A flashmob is a large group of people who arrive spontaneously at a given location, perform an often inexplicable action, and then depart just as quickly as they appeared. The flashmob craze arose in the summer of 2003 and seems to has disappeared just as quickly1. The art of flashmobbing was generally made possible by the invention of email, and by the inherent strangeness of mankind.
The phrase 'flashmobbing' is a combination of two expressions. The first is 'flash crowd', a phrase which refers to the sudden appearance of a large number of people in a certain area. The second is 'smart mob', meaning a leaderless group of people who are directed by text messages or emails. Another slightly less catchy name for a flashmob is an 'inexplicable mob'. The possibility of flash-mobbing was actually predicted by Larry Niven in a short story in 1973, where he envisaged large numbers of people teleporting to view an important event.
How to Organise a Flashmob
The first step in flashmobbing is to persuade2 a large number of people by email to turn up somewhere that is usually frequented by a large number of people, and is near to the planned site of the flash-mobbing. The participants should be told to ask a certain person there, who is easily identifiable, for the details of the event. Alternatively, the participants could just be emailed the details straight away, but this risks ruining the supposed serendipity of the flashmobbing. The event itself should be held in an unlikely place, where the participants should do something either humorous or just downright weird, and then leave straight away. The result is a great deal of confusion or curiosity for those not involved.
Some Historic Flash Mobs
The first ever flashmobbing took place in a carpet shop in Manhattan when 150 people gathered around a particular rug, claiming that they lived together in a warehouse and were considering buying it. After exactly ten minutes, the crowd disappeared instantly. The whole thing was organised by Bill W, a street performance artist, and took place at precisely 7.27pm on 19 June, 2003.
Two months later, the UK experienced its first flashmobbing, with 300 people gathering in a sofa shop on Tottenham Court Road at 6.31pm on 8 August, 2003. After being sent an email, they received further instructions at three nearby pubs. The mobbers were directed to send a text message to a friend getting them to call them, then answer the call by saying they were at Flash Mob No 1 in London. Next they had to say 'Oh wow, what a sofa' and greet a stranger without using the letter 'o'. After just seven minutes and a spontaneous round of applause, the crowd disappeared. The sum effect of these actions was to bring short-lived fame to both the organiser of the mob, 'Mister Z', and the unsuspecting sofa shop owner.
At the height of the craze, flashmobbing spread to Europe, with a mob in Rome at a book store asking for 'Pinocchio 2: the Vendetta'3, and a host of inexplicable Berliners drinking a toast to 'Natasha' outside the American embassy. However, these are just some of the 'feats' achieved through flashmobbing, with many more possibilities still untouched.
What is the Point of Flash-mobbing?
Some flashmobs have no real reason, and are just done for fun. Others may be intended to achieve something, but then they may fall under a different banner — if a flash mob is no longer inexplicable, it is no longer a flash mob. On the Internet, flash-mobbing of a website can lead to the web server being overloaded, making the mobbing into a denial-of-service attack. However, pointless mobs can even form on the Internet in MMORPGs4 such as Everquest, and are often found voting en masse for a peculiar choice in an online poll5.
Of course, many flash mobs can be seen as social gatherings as although they are short-lived, they allow the spontaneous forming of a community in which the mobbers may feel happy to belong. Some even claim flashmobbing to be an art form, or an anthropological experiment.