Flash Mob - empowers citizens
"these same tools that used to push us apart, are now bringing us back together"
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Aug. 5) - About 200 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, crowd into the card section of the Harvard Coop bookstore, pretending to look for a card for ``Bill.''
On cue, they burst into spontaneous applause.
It's another "flash mob'' strike, wherein a crowd, organized by e-mail lists and Web sites, converges in pre-arranged location and performs a wacky, harmless stunt for a few minutes in public.
The crowd then abruptly disappears, leaving bystanders befuddled.
Some participants consider these acts of swarming to be art. Others fancy them social revolution. But for many it's just irreverent, silly fun.
The phenomenon, called smart flocking by some, is spreading across the globe along with the portable digital devices that enable it.
After the original flash mob coalesced in Manhattan less than two months ago, similar 21st century be-ins were staged from Minneapolis to Tokyo to Vienna.
In June, flash-mobbers crowded into a Manhattan Macy's and surrounded a large oriental rug, telling puzzled salespeople they all lived together and wanted the $10,000 ``Love Rug.''
In Rome, hundreds flooded a bookstore, asking employees for imaginary books and authors.
In San Francisco, a flock crossed a busy downtown crosswalk back and forth, waving their arms in the air and spinning in circles, as tourists stared agape.
The Cambridge crowd fascinated Melissa Krodman, a 24-year-old mobber.
``But to get the joke, you had to look at the woman there behind the counter, the expression on her face'' when the crowd materialized out of nowhere, Krodman said.
A flash mob is a lighthearted variation of the ``smart mob'' - people who use digital technology to hastily mobilize, as activists did to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq or cell phone-equipped teenagers simply do to organize their evening on the spur of the moment.
Futurist Howard Rheingold unwittingly inspired the flash-mobbers, with his 2002 book ``Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution,'' which examines how technology redefines social interaction.
Often, anonymous flash mob organizers send out e-mails and post on online ``blogs'' specifying a date and time for swarming. Word spreads quickly. And before you know it, hundreds are in New York's Central Park, making bird sounds.
What inspires participants?
``Everything makes a lot of sense nowadays, a bit too much sense. Then, for 10 minutes, you get to do something completely nonsensical. You get to be a kid for a few minutes,'' said a 30-year-old organizer of the San Francisco mob, who wanted to be known only as ``The Governor.''
Even friends who got his mob ``summonses'' didn't know he was the organizer, he says - and that secrecy is part of what has people hooked.
Only organizers know the details. Participants are told to synchronize their watches and gather in nearby bars, organized in clusters according to their birth month.
Volunteers, who get cues only minutes prior by cell phone, hand out slips of paper with instructions - the precise minute when the mob should appear and disappear.
The slips must be hidden after memorizing instructions and everyone must disperse no later than two minutes after it ends.
``It's all very 'spy novel,' very hush-hush,'' said 34-year-old New York City flash-mobber Fred Hoysted.
Numerous web logs (blogs), chat rooms and Yahoo group lists are devoted to the movement.
As soon as San Francisco blogger Sean Savage started recording flash mob events on his Web site - www.cheesebikini.com - traffic skyrocketed from 350 visitors a day to more than 9,000, he said.
A recent mention on the popular techie site, Slashdot.org, brought even more traffic, crashing Savage's server.
Savage, 31, says the phenomenon empowers citizens in a world controlled by ``Big Government and Big Corporation.''
``This interests people - even if it's frivolous, totally for fun, and doesn't have a label attached to it - because they see something can still happen from the grassroots without any help from the government and corporations,'' said Savage, a computer system designer and analyst at Stanford University.
Rob Zazueta, who is creating an online meeting place - FlockSmart.com - for organizers and wannabe participants, says the practice turns on its head arguments that evolving digital communications tools like text messaging or e-mail are depersonalizing.
``With smart mobs, these same tools that used to push us apart, are now bringing us back together,'' he said.
Zazueta, 28, hopes to see more instant physical gatherings - not of anonymous pranksters but rather of like minds. They could be at a coffee shop to discuss anything from technology, to music to politics.
``It takes the concept of chat rooms,'' he said, ``and brings it into the real world.''
08/05/03 01:16 EDT
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press.