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Flash Mob refers to any online-coordinated event in which an ad-hoc group of participants meet up at a central location for various purposes. While certain flash mobs may convey a political or commercial message, they are usually organized for the spontaneous amusement of the participants and bewilderment of bystanders.
The concept of improvising a public assembly was first denoted as a “smart mob” in author Howard Rheingold’s book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution published in 2002. The term “flash mob” was coined a year later by Harper’s Magazine senior editor Bill Wasik, who organized the first flash mob event at Macy’s department store in New York City on June 3rd, 2003, following a failed attempt earlier in May.
Love Rug Project
Arranged by Wasik via e-mail invites, more than 130 people gathered around an expensive rug on the ninth floor of Macy’s under the premise that the group was shopping for a “love rug” to decorate their warehouse space in the outskirts of New York.
Subsequently, 200 people flooded the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds and a shoe boutique in SoHo was invaded by participants pretending to be tourists on a bus trip. In an interview with Wired magazine, Wasik said:
“The idea is mine, and I write the e-mails, but I don’t think of myself as the leader of the mob,” Bill wrote in an e-mail. “In my mind (the mob) is led by whoever forwards the e-mail around. People make the mob through whoever they know.”
Similar events of spontaneous nature have been documented earlier in the late 1950s with the emergence of “Happenings,” a type of public performance art characterized by its nonlinear narratives and active audience participation. In 2002, Charlie Todd launched the participatory group project Improv Everywhere with an event known as “No Pants Subway Ride” Day in the New York City subway.
As early as in 1992, bicycling meetups based on a related concept known as “Critical Mass” began to emerge across the cities in the United States, which spread over 300 cities across the world by December 2003. The purpose of the event is loosely defined beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time to travel as a group through city or town. However, Critical Mass rides have been perceived as political protest and social movement by the news media, particularly after the protest ride at the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan.
The “Love Rug” mob quickly spread through the newsvines and blogosphere, including coverage by local news stations as well as national news programs. Soon, similar meetups with a wide range of themes were reported in the following months of July and August. The first European flash mob meet up was held in Rome, Italy on July 24th that same year, in which over 300 people arrived at the same bookstore and began asking about nonexistent book titles. The videos of flash mob meet-ups were later posted onto YouTube.
The term “flash mob” has since become strong associated with spontaneous group actions that are mainly organized through online communications, such as a blog, short message, or mass text message.
Improv Everywhere is a comedy group loosely affiliated with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater that uses a blog to arrange large-scale flash mob performances. Since its launch in 2002, Improv Everywhere has gained prominence through a number of successful flash mob events including NYC No Pants Subway Ride, Freeze and the MP3 Experiment. In one famous example, they coordinated over 200 participants to go into Grand Central Station individually and at a freeze for a fixed amount of time all at the same cue:
In another event, they had 111 men walk into the Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store in New York and take off their shirts, mocking the store’s use of male nudity in their advertising and branding:
Pillow Fight flash mobs are also very common, in which participants are invited to bring their own pillows and engage in a pillow fight.
Break Out In Song
Break Out In Song is a group that coordinates amateur singers and dancers into large scale recreations of famous musical numbers at notable New York City landmarks. Here is an example in which hundreds of participants posing as tourists at the USS Intrepid suddenly break out into a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, complete with a tap dancing sequence.
Michael Jackson Tribute
Shortly after the death of Michael Jackson’s death in June 2009, a series of flash mobs were organized in North America and Europe following the event in Stockholm, Sweden" in tribute his iconic dance from “Beat It.”
Several interest groups have used flash mobs to raise awareness about political causes. On May 19th, 2010, San Francisco based LGBT rights organization “Pride at Work” organized a flash mob set to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in the lobby of a Hilton being boycotted for failing to provide equal rights to gay and lesbian domestic partners of its co-workers.
Occupy Wall Street also began as an Adbusters article posted on July 13th, 2011, which called on 20,000 people to assemble in lower Manhattan on September 17th, 2011 and establish a camp site on Wall Street in protest of corporate greed. Since its inception, flash mob has been used by some demonstrators to stage protests in banks, auction houses and corporation buildings. On October 15th, 2011, between 10,000 and 20,000 people came to New York City’s Times Square for “Occupy Times Square,” a grassroots flashmob event held in support of Occupy Wall Street.
Several public relations firms have incorporated Flash Mob as a way to promote products or to gain online buzz. Trident’s Unwrapped was an internet media campaign that arranged several choreographed group scenes in high profile landmarks.
A Belgian television station promoting a new reality tv series staged a large performance of “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound of Music” in the Antwerp train station.
Controversy: Flash Robs
Dubbed “flash rob,” the first criminal practice of flash mob was reported in April 2011, after about 20 people filed into a high-end jeans store in Dupont Circle Washington D.C. and managed to get away with $20,000 in stock. Similar mass thefts have been since reported across North America, including Dallas, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Ottawa as well as towns in Maryland and Pennsylvania. According to Wired, a National Retail Federation’s survey held in August revealed that a full 10 percent of businesses surveyed had experienced a “flash mob”-style theft.
In Popular Culture
Flash mobs have since gained the attention of mainstream media sources as well. In the Weeds Season 5 premiere, Nancy Botwin is hanging out at a food court when the crowd spontaneously breaks into dance. She asks a cellphone-video-capturing teenager what it’s all about and he says “because it’s cool”.
In Law & Order: SVU, flash mobs are a major plot device in the episode “Authority.” A clever suspect arranges a flash mob in the style of Improv Everywhere, and another in the format of “Pillow Fight Day”, in order to create a distraction during which he evades the police.