplify human vocalizations. We are able to call in real-life reinforcements as a form of protection and social advantage, which increase the chances of a positive outcome from necessary risky behavior.
The co-founders of Twitter have said that when choosing the name for their company, they looked at the Oxford English Dictionary and saw that twitter meant ‘a short inconsequential burst of information, chirps from birds’, and thought that described what they were doing— a social networking service for inconsequential, brief text messages. However, the vocalizations that birds make are not insignificant or trivial. There is value in real-time communication, whether the calls birds make to their flock or the short, instant textings human’s make to theirs. Coordinated acts of collective behavior evolved in response to stress-factors and predators, and help individuals overcome circumstances over which they alone have no control. Social support networks play an important and powerful role in determining fundamental conditions for survival.
Now, anticipating the effects and potential of this phenomenon, people signup online to join flashmob websites, which facilitate the worldwide trend to amass-on-call for activities and random flashmobbing events. The success of these various websites has come from helping individuals find their like-kind for assembly, moving from friending on Facebook to face-to-face association and companionship. With social media, we act on genetic patterning and the directives of evolutionary biology to exercise social, political, and survival agendas in the unique ways that only the species with cell phones can. For humans, collective actions reduce personal security risks and increase an individual’s chances of survival while expressing dissent. Broadening out the concept of flashmobs from the communication of robin flocks to human assembly mediated by social networks, one arrives at the structural power that Twitter gives to the otherwise powerless—hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of democratic revolutions—like the Arab Spring.