Unwitting shoppers at the massive Toys "R" Us store on Times Square in New York City could have been excused for imagining that they had stumbled upon some sort of bizarre cult ritual. Back in 2003, a group of visitors to the store suddenly turned their attention away from Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe and focused en masse and intently on one of the store's big attractions: a giant, animatronics T-Rex dinosaur that moves and roars. While Toys "R" Us employees looked on, a group of shoppers -- who had all arranged to meet at the store beforehand -- first stared at the toy beast for three minutes and then began genuflecting and cowering beneath its gaze. Confused and nervous staffers at the store switched T-Rex off and called the police before the group had made it through what was supposed to be four minutes of what could best be described as toy dinosaur worship.
Far from being witnesses to a cult ceremony, employees and shoppers not in on the stunt at the toy retailer were actually watching one of the first flash mobs in history [source: Bigthink.com]. Part performance art, part social and technological experiment, part community bonding experience, flash mobs are events where strangers organized via e-mail and social networks gather in a public place in order to quickly (usually 10 minutes or less) do something meaningless and absurd together and then depart.
According to most reports, the idea for flash mobs originated with Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's Magazine, who has gone on to write and speak extensively about the phenomenon and its meaning. Others credit an actor named Charlie Todd for launching flash mobs, though his version brought together a network of his friends to engage in balloon fights and fake concerts. Regardless of its origin, flash mobs have become an entrenched part of 21st century global culture, with events taking place regularly in places as far flung as Amsterdam and Vancouver and the term earning a definition in the Oxford Dictionary.
Read on to find out how flash mob has come to mean many things to many people.
An Evolving Understanding of Flash Mobs
In the crush of media attention that has chronicled nearly a decade of flash mobs around the world, there are certainly plenty of events that meet the textbook definition of being text message and Internet-enabled confabs of strangers collectively doing something pointless. London's underground stations have been particularly popular flash mob spots over the years. For instance, Liverpool Street Station has been the location of what's known as a "silent disco," in which flash mobbers wearing MP3 players descend on the station and, at an agreed upon time, begin dancing to the tunes only they can hear through their earphones.
Yet as awareness and popularity has grown, plenty of well-planned get-togethers of non-strangers have begun to be termed flash mobs as well. For instance, a flash-mob performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in the summer of 2011 was likely a big surprise to visitors who were there that day; but members of the famous singing troupe obviously know one another and they're accomplished because they are so well practiced. It's also doubtful that those in the audience who enjoyed the concert or the members of the choir consider their talents pointless or meaningless.
A number of events held around the world have also been called flash mobs, even though organizers pointedly say they are not. One in particular, a pillow fight held annually in cities across the globe, is actually part of what's called the urban playground movement, which is not supposed to happen quickly, but is instead designed to encourage people to linger and get to know one another [source: Athavaley].
Other events labeled as flash mobs are sure to make purists scoff. Companies like Sears and Vitaminwater, for example, have hired Jason Laws to be director, choreographer and producer for marketing events they bill as flash mobs. Among his many tasks on these jobs, Law says, is to come up with a concept with his client and then storyboard how it will work, audition and hire performers, as well as secure permits from local authorities. Besides this commercial bent, flash mob is the term that was also applied to impromptu gatherings of young people in Philadelphia in 2010. Although they were organized via social media and brought together strangers, there was nothing fun about them: Stores were vandalized and innocent bystanders attacked, prompting criticism by the mayor and a crackdown by police [source: Urbina].
Keep reading to learn more about the allure of flash mobs.
Flash Mob Ideas
When Jeff Moriarty first learned about flash mobs, there was little chance that he wasn't going to participate in one. A veteran of improv comedy, the same impulse that made him enjoy the unscripted surprises and laughter that come out of those performances drew him to flash mobs. "I like making people laugh. I like doing the unexpected and surprising people and shaking up their world a bit," says Moriarty, who lives in Phoenix and is a founder of Improv AZ, an improv comedy group.
Moriarty's first flash mob was in January 2009, when he was one of around 100 participants in a so-called "no pants" flash mob, which took place on the city's newly opened light rail system. The bemused, surprised, delighted and disgusted looks on people's faces when Moriarty and others dropped their pants (they still had shirts, underwear and other clothing on) made it all worthwhile. "That's why I love it, those reactions," he says.
Besides the shock value, there are clearly other reasons so many people are eager to join flash mobs. Some are drawn by the in-person interaction it enables, a welcome counterpoint to all the online and virtual relationships prevalent today. Still others appreciate the spontaneous and creative nature of flash mobs. In that regard, there really is no limit to what can be done. For his part, Moriarty has participated in flash mobs where a group gets together for a fake protest, the only direction being to act passionately and come up with a three-word chant that nobody could interpret as being an actual cause: "I hate bananas" was one.
Another flash mob Moriarty helped organize involved around 100 people dressing up like Waldo from "Where's Waldo?" and showing up at a mall food court. If the definition of flash mob is loose enough to allow friends to participate and practice beforehand, then the result can be a choreographed dance routine; several flash mobs have mimicked the intricate moves of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.
Read on to learn some tips on organizing a flash mob.
Organizing a Flash Mob
One big appeal of flash mobs is that they can literally be organized by anyone with an idea who is willing to type out instructions on a keypad. When flash mob creator Bill Wasik first organized flash mobs in New York City, he did it in a very simple, straightforward way: He sent out e-mails to people in his address book and they forwarded the message along to their contacts. Today, people rely on all sorts of technology -- not just e-mail, but text messages, blogs and Facebook -- to get the word out about planned flash mobs.
But the viral nature inherent in social media also makes it hard to straddle the line between generating interest and keeping it secret enough to be a surprise. When Moriarty wants to keep his plans as under wraps as possible, he waits until just a couple of days before his event before sending out an e-mail to possible participants -- even by doing this, though, Moriarty knows there are no guarantees that the flash mob will be a complete surprise.
The message sent out is also important. If the goal is to organize an event that gives those who show up the opportunity to exercise a little creativity of their own, it's best to keep the instructions short, simple and fairly broad: A silent disco is popular because everyone can decide what music to listen to and how to dance.
Simple, general instructions are also best because flash mobs, at least in their original spirit, are leaderless. A few other tips for organizing a flash mob include picking as well known a public or quasi-public place for the gathering as possible -- attracting attention from passersby is a goal -- and scouring YouTube for ideas about what to do.
Professionals organizing flash mobs as marketing events are obliged to obtain permits and insurance. But generally speaking, contacting stores or the police asking for permission doesn't happen because it would ruin any chance for surprise. Common sense goes a long way in making sure nobody gets hurt or lands in jail. Picking an activity that doesn't damage property or risk injury is a helpful start and listening when police or private security say to stop or move on helps ensure there's not a bad ending.
- Athavaley, Anjali. "Students Unleash a Pillow Fight on Manhattan." The Wall Street Journal. April 15, 2008. (July 25, 2011) http://s.wsj.net/article/SB120814163599712081.html
- Avant, Gerry. "As a Flash Mob, Mormon Tabernacle Choir Sings at Colonial Williamsburg." Deseret News. June 21, 2011. (July 19, 2011) http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700145891/As-a-flash-mob-Mormon-Tabernacle-Choir-sings-at-Colonial-Williamsburg.html
- BBC News. "Smart mob storms London." Aug. 8, 2003. (July 20, 2011) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3134559.stm
- Bigthink.com. "Bill Wasik Introduces Flash Mobs." July 2, 2009. (July 19, 2011) http://bigthink.com/ideas/15375
- CNN World. "Facebook flash mob shuts down station." Feb. 9, 2009. (July 19, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2009-02-09/world/uk.station.flashmob_1_facebook-user-dancing-liverpool-street-station?_s=PM:WORLD
- Magee, Zoe. "Time Freezes in Central London." ABC News. April 30, 2008. (July 19, 2011) http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=4758736&page=1
- Moriarty, Jeff. Participant and organizer of Arizona flash mobs. Personal interview. July 28, 2011
- Oxford Dictionary. Definition of flash mob. (July 21, 2011) http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/flash+mob#m_en_gb0972977
- Shumeli, Sandra. "Flash mob craze spreads." CNN.com. Aug. 8, 2003. (July 20, 2011) http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/08/04/flash.mob/
- Urbina, Ian. "Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message." March 24, 2010. (July 20, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25mobs.html