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'Flash Mob' is the collective noun for a group of people who, having arrived in a predetermined location, perform an action of some sort for a short amount of time and then disperse. Organising a Flash Mob is generally done via Email with instructions sent out to various people detailing the meeting place and the action they should perform upon arrival.

‘Flash Mob’ was most likely coined from two other phrases:

Flash Crowd: An overwhelming increase in the number of web users attempting to access a web site. This tends to occur after an announcement is made or noteworthy news story reported on the site.

Smart Mob: A group of people whose activities and movements are coordinated using modern technologies such as the Internet or cell phones. A good example is soccer hooligans in the United Kingdom whose methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

An example of a Flash Mob occurred recently in Manhattan (where the first Flash Mob took place) when a group of individuals (between 300 and 500) congregated in the lobby of The Hyatt Hotel before applauding loudly for 15 seconds. They then filed out into the street. Europe’s first Flash Mob was in Rome. In this instance roughly 300 people descended on a books and music store. They proceeded to ask staff for non-existent books before bursting into spontaneous applause. A few moments later they left.

The reasons behind Flash Mobs are not completely clear, it could be a type of performance art or proof that some people have a little too much time on their hands, but it seems as if it is simply the actions of people who enjoying confusing hotel staff and carpet salesmen. To which I say, fair enough.

Flash Mobs are also known as Inexplicable Mobs. Anyone wishing to see photographs of the two ‘Mobs’ detailed above should visit Cheesebikini.com.

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:

Let’s mobilise.

These are the detailed instructions to Birmingham’s first flash MOB. Memorise them and then put them in your pocket.

Location:

Oxfam Shop, 95 Corporation Street.
Lat-Long: 52°28'51", -1°53'45"

Time: 12:12 pm

  1. At EXACTLY 12:12pm, form a crowd OUTSIDE the doors to the shop (it’s too small for all of us).
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. Continue to take it in turns to enter the shop and deposit clothes until 12:21 pm.
  5. 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.
  6. Smile. You just took part in the world’s first altruistic flash mob.

http://mobstirs.no-ip.org

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

sources:
1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/birmingham/features/2003/08/flash_mob/flash_mob.shtml
2. see paper version of http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/08/10/wmob10.xml
3. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mob_stirs/

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