Before flash mobs became a fashionable way to confuse tourists, the earliest meet-ups spread through technology were used as political tools. The Philippines and Spain had already seen protests form through text message and cell phone; the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle were mobilized through cell phone contact.
More recently, the world was introduced to flash mobs that were (literally) revolutionary. In 2010, an Egyptian flash mob was organized through Facebook to protest the killing of a young man by Alexandrian police. The "Silent Protest" was simple. Participants lined up and faced the ocean in silence, before marching away single file.
This protest in many ways foreshadowed the events of early 2011, when Egyptians formed spontaneous protests through social media that eventually led to the resignation of then-president Hosni Mubarak.
Mobs with a politically-oriented bent were also seen in the United States. In the early days of flash mobs, Garry Trudeau wrote an invite into a September 2003 "Doonesbury" comic. The mob wasn't just a fun way to capitalize on a trend: it also served to advertise a meet up to support then-presidential candidate Howard Dean.
While "flash mobs" generally refer to the spontaneous gatherings started in 2003 by Bill Wasik, there are other groups -- such as Improv Everywhere -- that create flash mob-type scenes. Although Improv Everywhere's 2001 founding actually predates Wasik's flash mobs, their scenes are a bit different. Instead of quick, choreographed meet-ups, their scenes are more like public pranks (a subway inexplicably filled with pantless commuters, a Best Buy filled with non-employees wearing the uniforms of the staff). Their "missions" are also only occasionally open to all volunteers, and Improv Everywhere regulars usually execute the missions.
So while flash mobs were invented to snidely acknowledge hipster know-it-all, it was only a matter of time before they were corralled into mainstream culture to do what American culture does best: sell crap. Spaces now hire firms to set up flash mobs to generate interest in a new mall or shopping center, and even the National Recreation and Parks Association is sponsoring a contest to judge the flash mob that will best bring "people together in the place or space."
If you're interested in joining, watching, or mocking flash mobs -- or other scenes of public culture -- check out the next page for more information and links.