As promised on August 7, 2003, the following write up is the result of my participation in the flash mob that took place in Birmingham (UK) later that month.
Upon arriving at the location specified in the first set of instructions, we were handed a piece of paper. On it were the following directions:
These are the detailed instructions to Birmingham’s first flash MOB. Memorise them and then put them in your pocket.
Oxfam Shop, 95 Corporation Street.
Lat-Long: 52°28'51", -1°53'45"
Time: 12:12 pm
- At EXACTLY 12:12pm, form a crowd OUTSIDE the doors to the shop (it’s too small for all of us).
- Remove the article of clothing you have brought with you and begin to wave it over your head whilst singing the chorus to ‘Give It Away’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and/or cheering and whooping.
- Form a cue from the door to the counter. Quickly take it turns to place the article of clothing on the counter, and then rejoin the REAR of the mob OUTSIDE the shop (if you are at the front, make space for people to get out).
- Continue to take it in turns to enter the shop and deposit clothes until 12:21 pm.
- At EXACTLY 12:21 pm the mob should disperse IMMEDIATELY. If you haven’t been able to get into the shop yet, don’t worry, you still took part. Come back another time and donate something. There are at least SIX different exits possible, including two arcades – use them.
- Smile. You just took part in the world’s first altruistic flash mob.
The event was a success. Around sixty people (including families who brought their kids out for the day) descended on Oxfam and left the shop assistants with startled expressions and a huge pile of donated clothes1. In the months that followed I exchanged a few e-mails with the organisers. Throughout the process, they had maintained a strict anonymity, declining any interviews and never revealing their identity. At the event itself, it transpired that the people issuing the instructions had never even met them. They were directed to a box, behind a gravestone next to St Phillips Cathedral; in it were the sheets containing the instructions reproduced above. It's doubtful the moberators were even in the city that day. It seems to me that anonymity is the key driving force for both participant and organizer.
"We got into this project because we could see the value in people expressing themselves in a way that didn't require them to act in a politically motivated way. We hope that the proof of that will be demonstrated by the varying age ranges we seem to have attracted. Some may argue that donating to a charity organisation is not apolitical. We don't think so. We believe the act of giving can happily be performed without requiring a specific cause."
City dwellers need anonymity. The density of people in a city means that we must all choose our network of friends and then ignore the rest. The emotional effort required to engage socially with everyone would burn you out. The paradox here is that we also naturally strive to be a part of something greater; to find a common ground that we can share with others and position ourselves against other cultures/generations/societies. Without this the anonymity becomes oppressive rather than liberating. Ask the guy on the bus who's gaining looks of disgust from the other passengers because he's speaking out loud to imaginary friends and nearby strangers.
The flash mob feeds both these ideas. Acting as a group - however briefly - gains you access to a club. For a short but sweet moment of complete equality, a group of strangers act as one. However, before you reach the point that would ordinarily require you to engage with other individuals, the mob disperses, allowing you to retreat to the safety of your anonymity.
"It's not about us and it's not about claiming Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. You will not see us posing for dodgy photos in the Sunday Telegraph and calling ourselves Mr Zee; unlike a certain London organiser pictured in last weekends paper."2
The web site for the Birmingham flash mob was shut down on the afternoon of the event. The organisers announced that there would only be one Birmingham event. Their e-mail address now only provides error messages in return. The quotes above are taken from correspondence exchanged before their disappearance. However, we should note that they still have admin rights to a 350+ strong e-mail list.3
2. see paper version of http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/08/10/wmob10.xml