Warning: You've Been Flash Mobbed!

Picture this: You're wandering around in a shopping mall in the early evening, or casually browsing a bookstore when, all of a sudden, a swarm of 100-200 people charge into the store and start muttering gibberish, or quack like ducks, or congregate around the magazine stand and flip through magazines while reading aloud, or bombard sales staff with bizarre questions. Then, just as mysteriously as they appeared, the crowd disperses, leaving behind confused and mystified storeowners and bystanders alike. Welcome to the era of Flash Mobs, folks, the latest fad sweeping the world.

From New York (its reputed origin) to L.A., and London to Cape Town, Flash Mobs have been "mobbing" designated locations around the world, for no other reason, it seems, than sheer enjoyment. To the delight (and tremendous help) of a bewildered media keen on attempting to not only report on the peculiar antics of Flash Mobs but also interpret their questionable cause, Mobsters have become the toast of the press and have generated a serious buzz. The moral of the story is: If you're a ("Flash") Mobster, you're cool; if you're not, well, get hip to this trend, why don't ya?

Ranging in age from 21-40 years old, the digitally connected Flash Mob participants (who are predominantly well-educated professionals) pay homage by assemblage to their guru, the Internet aficionado Howard Rheingold. Rheingold's new book, Smart Mobs: The Coming Social Revolution foretells the arrival of a digitally social revolution. As stated on Rheingold's website:

Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks. The technologies that are beginning to make smart mobs possible are mobile communication devices and pervasive computing ...
Rheingold, who has recently given a slew of press interviews, points to events such as the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle when protestors used "updated websites, cell phones, and 'swarming' tactics" to stage their overwhelming protests. In addition, he also claims "a million Filipinos toppled President Estrada through public demonstrations organized through salvos of text messages." Emails and cell phone messaging may indeed be the revolutionaries' mode of rally today, and so for Flash Mobs.

So far, at least, Flash Mobs are nonpolitical. But is the Flash Mob phenomenon a sign of other things to come? With the power of Internet groups, mass emails, and cell phone messages, Flash Mobs manage to gather together groups of people, many of whom are complete strangers.

According to most accounts, a 28-year-old New York resident who prefers to be recognized simply as "Bill" originated the first widely acclaimed Flash Mob in New York City this past June, when hundreds of Mobsters bombarded the carpet department at Macy's. They collectively demanded that they were looking for carpets for their commune, to the sheer amazement of the salesman on duty. The entire event was coordinated by a series of emails that were forwarded from one person to another.

However, the original Flash Mob in NYC had a drawback: a recipient of the Flash Mob email alerted the police to the happening, and a paddy wagon and a group of law enforcement officials showed up to thwart the Flash Mob. As a result, Mob leaders have taken extra precautions to ward off not only the police but also the press. Starting with New York, Mob sightings have now been reported in San Francisco, France, Italy, Korea, Toronto, and elsewhere, where Mobs, after synchronizing their watches, burst into thunderous applause at a designated time, or stand shoulder-to-shoulder in an effort to depict their "performance art".

So, what's the point of a Flash Mob? There is no point, apparently. As quoted in the Washington Post, Flash Mob participant Tom Grow, a web developer, described the phenomenon as such: "It's catching on mostly because of the spontaneity. With world events the way they are, people look at it as an escape." (21 August '03) Interesting, though, that -- as many have observed -- these so-called mobs haven't caused the alarm that perhaps they should, given the fact that we live in a post-9/11 world.

Perhaps the Flash Mob is nothing more than a harmless, passing fad. Fads, after all, have been the rage, particularly in the past century. From the 1920s when flagpole sitting became a fashionable trend, to gold fish swallowing, to phone-booth and Volkswagen "Bug stuffing", to streaking, similar fads have fascinated and swept the world, enlisting people who either engage in these activities because they are trying to make a point, or who participate for no other reason than to allay sheer boredom. Simply put, these people have time to spare, and they are tired with the routine of daily life.

Nor are Flash Mobs terribly unique, as a recent article in the L.A. Times states, "The Dadaists were doing this in Zurich in 1916 . . . Others point to the Situationists of late 50's-early 60s France, who called for art that would defy commodification, thus spawning events known as Happenings." (5 September '03) "Happenings" have also been ascribed to the 1960s Merry Pranksters, led by author Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and the rest of their merry gang, who indulged in tremendous amounts of various drugs, staged bizarre street antics, and defined an era of flamboyance and extreme excess.

More recent years have witnessed the odd antics of organizations such as the Cacophony Society,which proclaims it is "united in the pursuit of experiences . . . through subversion, perversion, art, fringe explanations, and madness" and through "love of cultural noise". A well-publicized and infamous event staged by the Cacophony Society, for example, is the SantaCon which involves hundreds of intoxicated members in Santa Claus costumes riding city subways or stampeding through department stores yelling "Ho Ho Ho!" -- all, apparently, for the mere hell of it.

What is significant in the modern-day Flash Mob scenario is, of course, the clever use of digital communication for spreading the word. As Rheingold said, our world, this global village, is now only a digital click away. Word of the Flash Mob phenomenon, which can be traced to the aforementioned Bill and his NYC Mobsters, spread like wildfire as a result of digital connections, and sprouted identical Flash Mob hysteria around the globe. A slew of websites, such as mobproject.com, now celebrate this phenomenon and alert participants to future Mob events.

Shock factor is really the desired effect and the appeal of the Flash Mob. Given the fact that most Flash Mob participants are largely educated professionals (ranging from students to bankers, Web developers to microbiologists), the typical signs of "trend-setters" can't be ignored. College students and well-educated members of society were also mainly responsible for earlier trends such as streaking and phone-booth stuffing.

Flash Mobs may be nothing more than a thing of sheer entertainment today, but as Rheingold asks, are they "early signs of something that's going to grow much bigger"? Most U.S. Flash Mobsters have hoped that the gatherings won't turn political, but there is a strong possibility, given the fast-approaching 2004 Presidential elections, that the Mob scene could take on a more political nature. (Howard Dean has already benefited greatly from his online savvy fans.) Stay tuned to random emails and the appearance of text messages on your mobile phones, folks; you might be called to join this new revolution.

Tara Taghizadeh is a PopMatters columnist and book critic.

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