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Flash Mobs

What started as an e-mail inviting people to join an “inexplicable mob” has turned into a global fad that continues to spread.

"You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.”

This email was sent out to gather the first known orchestrated and successful flash mob on Jun 17, 2003, at a Macy's department store in Manhattan, New York City. It began when Bill Wasik, now an editor at Harper's Magazine, created an e-mail address—themobproject@yahoo.com. Wasik then forwarded the e-mail to himself, to make it seem like he had gotten ti from someone else, and then to about 40 or 50 friends.

The mob gathered at four different bars, and 10 minutes before the event was to occur, small pieces of paper were handed out stating the final destination. The participants descended quickly upon Macy’s home furnishings department. From 7:27 p.m. to 7:37 p.m., 200 people surrounded a $10,000 rug, and, as instructed, the “mobsters” informed the bewildered salesperson that they all lived together in a Long Island City commune and they were looking to purchase a “love rug.” For 10 minutes the “mobsters” discussed the rug among themselves and then quickly dispersed.

A flash mob, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is “a group of people summoned (by e-mail or text message) to a designated location at a specified time to perform an indicated action before dispersing.” What started as an e-mail inviting people to join an “inexplicable mob” has turned into a global fad that continues to grow, spread and amaze bystanders everywhere.

Flash mob performances have included an impromptu pillow fight in North Carolina, silent group dance routines in London’s underground metro, and a huge snowball fight in Washington, D.C.

The Indian media wrote about what it called the first flash mob in the country in October 2003. About 60 people entered a Mumbai mall and began shouting like stockbrokers and gesticulating agitatedly. “Before the stupefied security guards could react we broke into an impromptu garba dance, clapping our hands and whooping. At a shouted signal, we froze dead in our tracks, holding the pose for exactly half a minute,” Bijoy Venugopal, a participant, later wrote on rediff.com. The group then opened the umbrellas they had been asked to bring along and melted away into the crowd.

It wasn’t until June 2006, when Wasik published an article about his flash mobs in Harper’s Magazine, that the source became publicly known.

The flash mob was originally created as a social experiment in the study of “scensterism,” derived from “scenester.” According to Wikipedia, the term “scenester” is often used to “describe types of young, recently-settled, urban, middle class adults and older teenagers with interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture, particularly alternative music, indie rock, independent film and magazines.”

Wasik said in an interview with Stay Free! magazine that the “original idea was to create an e-mail that would get forwarded around in some funny way, or that would get people to come to a show that would turn out to be something different or surprising. I eventually came up with a lazy idea, which was that the thing would just have one simple, in-your-face aspect to it, there wouldn’t be any show, and that the e-mail would be up-front in that it was inviting people to do basically nothing at all.”

The idea became that the people themselves would become the show and that just by responding to this random e-mail, they would, in a sense, create something. Why would people come to the flash mob? “Well, it would be the fact that if it went off as planned, lots of other people would be coming. The desire to not be left out was part of what would grow it,” says Wasik.

Following media exposure, Wasik’s e-mail account started to be flooded with eager messages from people wanting flash mobs in their hometowns. Wasik originally created the flash mob as a localized “parody of New York insiderness, and I didn’t anticipate the fact that it would take off in other places.”

Once it spread outside New York, it was seen as a movement. One of the first cities it spread to was Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a flash mob, known as “MOB the MOA,” took place in the Mall of America. It occurred on July 22, 2003 at 6:25 p.m. and the mobsters broke out in a robot dance routine that lasted for 10 minutes. Those who organized it wanted to send a  message of opposition to corporate space.

Howard Rheingold, author of “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution,” saw the flash mob as part of a larger trend. “Right now, it’s just people wanting to do something silly and it’s not hurting anybody, so what’s the harm?” he commented on smartmobs.com, a Web site that is dedicated to his book. “But it shouldn’t come as a surprise when this becomes a major outlet of political activism soon as well.”

Two strains of flash mobs have since developed: one explicitly political. An example of this was the First Amendment flash mob that took place every Tuesday for 30 weeks in 2004 near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. The mobsters went to locations around the Ground Zero site and pretended to talk on their cell phones, but were really reciting the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Over 10 minutes they slowly got louder and louder until they silently dispersed.

Devin Glaser assisted in putting together a zombie thriller flash mob in Seattle, Washington on October 25, 2009 to support one side in the national political debate over health insurance. “We all showed up dressed as zombies—some were pretty amazing. We held signs indicating that we had died because we lacked access to affordable health insurance, and performed a quasi-choreographed dance to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ ”

Many people have used flash mobs for political objectives since there is a natural intersection between flash mobs and the seemingly spontaneous ability to launch a protest.

The other popular flash mobs are silly ones in which people take part simply for the fun of it. In San Francisco, on July 16, 2003 mobsters went into the center of the financial district, on Market Street, and twirled along the crosswalks. According to media interviews, they simply wanted to bring silliness to a conservative place. In Seattle, a flash mob dedicated to the popular TV show “Glee” took place outside a busy downtown shopping center on April 10, 2010. Flash mob enthusiast Glaser spent more than eight hours practicing for the event.

“At exactly 1:00, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ (by the band Journey) came on over a loudspeaker as a small group...began to dance. People crowded around and acted surprised, as if we had no clue what was going on. At pre-planned moments in the mash-up, more people would jump in and begin dancing in line with those already moving, until we had approximately 1,000 people dancing in the park,” says Glaser.

A lot of preparation went into the event and “there was something magical about dancing in sync with a thousand other Seattleites,” says Glaser. “Feeling that connected to that large a selection of strangers from all age ranges and walks of life was absolutely amazing.”

Flash mobs can be comprised of strangers or be homogenized. Anna Bernstein, a student at Tufts University in Massachusetts, was in a flash mob on November 18, 2009 comprised of students in the dining hall. “There were about 300 of us from a dance group on campus that participated. We had learned a short dance to the song ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ (by Katy Perry) and started dancing at different times when the song was played during dinner.”

Instead of text messaging and social-networking sites, Bernstein “found out about the flash mob through the dance group; we were taught the choreography at rehearsal.” Bernstein says she “thought it would be fun and had a great time doing it. Most people were surprised and enjoyed watching the flash mob.”

While flash mobs are usually seen as harmless and fun, a resistance is growing toward them as some turn aggressive and violent. Events in Philadelphia; Boston; South Orange, New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York City resulted in arrests and injuries in 2009 and 2010. In those cases, teenagers ran through the streets or malls, vandalized property, fighting with each other and attacking bystanders. According to a report in The New York Times, Philadelphia police are receiving help from the FBI in monitoring social networking sites in an effort to stop flash mobs or at least keep them from turning into riots.

Bill Wasik commented to The New York Times that he was surprised by the new focus of some of the gatherings and that “it’s terrible that these Philly mobs have turned violent.” In May 2008, police stopped a planned flash mob in the United Kingdom over concerns for public health and safety.  

Flash mobs are covered in the United States by the First Amendment under freedom of assembly and association statutes that protect the rights of individuals to come together peacefully and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. The right to freedom of association has been included in a number of national constitutions and human rights instruments, including the U.S. Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, the U.S. Constitution does not give individuals an absolute right to enter and remain on private property to exercise their right to free expression. Due to this, most flash mobs occur on public property, such as streets and in parks. The government does have the right to intervene if the flash mob turns violent. However, there must be a “clear and present danger” or an “imminent incitement of lawlessness” before government officials may restrict free-assembly rights. 

Also, city and town governments have the right to require permits for large gatherings that may interfere with traffic or require extra clean-up. Holding a large gathering in a public place without a permit may be illegal in some municipalities, but flash mob organizers have not, as yet, been targeted by law enforcement. This is probably because the gatherings have been mostly peaceful and of short duration. The San Francisco Chronicle reports, however, that local officials there are considering enforcing their permit laws after a massive Valentine’s Day pillow fight in 2009 cost the city more than $20,000 to collect mounds of feathers that clogged storm drains. Many people, especially bystanders and store owners, are intimidated by the sudden mass of people, and are nervous about what the mobs may turn into.

Once an underground phenomenon, flash mobs are becoming a commonplace occurrence in society and pop culture. Shortly after Oprah Winfrey kicked off her television talk show’s 24th season on September 8, 2009, her staff and more than 20,000 people performed a choreographed dance piece to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Even Hollywood is falling in step. Entertainment Weekly recently reported that the NBC television network was in talks with pop singer and dancer Paula Abdul to create a competition show that would incorporate flash mobs.

The future of flash mobs is as unknown and unpredictable as the event is itself. As it grows and spreads, it will be changed and adapted to fit different cultures and people. Wasik explained in an interview with CNN in August 2009: “I called ours ‘inexplicable mobs.’ For some people, it is purely funny. For others, it is social—they like being out with people. For others, it is political—just getting out in the streets is a political act. I personally like it because it is aesthetic. I love seeing all the people come together, seemingly out of nowhere.”

Glaser is sure that flash mobs will continue. “They are too much fun to miss.”


Kaitlin McVey is a writer living in Seattle, Washington.