Flash mobs: a new social phenomenon?
Giles Hewitt in New York
Wednesday, 30 July 2003
Is it performance art or the ultimate surprise party? A social phenomenon known as the 'flash mob', which began in New York and relies on e-mail, appears to be spreading worldwide.
Using mass e-mailing, the organisers bring together what their invitations describe as 'inexplicable mobs' - large crowds that materialise in public places and suddenly dissipate 10 minutes later.
Since the first flash mob was organised in Manhattan in May, by a mischievous underground group called the Mob Project, the practise has already spread to other U.S. cities, while plans are being drawn up for events in London, Rome and Vienna.
The concept's creator, a shadowy figure known only as Bill, started off by e-mailing 50 friends to gather at a retail store in downtown Manhattan. The plan was foiled after the store was tipped off, forcing Bill to introduce an element of subterfuge.
For mob number two, participants were asked to gather in advance in one of several bars and only then were handed a leaflet detailing the target - Macy's department store.
More than 100 people suddenly appeared on Macy's home furnishing floor and, as instructed by the leaflet, began discussing whether to purchase a 'love rug' for their fictitious commune. To the bewilderment of the sales staff, the crowd then melted away as quickly as it had formed.
As Bill's e-mail pool has expanded, so has the size of the gatherings. Mob number three saw nearly 200 people flood the lobby of the swanky Hyatt Hotel and erupt into synchronised applause in front of bemused guests, while number four involved the invasion of a shoe boutique in Soho with participants pretending to be hick tourists from the southern U.S. state of Maryland on a bus trip.
"It's a spectacle for spectacle's sake - which is silly, but is also, as I've discovered somewhat to my surprise, genuinely transgressive, which is part of its appeal, I think," said the mysterious Bill in an e-mail exchange. "People feel like there's nothing but order everywhere, and so they love to be a part of just one thing that nobody was expecting."
A spokesman for the New York police department was wary about commenting on the legality of the mobs, but said the police would intervene only if there was criminal intent. For the most recent event, on July 24, one group gathered in an Irish bar, trying vainly to act casual as they loitered around the jukebox mentioned in the invitation.
"Are you with the mob?" whispered one anxious first-timer, only to be shushed with a knowing nod and wink, followed by a nervous giggle. A Mob Project representative surreptitiously handed out instruction leaflets, guiding that group and others to a grassy knoll in Central Park, opposite the American Museum of Natural History.
The mob began at 7:18 pm precisely - the 300-plus participants having synchronised watches with a time zone website - and the surreal instructions were followed to the letter:
· For the first three minutes, make as little noise as possible. If you can make a realistic bird call, you may occasionally do so.
· By 7:21 pm, you may make all bird calls, unrealistic or no.
· By 7:23 pm, you may also mumble, 'bird noise'.
· By 7:25 pm, you may also call out, "Nature here! Come get some nature," to passers-by.
· At 7:26 pm, chant "Na-ture" for 20 seconds, cheer and disperse.
"It was over before I could work out whether it was really clever or really dumb. But either way I kind of enjoyed it," said Lorien Poole, 24, who was e-mailed by a friend.
Just a few hours later, the event was the subject of heated discussion on several website chatrooms devoted to the flash mob trend. "It seems to me that while this is all fun, harmless and interesting for now, that it is just a matter of time before a fight breaks out and the mob becomes a riot," wrote one pessimistic participant.
Bill has made it clear he intends to wind up the project before it gets out of hand, although the concept appears to be taking on a life of its own.
San Francisco, Minneapolis and Phoenix have all staged their own events, while the first European mob took place this week in Rome, when 300 people entered a music and bookstore and asked for non-existent titles. The idea has also been adopted and given a more political agenda by other groups.
In Detroit, a group of gays and lesbians organise the 'Detroit Guerrilla Queer Bar', which targets a local straight restaurant or bar for 'swarming' on a designated night. And in Boston, Reggie Cummings, a black software developer, coordinates 'friendly takeovers' by crowds of black yuppies of downtown bars with a traditionally white clientele.
Consider the possibilities (may the reader use discenment).