System: Self-Organizing/-Networked Protests
To the first question, at least, Raddon has come up with a preliminary answer, and it’s a smart one, because it gets at the changing nature of the subculture he inhabits. It has become a cliché these days to talk about “engagement” in social media, about the magical way that some users and institutions online are able to punch above their weight, as it were, in the devotion of their relatively small groups of followers. But among dance music fans, super-engagement is a real and rational phenomenon, because social media serves not just as a diversion or a supplemental source of information but as the entire lifeline of their scene. Even the largest house acts have tended not to be on major labels. Raddon himself is signed to a small New York-based outfit called Ultra Records, which sells all its music online; it’s vanishingly rare for an Ultra artist to hit the Billboard Hot 100, but the label’s YouTube channel is the fifth-most-viewed music channel of all time and the 11th-most-viewed channel of any type. Unless you’re extremely diligent about following Raddon or his label or other big acts on social media, you might never hear about even the major shows in your area.
“Electronic dance music is still something that you have to find,” Raddon says. “It’s not on the radio, it’s not on TV. These people really had to search me out.” And the sense of shared community this engenders cannot be overstated. Ten years ago, the dance music scene was finely sliced into such an interminable array of genre divisions that it became a joke: aquatic techno-funk, down-tempo future jazz, goa-trance, hard chill ambient, techxotica, and so on. In the past decade or so, though, despite all the ways that the Internet encourages music to nichify, the rise of social media has actually pushed electronic dance music in the opposite direction. Witnessing its sheer numbers, sensing its collective power, the dance scene has reunified, becoming more of a mass phenomenon—an undifferentiated subculture of millions. It turns out that the thrill of collective identity, a moblike feeling of shared enormity, is far more exciting to fans than were their endless dives down rabbit holes of sonic purism.
Can you see how this starts to hint at an answer to the second question? The one about why a raver crowd became a riot? Think of it this way: To show up at Kaskade’s block party—and to hang around even after, or especially after, the police have come to send you home—is a decision that’s about far more than taste in music. It’s about being part of a group that has long felt invisible (no radio, no TV) despite the existence of enormous numbers. One might call this the emergence of mega-undergrounds, groups of people for whom the rise of Facebook and Twitter has laid bare the disconnect between their real scale and the puny extent to which the dominant culture recognizes them. For these groups, suddenly coalescing into a crowd feels like stepping out from the shadows, like forcing society to respect the numbers that they now know themselves to command.
Every disorderly flash mob that I’ve mentioned in this story has been, at root, a mega-underground phenomenon. In many cases, this brings us back around to the uncomfortable subject of race. In the US, the biggest and most important of the urban flash mobs that politicians have railed against (and that right-wingers now fret about as representing the specter of black insurrection) weren’t gathered by calls to violence, as in London. Instead, they were essentially about African-American teenagers showing their numbers, about kids taking over—for a brief window of time—some highly visible public spaces where they normally feel less than welcome. In Kansas City, a police investigation found that the mobs in April 2010 were gathered via Facebook, bringing between 700 and 900 kids to the aptly named Country Club Plaza, lined with plush stores. The Philadelphia mobs that same spring were touched off by a popular dance crew called Team Nike, who tweeted about the public performances they were giving; as in LA, though, these tweets got widely forwarded with an eye toward creating impromptu street parties on South Street and at the Gallery mall. Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist and Philly native who studies poor urban communities, has coined the term “cosmopolitan canopy” to describe these kinds of spaces. They’re the places where people of different races and class backgrounds come together, which makes them the closest thing we have today to a commons; for teens, especially poorer teens, the cosmopolitan canopy represents society and authority in the way that a statehouse or bank headquarters ought to but doesn’t.
And it’s not too far a stretch to extend this same idea into the realm of protests. This is, at root, the way that Occupy Wall Street defied expectations to become a genuine political force. The media harped on how these protests grew through Twitter, but it was really the movement’s Tumblr—wearethe99percent.tumblr.com—that made it work. Those photos of struggling Americans essentially virtualized the occupation; the street protesters were merely the visible symbol of the giant, subterranean mob of Americans struggling to get by. What’s really revolutionary about all these gatherings—what remains both dangerous and magnificent about them—is the way they represent a disconnected group getting connected, a mega-underground casting off its invisibility to embody itself, formidably, in physical space.