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Good Mob, Bad Mob

The art of the flash mob: an amusing concept easily ruined.

by Mark D. Johnson
September 24, 2003

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Good Mob, Bad Mob_Mark D. Johnson-Flash mobs: an amusing concept easily ruined. It's not often we average folks find ourselves in an unexpectedly surreal situation, but our changes have improved slightly with the recent popularity of staged events called "flash mobs." Imagine unwinding at an Irish pub in New York City when suddenly hundreds of people pour in, stand around the juke box and begin chirping like birds. Moments later, all of the chirpers are gone, and the impromptu audience is left to ask, “What the hell was that?” Well, it was a flash mob, and it took place on July 24.

For those unaware of this growing international trend, flash mobs are organized anonymously through the internet, where willing participants are instructed to meet suddenly at a certain time and place, prepared to perform some harmlessly ludicrous act in front of unsuspecting bystanders before dispersing immediately thereafter. If all goes well, non-participants in the vicinity will witness a seemingly spontaneous outbreak of bizarre behavior for a few minutes before the quick return to normalcy. In theory, no one is hurt, nothing is damaged, and all have a good laugh at the randomness of it all.

Flash mobs were supposedly inspired by Howard Rheingold in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, a study of technology’s impact on social interaction. The very first flash mob, according to reports, was organized by "Bill" in New York City this past summer. Bill e-mailed 50 of his friends and told them to meet at a particular retail store. When store employees were tipped off, the mob quickly changed its plans and met at a Macy’s department store, where they began discussing whether to buy a “love rug” in the home furnishings department. The crowd disappeared a few minutes later, leaving behind a bewildered Macy’s staff. It wasn't long before other reports of flash mobs surfaced: a mob in London entered a bookstore frantically seeking a non-existent book title; they slapped their shoes on sidewalks in Brazil; and in Minneapolis they simultaneously set their cell phones ringing outside Orchestra Hall.

Generally speaking, I like this crazy movement. Flash mobs, when conducted responsibly, offer the public a short, silly break from everyday life; a chance to see something previously unimaginable. They have potential to be a kind of performance art that the general public can enjoy and discuss. Unfortunately, they can also be ill-conceived pranks akin to a class of second-graders conspiring to drop their pencils at precisely 2:00 PM in attempt to annoy the teacher. It's entirely possible that the truly worthy and amusing flash mobs will disappear altogether as the concept gets hijacked by immature knock-offs and publicity stunts. By my own reckoning, foolhardy flash mobs outnumber clever ones by about three to one. The proliferation of stupid mobs gives flash mobs a bad name and will likely hasten the death of this “art form”.

In effort to help the less inspired organizers, I now present:

A Partial Observer’s Guide to Successful Flash Mobs

There have already been a few unofficial rules established for flash mob participants, such as don’t come just to watch, don’t do any damage, don’t tell the cops. Here, then, are some rules for organizers:

  1. Avoid places of business.

    Though it is common among flash mob plans, there is too much potential for unintended damage. Case in point: An Aukland, New Zealand mob was instructed to enter a Burger King, frown and point at the menu, then smile at the puzzled employees, cheer for them and leave. Oops – when the manager on duty saw the enormous crowd, extra food was quickly prepared and subsequently thrown away when none of it was ordered. Even the Irish pub example cited above is too disruptive. A much better plan was scheduled for a public place in Munich last August: participants were to gather around a golden statue, open an umbrella, circle the statue in clockwise motion, applaud, then leave. (By the way, applause or cheering is also a common theme – it’s so last July. Avoid it.)

  2. Don’t get political.

    The whole idea is just to be silly. Injecting a flash mob with a political agenda is an unacceptable corruption. Earlier this month, a character in Gary Trudeau’s politically-charged Doonesbury comic strip organized a flash mob to promote Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean at Seattle’s Space Needle on September 13th at 10:35 AM. Participants were to hop around saying “The doctor is in.” When the day came, about a hundred people actually showed up, though some started chanting “Howard Dean” and many loitered around afterward. Not a proper flash mob by any means, but to be fair, who knows what Trudeau’s intentions were? Political flash mobs will anger the public. Don’t do it.

  3. No commercial ties.

    One of New York’s early flash mobs had people going to a major toy store in Manhattan to bow down to a giant dinosaur. It was criticized by mob purists for providing free publicity for the store. Marketing firms have already staged mobs to promote a line of teen clothing. An arts organization in Lawrence, Kansas planned to hold a flash mob to hype an art event. Participants will hand out fliers. Isn’t that pathetic?

  4. Do not disrupt traffic.

    Remember the war protesters back in March or so who exercised their freedom of speech by blocking traffic in New York and other cities? This is bad mob mentality.

  5. Surprise the public, don’t alarm them.

    A flash mob was planned for Chicago’s John Hancock Center in which participants were to begin coughing. What a terrible idea, when bio-terrorism is a real threat. I don’t know if it actually ever happened, but to conduct a mob like this is irresponsible and quite possibly a new federal offense.

  6. Keep your shirt on.

    No doubt some frat boys somewhere are hatching a plan to take the flash mob name literally. For the sake of a reasonably functional civilization, please, no nudity.

  7. No advance publicity.

    It’s all very interesting that flash mobs are organized via technology and all, but for crying out loud, don’t post your plan on your website. In perhaps the most publicized planned mob to date, organizers in London have announced that a flash mob will occur during the last week of street magician David Blaine’s stunt in which he is attempting, in public view, to go without food for 45 days. Participants are to torment Blaine with fragrant food. Not only does this public announcement lack taste, but it is mean-spirited as well. Bad form.

  8. No photos or video.

    If pictures or video of your event make the news or even the web, you have failed miserably.

    The now-legendary “Bill” conducted what is rumored to be his last flash mob last week in New York. A crowd was asked to appear on a street where they would cheer wildly for a performer. A website documenting this event displayed several uninteresting pictures (including the one that accompanies this article), reported confusion among the participants, and failed to describe what the performer did and how many, if any, innocent bystanders were on hand to witness it. In other words, it was a miserable failure from the inventor of flash mobs. O, Bill, we hardly knew thee...
Sure, flash mobs are silly, trendy, often stupid, and they might already be passé. But at a time when we see tragedy in the news on a daily basis, flash mobs remind us that the unexpected can be a good thing. Keep it up, guys, and may your mobs be smart.

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