PRINT Summer 2004


new-model flash mobs

IN AN OBSCURE 1973 STORY titled “Flash Crowd,” the science-fiction writer Larry Niven describes how an argument at a shopping mall, which happened to be covered by a news crew, swells into a riot. The broadcast riot in turn attracts the attention of other people, who use the widely available technology of the teleportation booth to swarm first that event—thus intensifying the riot—and then other breaking events. One character in Niven’s story, articulating the police view, says, “We call them flash crowds, and we watch for them.”

More than three decades later, in August 2003, at the Sawgrass Mills shopping mall in Sunrise, Florida, a group of thirty people who had assembled at a predetermined spot were given cards with a specific set of instructions: Exchange dollar bills with one another, then drop them on the ground, presumably to be picked up by passing shoppers. But the dollar drop never happened: As the event’s organizer was distributing the cards, mall security approached and demanded that the group cease and desist.

The event in question was an aspirant “flash mob,” in which an “inexplicable crowd”—as described by the originator of the first mob, a New Yorker known simply as “Bill”—is summoned to a particular location via e-mail or SMS to engage in a loosely choreographed activity. Bill first dubbed his efforts the Mob Project, a phrase that soon became conflated with Niven’s coinage, which interestingly had already been co-opted to refer to sudden spikes in Internet traffic. Beginning in the spring of 2003, a series of flash mobs, originating in New York City but soon proliferating across the globe, began to appear. In New York, a hundred people grouped at Macy’s to inquire about buying a giant “love rug” for their “suburban commune,” and subsequent mobs amassed in a Hyatt lobby (where they broke into applause) and infested a SoHo shoe store. In Rome, several hundred people flooded a bookstore and requested a book that does not exist, while in New Zealand some two hundred assembled at a Burger King and mooed for a minute before quickly dispersing. In Moscow, a group of “neocommunist” activists with the KPRF flocked to the steps of the Pushkin Theater, which was screening The Matrix Revolutions, clad in Russian Civil War–era attire and “Neo” sunglasses (clearly, they had taken the red pill). Police had to be convinced the event was not a demonstration. “Our law enforcement bodies have yet to learn what a flash mob is,” one of the organizers told Wired. “But in the end they let us go ahead with the event and everything went fine.”

What the flash mobs had in common with the historical antecedents in Niven’s short story is that they always seemed to take place under the gaze of some media eye, and, fueled by what Margaret Thatcher once called the “oxygen of publicity,” they attracted flash crowds of their own—i.e., the viewers and readers who flocked to each absurdist exercise—and grew in importance beyond their physical numbers.

As it happens, this is exactly what Bill had in mind when he began last year to plot a project that would use the power of e-mail distribution to bring people to some kind of show. “At a certain point,” he says, “I began to think: What if there wasn’t a show at all?” Trying to exploit the particular desires of New Yorkers to “be at the center of things, to find the next big thing,” he extrapolated the idea of people gathering someplace simply because they knew there was going to be a crowd. He compares it to an art opening without art, where the sole cultural production is “people self-consciously frolicking in their own self-regard.” An influence for him was Adrian Dannatt’s The Three, begun in 1990, a project in which the only art generated by the Three, a series of changing, always attractive models, is in fact the coverage of the Three.

As media coverage inevitably disseminated the phenomenon of the flash mob, befuddled clerks were interviewed, while police and security officials soberly assessed the public-safety implications. People in places ranging from Minneapolis to Edinburgh suddenly decided that whatever a flash mob was, they, too, wanted to be in one, as if no town worth its cultural-capital salt could be so ill equipped as to not have twenty-five strangers milling about a Pottery Barn making strange gestures. By September, after being processed for six months through the cultural cycle, from incipient rumor to the cusp of reification, the New York flash mob was a thing of the past. The idea, meanwhile, stayed alive, like a virus spreading from server to server. Not without corruptions, however: Last November in India, a month after the country’s first reported flash mob, a few dozen people outside a mall in Mumbai began chanting the name of a television show. “We [organized] flash mobs, had people who would get into local trains carrying pink umbrellas and discuss the program. . . . This got people curious and made them switch to our channel,” said the Sony executive who arranged the event.

Bill, a worker in what he calls the “culture industry,” noted the circular logic of the dutifully reported flash mobs, events that seemed to receive attention merely because they happened and which happened merely to draw attention (there were no private flash mobs). “It’s a spectacle for spectacle’s sake—which is silly but is also, as I’ve discovered somewhat to my surprise, genuinely transgressive, which is part of its appeal, I think,” he told Agençe France-Presse. “People feel like there’s nothing but order everywhere, and so they love to be a part of just one thing that nobody was expecting.” Bill’s comments were echoed by a Singapore flash mob, which identified its members as “urban misadventurers bent on breaking up the blah . . . in a city that is used to a routine of shopping and consuming.”

The apparent lack of an overt political program—or any other instrumentalist regimen—might have been the most political thing of all about the flash mobs. In an age when protest marches must have permits and are corralled into warrens of secure space and when much of civic life takes place in carefully scripted and architecturally overdetermined ersatz public spaces such as shopping malls, there is something winningly subversive in the idea of the unannounced, spontaneous gathering for no apparent purpose. While Bill notes that an implicit statement on the orientation of private space toward consumption (then again, what else are stores for?) can be read into the mobs, he says he “doesn’t feel that what was most interesting about the mobs could be salvaged in a form that was truly political—these things had to be ephemeral, ten minutes or less, and absurd.”

Sudden crowds—the silent materializations of the Falun Gong in China, for example—have a way of making authorities nervous (though the organized crowd can also be used as a tool of political control, as in the mass demagoguery of North Korean pageants). Elites, meanwhile, maintain a long-standing distrust of crowds, equating them with panics and other irrational behaviors, historically associating democracy itself with rule by the mob. (James Surowiecki contraverts this bias against the participation of the masses in his recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which makes a convincing case for diverse group involvement producing the best results in everything from predicting the outcomes of sporting events to creating a vaccine for SARS.) But the flash mob, unlike a traditional rally crowd, seeps through the legal boundaries and cultural expectations of why people gather in crowds. It may be illegal to hold a political rally without a permit or to hand out political flyers in a public space, but is it illegal when a group congeals out of the ether in a hotel lobby to perform a seemingly nonsensical act and then dissolves before anyone knows what action to take, if any?

Around the flash mob hovers an obvious air of the Yippies, the Diggers, the Dutch Provos, and any number of purveyors of 1960s Happenings. In Allan Kaprow’s Push Pull, 1965, for example, a New York theater audience was given forty minutes to collect whatever trash or debris they desired outside the theater and then return with their finds (they were intercepted by suspicious police upon reentry). Kaprow’s description of the genre seems germane to the flash mob: “A Happening, unlike a stage play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen, either at once or sequentially. . . . The Happening is performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life.” Happenings were besieged as well by the mass media, but when Kaprow changed the name to “activities,” the interest abated.

Bill’s use of the word “spectacle” reveals an implicit debt to Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Debord was intent on disrupting the predetermined, fragmented psychogeography of the contemporary city, as in his theory of the dérive, “a passionate uprooting through the hurried change of environments.” One such deracination was the “possible rendezvous,” in which a person might be asked to be present at a certain location at a certain time to meet someone he did not know; to discover his party would involve introducing himself to all manner of strangers. Flash mobs, which usually involve trying to find an anonymous person carrying further instructions, echo the possible rendezvous, even if their spontaneity is rather artificial—after all, everyone’s in on the joke.

What the Situationist generation lacked, however, for all its emphasis on spontaneity, was the flexible temporal and spatial coordination allowed by wireless technology. The flash mob hints at larger possibilities: What if Happenings involving tens of thousands of people could be generated—a kind of real-life invocation of the Massive computer-graphics software used in Lord of the Rings to create the realistic cast of those digital thousands (each “acting” independently) summoned by Sauron—through networked messaging? In his book Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold describes how cell phones and text-messaging capabilities were deployed by Filipinos in the 2001 protests that peacefully brought down the regime of Joseph Estrada. Messaging aided not only in the logistical and tactical deployments of the protesters but in creating a sense of shared purpose. He quotes political scientist Vincente Rafael: “It is in this sense that we might also think of the crowd not merely as an effect of technological devices, but as a kind of technology itself.” Something of that logic underscored a recent experiment, named “flashmob,” by the University of San Francisco that involved the linking of hundreds of personal computers to build an enormous five-hundred-gigaflop supercomputer. “Flashmob is about democratizing supercomputing,” the organizer said. “It’s about giving supercomputing power to the people so that we can decide how we want supercomputers to be used.”

There seems to be an analogy for building a hardwired body politic, using more refined versions of flash mobs. Spain recently saw what the website Boing Boing termed “flash mobs with a purpose,” i.e., the spontaneous assembly of thousands of protestors in front of the Partido Popular offices after the March 11 bombings. The assembly was denounced as illegal, but since it had been organized through the decentralized spread of messages, it could not be attributed to any one group (an organizational structure that eerily matches the terrorist cells responsible for the bombing). Bill, indeed, argued that while he issued the time and place of the New York mobs’ assembly and action, he was not their leader. “In my mind [the mob] is led by whoever forwards the e-mail around,” he told Wired. “People make the mob through whoever they know.” Call it the Friendster theory of democracy. In activist cadres, there are those now trying to take flash mobs to a more functional level, e.g., the “distributed protest,” akin to a distributed “denial of service” attack on the Internet. It seems inevitable that this summer’s Republican National Convention, in the birthplace of the flash mob, will see new-model flash mobs on display, though their antics may be lost amid the larger theater of the absurd.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).