“Mobile Publics” & “Flash Activism”: Comparing explanations for the socio-civic movements in the wake of Indian Idol 3 and Rang De Basanti

In this blog post, I take preliminary steps towards outlining the similarities and differences between the concept of “mobile publics” proffered by Aswin Punathambekar (forthcoming) to characterize the fan activism generated in the Indian state of Meghalaya in support of its resident Amit Paul during his participation in the third season of Indian Idol in 2007; and the twin concepts of “flash activism” and “flash fandom” that I informally put forth (http://sites.google.com/site/participatorydemocracyproject/case-studies/rang-de-basanti-and-flash-activism) while describing the case of the 2006 Bollywood film Rang De Basanti’s role in inspiring civic participation to demand justice in the high profile trial following the murder of model Jessica Lall. I will briefly discuss the two concepts in context of the cases they illuminate, before delineating the similarities and differences between them.

“Mobile Publics” and the case of Indian Idol 3

In “Reality TV and participatory culture in India”, Punathambekar describes how state-wide passionate rooting – via “mobile media” such as cell phones and its unique affordance, texting – for Indian Idol 3 (hereon, ‘II3’) finalist Amit Paul helped transcend the deep historical, ethnic, political, spatial and linguistic divides between tribals and non-tribals in Paul’s home state of Meghalaya (arguably, India’s Dakotas in terms of various remoteness). Punathambekar writes:

“I posit the term mobile publics as a way to draw attention to the centrality of mobile media technologies to the formation of publics, highlight the fluid and ephemeral nature of these publics, and suggest that the transient nature of mobile publics allows for the articulation of new cultural and political possibilities that might not be possible in more formal institutional settings… In Shillong (the capital of Meghalaya), where the idea of people from different linguistic, ethnic, or religious backgrounds coming together in spaces such as tea shops, telephone booths, and so on, has been unimaginable for several decades now, the notion of mobile publics allows us to recognize how mobile media technologies are engendering new forms of sociability around television… (that is), we need to understand such moments of participation first in terms of sociability instead of seeing links to the realm of politics proper.” (18-21; second emphasis added)

“Flash Activism” and the case of the Rang De Basanti-inspired Jessica Lall murder trial protest

In 1999, Model Jessica Lall was shot dead in front of 300 people in a fancy New Delhi, India restaurant. The gunman was the bratty young son of a high-ranking politician. The case dragged on in court during which witnesses recanted and the murder weapon went missing, and seven years later, in February 2006, the defendant was acquitted for “lack of evidence”. This created an uproar in the national media, and sparked plentiful chatter in blogs and other mainstream media. But what was arguably the most remarkable consequence was the quasi-spontaneous candlelight rally that took place on March 4 at India Gate in New Delhi, a replication of a crucial scene of a Bollywood film Rang De Basanti that had released just a month before to wide critical and popular acclaim. In that film, four college friends had staged a public candlelight rally at the same site, India Gate, to protest the death of their pilot friend who went down in the crash of an Air Force fighter jet long known to be of substandard quality and purchased by the government in exchange for corruption money. In the real life protest, 2500 people showed up, many of whom students who took to the mikes and talked about how Rang De Basanti (hereon, ‘RDB’) had influenced them to come to voice their thoughts. I consider this event as a major catalyst for even greater media coverage and political pressure, leading the trial to reopen in the courts, and in December of that year, the defendant being found guilty and sentenced to life. Justice was meted out in a country with a long history of politicians going scot-free despite their crimes.

In this context, I had written:

“‘(This) is a classic, moving case of what I call “flash activism”. ‘Flash Activism’ can be thought of as temporal, temporary, social mobilization around a particular civic issue, mobilization that may or may not have clear-cut goals and may or may not achieve these goals. What allows for the mobilization are at least two factors: (i) an existing body or group of people that are already sensitive to and roused about fostering civic responsibility and maintaining a civic ethos, and (ii) external triggering and mobilizing factors, such as media and culture, and cultural artifacts and products such as film, theater and television. In particular, when cinematic artifacts mobilize ‘flash activism’, we may refer to the process as ‘flash fandom resulting in flash activism’. In the case of RDB, the film’s narrative, music, marketing, and underlying ideology successfully pre-disposed its audiences into action. People became ‘fans’ of the movie, and their fandom would remain latent until an issue or external event occurred that would bring out their fandom, their passion, their reasons for being moved. A “flash fandom”, then, is a latent admiration of a cultural artifact that is deep enough to transform… (and mobilize) central values driving people’s lives. A “flash activism” then is an external event or issue that allows for the temporary, effective or otherwise, manifestation of a flash fandom… I use the word “flash” to emphasize the suddenness and the self-organization, as well as the suddenness of the self-organization.” (website link above)

“Mobile Publics” and “Flash Activism”: Compared and Contrasted

It is evident, upon a first reading at least, that the phenomena explained by “mobile publics” (hereon, ‘MP’) and “flash activism” (hereon, ‘FA’) have striking similarities. In fact, Punathambekar said in an informal conversation that he was toying with terming the II3 phenomenon as a “flash fandom” (his article pre-dates mine). However, in addition to pointing out their similarities, I would like to discuss 7 important differences between the MP and FA.

A caveat: While both concepts might have a broader as well as subtler powers of explication than their application to these particular case studies might suggest, being that this is a preliminary exploration, I will talk about MP and FA in limited reference to the II3 and the Jessica Lall-RDB cases respectively; in other words, below-mentioned similarities and differences may be differentially or not at all generalizable. Hence, below, ‘MP’ is broadly understood as the mobile publics that were formed in Meghalaya during the Indian Idol Season 3, and ‘FA’ as the Rang De Basanti ‘fandom’ that coalesced into a flash activism to protest the Jessica Lall murder trials at India Gate, New Delhi in March 2006.

A. Similarities between MP and FA

1. Both MP and FA were ephemeral, transient phenomena; yet both had important socio-historical consequences.

Punathambekar writes: “In the first instance, mobile publics are tied to the time and space of the television event. And texting, going online to participate in a fan community, and creating a blog like amitpaulrocks.wordpress.com do remain bound by the spatial and temporal constraints of television.” (20) Thus one of the meanings of ‘mobile’ in MP is the “fluid and ephemeral nature of these publics.” (18) Similarly, the RDB-mimicking protest at India Gate was a one day event, something some might regard as not being sufficient to be considered as ‘activism’, and yet like MP, it led to a series of events with real, important consequences.

2. Both MP and FA were quasi-spontaneous, relying to differing extents on mobile media technology, and both brought people from differing backgrounds together.

Punathambekar notes that the MP around II3 were to a large extent orchestrated by politicians and other vested interests. Yet there was an unmistakable spontaneity in which the vastly diverse, and historically, politically, ethnically, and linguistically divided people of Meghalaya, whether they bought into the publicity or not, got together to rally behind a reality show contestant who represented the state’s best chance to re-table on the national agenda the state’s beleaguered problems; and more personally still, who could sing in the languages of both tribals and non-tribals, who people could independently vote for, either via public calling booths or text messaging through prepaid mobile phone cards, and thus feel as though they have, sans direct pressure and out of free choice, voted not just for the ‘son’ of Meghalaya but also for the future of their state.

Similarly, the Jessica Lall protest at India Gate was also quasi-spontaneous. A text message campaign allegedly begun by ‘Tehelka’, a weekly magazine famous for running exposes, resulted in 2500 strangers rallying together at India Gate. It is likely that only a small percentage directly knew Jessica Lall; the rest were people who were moved by the need for justice, and as some claimed when they got up to speak, moved explicitly by RDB. It is striking that the ‘public’ that gathered for that one-evening protest, unmistakably replicating a scene in RDB (maybe it was somebody at ‘Tehelka’ who saw the India Gate link and decided to exploit it, but that is beside the point), were people who did not know each other, who would normally never have come together, and yet were moved enough by the injustice and by its parallels to RDB. Even though Tehelka may have begun the text message, it was individual choice (what Henry Jenkins might term “spreadable”) that resulted in the passing along of the text message.

B. Differences between MP and FA

1. In MP, a specific media event or artifact was set in the backdrop of a general, pre-existing state of affairs; whereas in FA, a specific media event or artifact was set in the backdrop of a specific, later-developing state of affairs.

The differences between tribals and non-tribals in Shillong and across Meghalaya were long-standing, deep and multi-faceted, and would have, all else being equal, continued to exist if there were no II3 and Amit Paul. Do MPs always have this characteristic? To the extent that mobile media technology is necessary if not sufficient for the generation of publics, and how this generation influences and re-shapes a pre-existing cultural and political setting, yes.

By contrast, FA formed around a specific situation that did not yet exist when RDB released, and per the definition, had the Jessica Lall murder trial gone the ‘right’ way the first time around, may not have manifested. It appears that there is something about the specificity of the Jessica Lall case that is tied in with the ‘flashness’ of the flash activism, and equivalently, there is something about the generality of the Meghalaya socio-cultural history that is tied in with the ‘mobility’ of the mobile publics. This point is elaborated on in #3 below.

2. In MP, latent politics catalyzed into overt fandom; whereas in FA, a latent fandom catalyzed into overt socio-civic-political participation.

Nobody knew Amit Paul as a singer until II3, but people did know, love and talk about the influence of RDB in the month between its release (1.26.06) and the first verdict on Jessica Lall (2.21.06). With the former, there were latent and overt political differences, and Punathambekar hints at the existing of the ripe potential for change around the time when II3 arrived, but the important difference with the latter can be illustrated roughly as:

MP:            (Latent) Political Differences –> Civic Participation via Overt Fandom

FA:            Latent Fandom –> Civic Participation

The point is noted, however, that not all the FA witnessed at India Gate was due to RDB; although it has been noted in the press (see http://www.tehelka.com/story_main23.asp?filename=hub031806Sleeping_idealists1.asp) that many who came did so explicitly because of RDB, some protesters may have come for independent reasons.

3. MP was more orchestrated; whereas FA was more of a ‘tipping point’ phenomenon.

As discussed above, MP and FA were similar in that both were quasi-spontaneous: ‘spontaneous’ in that they were unexpected and not predictable, ‘quasi’ in that they were triggered by entities hoping for a particular response. Yet, in an important sense, MP was much more orchestrated by institutional factors and funding. For example, if no public calling booths were set up or free prepaid calling cards distributed, and if there was none of the massive politically organized publicity, then maybe there would not have emerged mobile publics, or maybe to a much smaller, less influential extent.

By contrast, FA was triggered by an anonymous text message asking people to come out to India Gate to protest and discuss Jessica Lall’s trial verdict. If one had access to the chain of text messages, one could probably pinpoint the moment when enough people proactively decided to show up and pass on the text message that there was a critical mass present in order for it to have become the media phenomenon that it did.

This is not to say that a critical mass or tipping point was not reached in MP; but the top-down provision of broad incentives such as free phone cards is different in form than the point-to-point spreading of text messages. The former can be better captured as a sudden, big surge on a graph, whereas the latter as a tipping point surge on a graph. Of course, social networks play an important role in both MP and FA, and it would be interesting to actually visually map out a simulation of how ‘mobile’ word as opposed to ‘flash’ word spreads.

4. In MP, ‘differences’ became ‘similarities’; whereas in FA, ‘similarities’ became sameness.

This is a relatively subtle difference to pull off, and a refinement of some of the above points, but it is worth trying to articulate. In MP, ethnic, political, linguistic and spatial differences among the people of Meghalaya were transcended for a certain period. Just as sports has the ability to unite otherwise opposed peoples, similarly, the combination of the universally cherished act of singing along with the symbolism of ‘Meghalayan-opposed-to-rest-of-India-not-opposed-to-factions-within-Meghalaya’ contestant was sufficient for people to want to set aside their differences, however temporarily, and become similar if not the same.

By contrast, in FA, a similarity—young people moved by and fans of RDB, citizens angered by the Jessica Lall February verdict—channeled into, for a flash of a moment, a sameness, that of purpose: the reopening of the trial, the need for justice, the broader need for sociopolitical and institutional upheaval, a cry against corruption. In this sense, the pointed phenomenon that was FA was much more of an activism than was MP, which rather was a powerful, symbolic movement. It was far from enough for Meghalayans to permanently set aside their differences, but powerful enough to seep into collective memory not only as a significant precedent but also for a less-than-temporary armistice of sorts. FA, pointed and material in its purpose, triggered enough media coverage and political pressure so that it achieved its short-term goal. In terms of long-term effects on the individuals who participated and those who read about it, that much is a matter of speculation if not empiricism.

5. MP is in part defined around mobile media technologies; whereas FA need not be connected with any technology.

MP by definition occurred due to mobile media technology, whereas FA could conceivably if less effectively have occurred without the text messaging. This difference, unlike some of the above, is generalizable. FA is a phenomenon that comes about variedly and organically, although in today’s day and age, its tipping pointedness is readily imagined as facilitated by technology, be it Facebook groups, the I-pad/pod/phone triumvirate, or what have you.

6. MP is opposed to “split publics”; whereas FA is not about a public per se.

Punathambekar introduces MP as a building on on the notion of “split publics”, which understand people as divided “along linguistic and caste lines, for example”. Whereas MP is more relevant and up-to-date in that it explains the “impact of mobile media technologies on television viewing practices, in creating new spaces for conversation and participation.” (18).

By contrast, FA as I have conceived of it is not about a public per se; it is about a phenomenon. Of course, as a phenomenon it is lent substance by similarly moved people coalesced by the sameness of purpose, but it is also lent substance by the abstract nature of the purpose itself – social justice and civic rights. This is not to say that the other meaning of ‘mobile’ in MP does not emphasize the phenomenon over the publics; it well could, so in a sense this difference is superficial. Punathamebekar, writing in context of the literature and tradition that he does, chooses to emphasize that the publics are mobile in that they are mobilized by mobile media. I, on the other hand, am fascinated by the formal properties of FA – the fact that a phenomenon of such shape does occur. The difference can be readily understood with an analogy from neuroscience. The activism in FA and the mobilization in MP are brain states, and the particular people and publics mobilized or coalesced are groups of far flung neurons, where the brain in turn is a socio-civic, pop-culture-consuming, and variegatedly marked collective.

7. MP’s effects were more long-lasting in that it created “sociability” around television; whereas FA’s effects were pointed and did not create a sociability among its participants.

Punathambekar importantly underlines how “mobile publics are more than just collectives that are informed and / or networked through new communication technologies and managed by media industries; (rather), it is important to remember that the world of “public life” is not limited to questions of citizenship or civic engagement… In Shillong, where the idea of people from different linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds coming together in spaces such as tea shops, telephone booths, and so on has been unimaginable for decades now, the notion of mobile publics allows us to recognize how mobile media technologies are engendering new forms of sociability around television” (19-20; emphasis added). MP was as much if not more about the sociability it engendered as it was about civic participation to transcend differences and vote for Amit Paul.

By contrast, FA, maybe (or maybe not, I’ll have to think about this) because it is not conceived around publics per se, was not about the sociability created around film and the protest. It is not even necessarily about fandom. This is not to say that if generalized to other cases it could not be; it well could. In the case of RDB and Jessica Lall, the one-day flash activism was not about creating sociability at the moment or in the future, nor did it emerge from a sociability. A group of strangers came together, united by commonness of purpose, and then dispersed. They were similarly moved, they voiced, they parted. Whether their participation changed them as individuals is a matter of speculation and a separate question; their participation did not involve sociability because the group was temporary and its purpose temporal. Moreover, RDB does not have a currently existing fandom, although there are many isolated lovers of the movie (as with many movies). Furthermore, in MP’s specific application to II3, the sociability created was especially profound, which only strengthens the case that MP conceived more generally can have similar potential for powerful sociability.

Conclusion

This blog post has been a preliminary attempt to lay out the important differences and similarities between the phenomena of mobile publics formed in Meghalaya, India, during the airing of Indian Idol season 3, and the Rang De Basanti mimicking and inspired flash activism witnessed in the wake of the Jessica Lall murder trial verdict. This undertaking is not normative. I believe however it is worthwhile to theoretically draw out the common springs and distinctions between, as well as lay out the socio-civic potentials for, MP and FA at least as applied to cases in the real world. Whether and how we can generalize about MP and FA as important phenomena, possibly tying in with other cultural-civic movements of the new millennium’s electronic global village, is a matter for further exploration, both theoretical and lived. For now, we should appreciate the beauty of these phenomena, in the contexts of and for the spontaneity of their emergence, and for the profundity of their impacts. Many are the paths to a fuller, more interesting world, and many are the ways to map these paths. What is cause to celebrate is that the batholith has changed,  even transformed.

References

Chaudhury, S. (2006, March 18). Sleeping idealists? Tehelka. Retrieved from http://www.tehelka.com/story_main23.asp?filename=hub031806Sleeping_idealists1.asp

Jenkins, H. (2009, February 11). If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead (Part One): Media viruses and memes [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.henryjenkins.org/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html

Mehta, R. (2010, May). Rang De Basanti & Flash Actvism. Retrieved from http://sites.google.com/site/participatorydemocracyproject/case-studies/rang-de-basanti-and-flash-activism

Punathambekar, A. (forthcoming). Reality TV and participatory culture in India.

[Updated: 24 June 2010; word in title changed from "consequences" to "movements"]

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13 Responses to ““Mobile Publics” & “Flash Activism”: Comparing explanations for the socio-civic movements in the wake of Indian Idol 3 and Rang De Basanti”

  1. Sangita Says:

    Hi Ritesh,
    this is a really interesting blog post which may, in fact, be very useful in helping us define our own definitions of activism and public within the our group research. I did have a few questions about some of the differences you mention and would be very interested in discussing these in more detail.

  2. henry jenkins Says:

    Ritesh,

    My main question here is whether you are describing the differences between two case studies or two concepts. The problem comes from the fact that we have only one case study per concept. A classic definition requires more than one example. It is possible that some of the differences you identify are specific to the grounding case studies and if we saw more examples of mobile publics or flash activism, some of these issues would be accented and others would seem less relevant. I wanted to use this comment as encouragement for all of us to look for more examples which might help us to sharpen the terms of our analysis.

  3. rmehta Says:

    Henry, thanks for your comment. The question you raise was definitely on my mind while I was writing this, but may be it wasn’t explicit enough, so thanks for making it explicit. I guess I am currently referring to FA (since I can’t speak for itself for MP directly — Aswin has that right) as ‘FA as exhibited by the reaction to Rang De Basanti’. I think there well could be and already are other examples of FA. E.g., the “Gandhigiri” protests in the wake of the release of Bollywood film “Lage Raho Munnabhai (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lage_Raho_Munna_Bhai#Gandhigiri-style_protests) could well be a less poignant case of FA. However, my intention in the above entry was to roughly lay out a priori some differences between the QUASI-concept of FA and the QUASI-concept of MP.

    E.g., in difference # 6, I refer to a theoretical difference between two phenomena that might be valid even if there were no actual real life case studies. That is, I’d say that even if we didn’t have the cases of II3 and RDB, we could still say that it is possible to view civic participation materially, i.e., from the point of view of “publics” or the people involved; versus more formally, i.e., see the shape of the phenomenon like a spike on a graph (where time is the X-axis and something abstract like ‘social justice’ is the Y-axis). This is an application to our theoretical work of the central metaphysical and epistemological distinction that Aristotle had raised between matter and form as being two distinct yet intertwined “causes” of phenomena. E.g., the material ’cause’ of a chair is the wood and nails, whereas the formal ’cause’ of the chair is its shape (in addition, the effective cause is its maker, the carpenter, and the final cause is its purpose, sitting). In other words, the material cause and the formal cause are equally viable alternatives to describe the same phenomenon, and the one you choose to emphasize depends on your goals.

    Of course, it is entirely possible as you say that with more concrete case studies, a lot of my alleged differences might wither away or, conversely, strengthen. E.g., difference # 4 is most vulnerable to standing up to further case studies. Also, difference # 5 does not seem particularly strong, and might just show up in the particular case study but not the concept.

    Generally, however, with RDB and FA, and as I suspect Aswin would say was also with II3 and MP, the idea was to use a case study as an opportunity to sketch a prototype of a concept. Since what our group studies is a new area and what we begin with are case studies, we have no option but to invent our theory as we go, but as you rightly suggest, also be committed to revising it as more examples appear.

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