By now, so many groups have pulled off successful flash mobs, it's hard to believe the very first one was a bust. Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's magazine who's known as the "inventor" of the flash mob, sent an e-mail to about 60 friends and acquaintances in May 2003, asking them to meet up at a particular time in front of a Claire's Accessories store near Astor Place in Manhattan to create "an inexplicable mob of people in New York City" [source: Wasik].
Calling this social experiment "MOB," Wasik intended to poke fun at the fleeting, collective whims of hipster culture, and he planned out every detail of the event, down to having attendees synchronize their watches and approach from all four cardinal directions, so they'd all arrive at the same time. But there was one problem: Somebody tipped off the cops. When MOB participants showed up at Claire's that spring day, police blocked their entrance to their store, making Wasik's first flash mob attempt a failure [source: Wasik].
Since then, of course, flash mobs have taken on a life of their own, occurring all over the world and for a variety of reasons: to bring awareness to good causes, to commemorate cultural icons, to stir up buzz about products, and even just to create acts of public silliness. Some have involved tens of thousands of participants and been viewed many times over in video form.
Many flash mobs could be described as mind-blowing, but for this list, we'll look at a few that have received millions of views on YouTube, and a couple, like the first one on our list, that were pivotal in the development of the fad.
After Bill Wasik's first MOB fizzled, he quickly set about planning for another attempt just two weeks later in June 2003 -- and this time he took steps to make sure the police wouldn't catch wind of the plan. He asked participants to gather at four different bars the day of second event, and just 10 minutes before it was to take place, they received slips of paper telling them where to go: Macy's rug department. Once there, all 200 mobbers convened around a particular carpet and, as instructed, told sales associates that they were Long Island City commune residents looking for a "love rug" [source: Wasik].
Thus, Wasik proved that he could get people to create a scene just for the sake of doing it, and this second MOB was considered a success. Furthermore, it made national headlines as people tried to get to the bottom of how and why this social experiment actually worked. Blogger Sean Savage of Cheesebikini.com coined the term "flash mob" to describe the phenomenon of groups gathering for spontaneous performances at pre-planned locations, and a trend was born [source: Wasik].
This flash mob, which took place in Manchester, England, on March 14, 2007, gets the "mind-blowing" designation in part because a YouTube video of the event has been viewed more than 6 million times over the past four years. And it's no wonder. The video, which credits three University of Manchester students -- Ben Cooper, Thomas Cousins and Lucy Mans -- captures several dozen supermarket shoppers attempting a mass freeze frame for about four minutes.
As the scene opens at around 5:30 p.m. on that Wednesday in March, everyone in the supermarket appears to be shopping normally. Suddenly there's the sound of a train going by, and by the time the sound passes, about 50 supermarket customers have frozen in place examining produce, talking with friends -- some are even lying on the floor or sitting in shopping carts. Non-participating customers step gingerly around the mannequinlike freeze-framers, who don't budge until a whistle blows several minutes later, and the whole performance ends as suddenly as it began.
It's not the most-watched video on YouTube; nor is it the best-attended flash mob in history. But this event that took place in Mexico City on August 29, 2009 -- just weeks after pop icon Michael Jackson's death, on what would have been his 51st birthday -- holds a record of a different kind. It's in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest "Thriller" dance ever [source: Guiness].
The Instituto de la Juventud del Gobierno del Distrito Federal organized this flash mob at the Monumento a la Revolucion in Mexico City, and 13,597 people participated [source: Guiness]. The only directive appears to have been to perform the "zombie dance" from "Thriller" music video, and many participants went dressed as zombies, though some were dressed as the pop singer himself. Because the event happened before the shock of Jackson's death had fully subsided, videos of the event made it to mainstream newscasts worldwide.
Some flash mobs are shocking due to their sheer spontaneity. This one, which took place on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on Sept. 8, 2009, may mesmerize you because of how well-choreographed it is. It took place during a live Black Eyed Peas performance of the song "I Got a Feeling" for The Oprah Winfrey Show's Season 24 kickoff party, and involved a crowd of about 21,000 people dancing in unison [source: Riley]. The dancing bug appeared to spread gradually throughout the crowd. It started with just a lone dancer in front of the stage, hopping up and down enthusiastically as everyone else stood stoically around her. Soon, a half-dozen other dancers joined in to her left, right and behind her. And the wave spread.
Australian Michael Gracey produced the event and cast several professional dancers to take part [source: Riley]. The day of the event, those professionals taught the dance to several hundred Oprah fans in the crowd, and several thousand more just caught on during the performance. Videos of the dance show Winfrey watching the spectacle with delight and, at the end, shouting, "This is the coolest thing ever!"
This flash mob, which took place in the Welland Seaway Mall in Ontario on Nov. 13, 2010, makes the list largely because of the mind-blowing number of views the online video for it has racked up in less than a year -- more than 34 million, to be accurate. But the event itself is also pretty amazing. Organized by Alphabet® Photography with help from the singers of Chorus Niagara, it kicked off in the mall's food court at high noon, just as several shoppers were taking a lunch break under the glaring signs of Arby's, Gino's Pizza and Famous Wok.
Suddenly, the sound of an organ broke into the din of people conversing over their fast-food meals. The opening bars to a familiar Handel tune floated through the air, and a young girl on a cell phone stood up at the edge of the scene. In a powerful soprano, she opened the chorus: "Haaaa-le-lu-jah! Haaa-le-lu-jah!" Other singers joined in across the food court -- some standing on chairs, others sitting at tables, and still others lurking along the edges of the crowd. Bystanders pulled out their cameras and started recording. Eventually, there were about 100 singers participating.
Alphabet® Photography is said to have orchestrated this flash mob "to wish everyone a Merry Christmas," which is a far cry from the lofty goals of Bill Wasik's first flash mob attempts back in 2003. Perhaps it's just one sign of how much flash mobs have evolved over the years, though they never cease to shock and amaze.
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- Christmas Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus. November 17, 2010 (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXh7JR9oKVE
- Guiness Book of World Records. "Largest Thriller Dance." http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/records-5000/largest-thriller-dance/ (Sept. 5, 2011)
- Riley, Marcus. "Oprah's Flash-Mob Style Dance." NBC Chicago. September 15, 2009. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.nbcchicago.com/the-scene/events/Oprahs-Flash-Mob-Style-Dance-58166602.html
- Supermarket Flash Mob, Manchester. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4GMXavfKPY (Aug. 25, 2011)
- Thriller Dance, Mexico City. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7z8ZiRcQ9Q&feature=fvwrel
- Wasik, Bill. "My Crowd: Or, phase 5." Harper's. March 2006. (Sept. 5, 2011) http://harpers.org/archive/2006/03/0080963
- Wasik, Bill. "And then there's this: How stories live and die in viral culture." Penguin, 2009.