A few months ago I was asked to come in and speak to a Socially Engaged Practice class at Arizona State University (ASU) about flashmobs and engaging the public. I’m an ASU alum, but rarely visit campus so had no idea what to expect. It ended up going quite excellently.
In my first trip to their class I explained a lot of the things I do around town, and (more importantly) the value I see in unexpected engagement and connections.
Engaging people on the fly, whether for a flashmob, advertising campaign, or art project, opens you up to outcomes that you could never foresee if everything was scripted. Rewards come with taking risks.
The class batted ideas around, and I returned for a follow-up session to answer questions and be a sounding board for some of their crazier plans. As always it came down to the balance of time, money, and what risks people wanted to take.
Spreading Good Deeds
Their resulting project was dubbed “Mission: Possible”, a crusade to get ASU students to smile and blow off a little stress during finals week. Class members would try to engage students walking across campus by complimenting them, giving them a high-five, or helping them out somehow. They would then hand out a “Good Deeds” flier that encouraged the recipient to pay it forward, and included a few ideas to get them started.
They also had some roaming singers, and people who lowered compliments to surprised students on a string from high overhead, and a giant board on Hayden Lawn where people could write what they wanted to accomplish before graduation (check out their answers). They worked for about an hour engaging strangers and encouraging them to participate.
Joys and Perils of Public Engagement
It was fun watching them work, and watching them get a big dose of both the up and downsides of trying to engage the public. They made lots of people smile, filled their board with student dreams, and brightened the day for a lot of people. They also learned how hard it can be to connect with a stranger, as some people weaved and dodged any attempt to connect. There also were, as always, a few jerks who tried to disrupt things or deface the board.
With engagements like this you always need to look at the net result, and that was a definite success. The class had fun doing it, lots of people walking by got an unexpected smile, and I got a free t-shirt out of it.
I hope more than anything else they learned the fun that comes from doing the unexpected, and I see them all trying things like this on their own in the future.
The best things happen when you shake things up a little.