Flash Mob: Happening for Internetters
Swarming and the Future of Inexplicable and Smart Mobs dr. Albert Benschop
University of Amsterdam
translation: Connie Menting
Experiments of provocateurs
The internet has created a new public space where people shop and play games with each other, present themselves, and casually chat, exchange news, and do politics. Especially the younger generation uses the internet to do almost anything they like. Over and over new ways are found to use the internet for sociability, amusement and expressions of personal or political interests.
An inexplicable gathering of a group of in a place for a short period of time. This was how the flash mob was described in the invitation for the first flash mob in Great-Britain. The term 'flash mob' was coined by Sean Savage of cheesebikini.com. . In a short science fiction-story of Larry Niven (1973) the term 'flash crowds' was already used. Teleportation is usual in the story. A 'flash crowd' describes the sensation-seeking mob that is suddenly transported to places where accidents or disasters had just occurred. In the internet era the term 'flash crowd' was used as an indication for a strong increase in the number of users trying to get access to a certain website. This usually happens when a controversial announcement is made or a striking news item is placed on such a site.
The latest phenomenon in the internet sky is the flash mob. A flash mob is a group of people who are mobilized via the internet and other electronic media to come together somewhere at a certain time for a short period of time in order to do something absurdist or provocative. The time and place of the gathering or happening is announced on mob sites. A flash mob does something absurdist and mysterious with passion and dissolves afterwards.
The first flash mobs were just as innocent as the hand-out of currants of Koosje Koster to the Amsterdam police in the sixties. It is an internet-experiment to organize groups of people who suddenly appear in public spaces to do something funny, and who disappear at the same speed. But just like the happenings of the glory-days of the Dutch provos the flash mob could serve as a model for political activism of the future. What started as a summer-folly of internetters and as an experiment in virtual mobilization could grow into a new political phenomenon. At any case, the flash mobs are spreading at breakneck speed all over the world. It started in New York in May 2003, moved to all main cities all over the world in July, and in August flash mobs are organized everywhere at a large scale. The craze is complete. Street-vendors are turning up who try to sell food and refreshments to the flash mob. What we're waiting for are t-shirt vendors and enterprises who declare that their company is 'Flash Mob Friendly'.
The inventor of the flash mob calls himself Bill and doesnt want to reveal his last name. He cannot remember exactly when the idea came up, let alone why. In an email he explains that he liked the idea of creating a series of inexplicable mobs. The idea that purely through word of mouth, a huge group of people can gather for no reason whatsoever.
According to Bill flash mobs exploit the desire to escape from the virtual world of the internet and take part in an electronic underground of the local world. "This isn't a movement, its a pre-movement. People intuitively understand that it is a powerful thing to very quickly and surprisingly transform a physical space, and one reason they keep coming back to the mobs is there is this feeling that something is being created that can't be ignored" [Bill].
It all started on 3 June in New York. The first flash mob was initiated by 28-year old Bill (without last name). He sent emails to friends (and their friends) to go to a certain website to synchronize their watches. After having done this they were told to get together at a certain place in four bars of Manhattan. Those who were born in the first three months of the year met in one bar, those born in April, May or June in a second one, etcetera. In a similar way 200 people came together on the ninth floor of Macys where carpets were sold, pretending they belonged to the same non-existing commune. They asked the surprised shop assistant about an Eastern carpet that they wanted to use in their fictitious commune as a love-carpet.
The beauty of a flash mob is that it dissolves rapidly. Everyone disappears into different directions. The spectators stay behind, completely confused.
In New York's Central Park hundreds of flash mobbers gathered and started making surrealistic bird sounds.
In Dallas about 40 people assembled at the latest city-entertainment, the Angelika Film Center & Café on Mockingbird Lane. They took position under red and blue balloons. At 7.43 sharp the red group started calling Marco! and the blue group reacted with Polo!.
In the second week of June the first flash mob of Japan was mobilized. Fans of The Matrix Reloaded organized a synchronized public performance in which all participants were dressed in the characteristic black suit of agent Smith. The costumed flash mob was coordinated by ni channel.
The first flash mob in Europe met in Rome on 24 June 2003. No less than 300 people poured into a large book and music store (Messaggeri Musicali) and asked the staff about non-existing books of non-existing authors.
In Switzerland, on the train station of Zurich, flash mobbers formed a long human chain, dividing the station in two. Before forming the chain they asked passengers if they were the person they were looking for [30.7.2003: source].
Flash mobs became most popular in Germany.
Flash mobs in the Low Lands
In the course of August 2033 also in the Low Lands at sea initiatives are taken to mobilize mobs via the internet that undertake flashy actions.
Strictly speaking the very first flash mob in the Netherlands was organized already a week before. This initiative was so badly organized that at the time agreed on only three persons met on the Dam Square in Amsterdam in order to jump around as frogs. It was a failure and therefore can best be characterized as the flash flop in the Netherlands.
In Amsterdam the first flash mob assembled on 8 August 2003. The participants could register in advance via the website AmsterdamMobs
. Those who register receive an email a day in advance with further instructions. In order to be on time the participants are advised to synchronize their watches. Stijn Koster, the moderator of the site, only hinted at what the flash mob could expect: the tabloids could hardly better that. Two days before more than 200 participants had applied. Participants were expressly informed that a flash mob has no 'message' and no political or religious goal or vision. A day in advance those who registered received an advertisement with a number of instructions. The general goal of the mob is explained: turning up somewhere unexpectedly and massively; doing something striking and original together; disappearing rapidly, leaving non-mobbers behind surprised. Here too it is advised to synchronise watches. Participants of the flash mob were spread over three locations, depending on their month of birth. They were advised to bring a (digital) camera with flash.
Near the Dutch largest grocers behind the Palace on Dam Square customers who came out with their shopping were greeted in a vip-like way: flashing cameras that suggested that very famous people were coming outside. The onlookers were treated on a moment of glamour. After some time the crowd joins in the game. With their arms in the air they come down the steps of the supermarket, as if they were true stars. Some enter the supermarket again to go through another lap of honour. On radio and television the first Dutch flash mob was reported, characterized by the organizers as a paparazzi mob [see pictures]. The paparazzi mob points out an everyday social pattern (only film stars are cheered) by simply turning it around (cheering 'ordinary' people who do their daily shopping).
A day later a Belgian flash mob entered the stage in Ghent. Delft, Arnhem/Nijmegen, Rotterdam and Groningen were soon to follow. In general students take the initiative [see discussion in DutchMobbing].
The organized flash mobs were seldom really surprising or creative. The bird dance on the crossing of the Herestraat and de Waagstraat in Groningen (21 August) and the Japie mob in Assen (28 August) gave the impression to many people that the introductory period for new students had started. Some journalists already started writing epitaphs for the trendy cultural expression that especially did so nicely in the media. The end came in a yellow bird suit, wrote Robert van Gijssel in the Volkskrant, referring to the two mobbers who had hauled themselves in a bright yellow bird suit [Volkskrant, 6.9.2003].
Even the initiators of flash mobs started having doubts. On 4 September the organizers of the Amsterdam flash mob sent their supporters an email in which they canceled the action of the next day. The highlight of the Flash Mobbing hype is over, because the unexpected is beginning to wear off. The flash mob of 5 September was postponed, till a flash mob can be unexpected again. The by now 2000 registered people have been advised to check their email.
Flashmobs in shapes and sizes
Flash mobs are seemingly unplanned, short meetings of large groups of people in public or semi-public spaces. These people do something absurd and then disappear again as fast as they came. Most people do this solely for fun. They want to gain strange, absurdist and surrealistic experiences by playing with the rules of interpersonal social traffic. A good mob is both original and accessible. Participants and organizers (moberators) of flash mobs gather fame with their performance for some time. They are already so well known that they meanwhile attract the same amount of press and police as mobbers.
In the meantime several kinds of mobs have come up:
- Global flash mob: synchronic or in a wave
The first flash mobs all had a local character. The global flash mob is the next logical step in the evolution of this phenomenon. For a global flash mob thousands of people are recruited in hundreds of cities all over the world that undertake an action simultaneously or successively. The preparations for this are organized by amongst others Globalmobster. A global flash mob can be organized in two ways. In a synchronous global flash mob action is undertaken simultaneously at a certain time in all metropoles. The actions can, however, also be successively staged, causing the flash mob to move as a wave over the whole world. Both forms are illustrated in these flash animations.
The global flash mob is a worldwide version of the distributed flash mob such as the one organized in Zürich on 27 August. What was special about this flash mob was that it was located in five different cities in Switzerland [source]. In the Netherlands as well plans are circulating to organize an IKEA-mob (IKEA is a large department store) all over the country. A flash mob organized on a national scale is called a megamob. In a number of other countries such as Australia special platforms have been established to organize national flash mobs.
- Altruistic mob
The 'classical' flash mob undertakes actions that temporarily dislocate daily routine in local life. They are frivolous actions without any specific political meaning or socially beneficial ends. But flash mobs can adopt a charitable or social character. This happened for example in Birmingham (England), where on 16 August 2003 a flash mob appeared in front of the local Oxfam shop, a chain of shops that recycles second-hand goods and uses the proceeds to help people who live in poverty. The flash mob sang the song 'Give it away' of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and subsequently donated (part of their) clothes to the shop. In this way the organizers provided the flash mob with a charitable goal. Whether this is the first step in the direction of 'smart mobs' remains to be seen. Immediately after their action the organizers of the altruistic flash mob announced that this would be the last flash mob in Birmingham [source]. Also in the Dutch mobbing environment repeatedly proposals are made to organize 'charitable' or 'social' flash mobs that clean streets with a broom for 5 minutes in an underprivileged area or in a neglected park.
- Political mob
Flash mobs can be brought into action as a means to draw attention to more specific political goals. Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential candidate for the American elections of 2004, was one of the first politicians to understand how the internet could be used in a national political campaign. To mobilize his voters he doesnt only make use of weblogs and other forms of online propaganda, but also of political flash mobs by which Dean can present his program and himself.
- Love Mob
People can go alone to regular flash mobs. But for love mobs it is necessary to bring a partner or friend. The participants of a love mob start hugging and kissing each other intensively at an agreed time and place. It looks like a revival of the manifestations of the flower-power generation of the sixties.
- Media mob or press mob
There is talk of a media mob when more journalists come to the agreed place than real flash mobbers. In that case the intended flash mob has indeed failed (a flop mob or flash flop), but the phenomenon of journalists interviewing each other is a happening in itself. An example of such a flash flop is the meeting that was organized in Amsterdam on 1 August 2003. This flash mob was so poorly prepared that that afternoon at the agreed time only three people turned up, of whom two started jumping around like frogs. Apart from two motor-policemen the mini-company was watched by more than ten journalists. The disappointment about the attendance and performance is great. After a few leaps the flash mobbers pack it in. The flashflop was probably also caused by the somewhat too embarrassing assignment (frogging) that was invented by the initiator.
Organizers of the flash mobs soon found out that media-attention is a double-edged sword. Talking to the media is the kiss of death [Simon, an English mobber]. Mobbers are an audience without face and they arent actors. They dont have to make statements and they have to see to it that the unexpected doesn't become expected. The magic of the flash mobs is after all caused by the spontaneous reaction to the unexpected. Without this element of surprise no flash mob is possible.
We have seen that a flash flop is a failed flash mob. But a flash flop can also be deliberately organized to mislead the media. The flash mob is grandly announced, but at the crucial moment only the press appears.
- Cop Mob
In a copmob the drummed up cops play the leading part. The first official Boston flash mob already got a lot of attention from the police. The police grow suspicious when suddenly large groups of people who do something crazy collect in the city, even if it is a completely legal action. It is not the flash mobbers intention to break the law; their actions are peaceful. Flash mobbers try to stir up the status-quo but dont look for a confrontation with the police. Neither do flash mobs usually gather in shops or locations with products that can be stolen or damaged. Of course they do prefer easily accessible public or semi-public places with a lot of people. Its no use taking a location by surprise when nobody knows its happening there.
Flash mobs draw the attention of the police because they might disturb the 'public order'. Already in 2002 the Canadian police extraordinarily exerted themselves to get permission to interrupt the radio and telephone signals during the G8 top conference of world leaders in Kananaskis, Alta, and during the Pope's visit to Toronto. That way the police tried to prevent large groups of demonstrators from suddenly appearing in unexpected places. Especially the American police watch the developments of flash mobs closely. Although no arrest have been made during flash mobs, the organizers modestly keep in the background. In America, which has been in a safety-fuddle since 11 September, participants of flash mobs are especially keen on making it clear that the civilians do have the fundamental right to get together peacefully. This is their way of contributing to bring safety and freedom into balance. If flash mobs have any intrinsic sense, it may be that they incite to reflection on the permanent surveillance of people in the streets and on the internet.
The swarming of flash mobs is a classical example of the way in which previously isolated individuals create their own new way of sorting out their chaos. It is a reversal of the thought that geography is irrelevant in the internet-era. The point is that it is a way of bringing people together somewhere for face-to-fact contact. In their essay Swarming and the Future of Conflict (2000), John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt discuss the military possibilities of swarming as a deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions. They regard this as a revolution in military affairs.
- Artistic mob
Many of the original flash mobs contain elements of anti-consumerism, social parody, performance art, guerrilla theatre and sheer capriciousness. The flash mob has all characteristics of a post-modern work of art: It is fleeting, not reproducible, unique, more experience than object, uninterpretable in meaning [Maarten Hajer]. Some artists have mobilized flash mobs for their own purposes. They organize flash mobs that are only meant for an esthetical effect. A meanwhile well-known predecessor of this is the naked mob of 600 people who gathered on the initiative of the American artist Spencer Tunick in one of the Selfridges' shops (Oxford Street, London). So flash mobs can be organized as a specific work of art. In the Art.Flashmobs.co.nz ideas are collected and discussed for these artistic versions of the flash mob.
- Money Mob: sponsored or commercial fake mobs
Companies can make use of (or should we say misuse?) the popularity of flash mobbing to attract an audience for their products. In the case of sponsored mobbing companies sponsor the mob-ins. Large crowds show or use their products, with prominent labels carrying the name of the company. In the case of commercial mobbing advertising agencies stage a fake mob for an advertisement for a soft drink or shoe-brand. Sponsored or commercial fake mobs have not yet been organized, as far as we know, but this will not take long. A candidate for the first commercial fakemob can be found on the site for viral marketing TTR2. She organizes a flash mob to go to a car-showroom in order to get a large discount at the purchase of 250 cars simultaneously. At TTR2 we always like to keep up with trends and Flashmobbing seems like a great idea. However we want to take it a stage further and organise a Flashbuy!
- Anti Mob
In mob projects an effort is made to get a mob of people at a certain place at a certain time. In anti-mob projects exactly the reverse is aimed at. If everyone in the world participates the atmosphere of a ghost town can be created in a famous public space during 10 minutes. Such a non-event can have dramatic consequences. Imagine: on Saturday afternoon on the stroke of 3 suddenly (nearly) no one is present on the Dam Square in Amsterdam.
This list of types of flash mobs is far from complete. Those who look around critically can see that in the meantime several other versions are evolving. Flash mobs arise that are aimed at special groups, such as children, youngsters, women, families or singles. Flash mobs arise that are aimed at special themes (ecology, nature, consumerism, music) or at certain places or institutions (schools, shops, beaches). Flash mobs arise that make use of certain means (for example cars, boats, bikes or kites).
Cultural and Political Mobs
Flash mobs have become a craze. As any craze it can rage out fast. Yet, flash mobs have shown a peculiarity of the way in which the internet can influence peoples social behaviour. Flash mobs are instant-gatherings, prepared in the virtual world, and suddenly popping up in the local world. The flabbergasted onlookers have no idea whats happening and why this is happening. They are disorganized for a while in their daily doings by something that appears to be coming from another planet. But it comes from cyberica. The virtual world unexpectedly intervenes in the local world. Usually it doesnt last longer than 10 minutes, but this makes the surprise-effect extra large. When suddenly hundreds of people assemble in a square or department store to clap their hands loudly for 15 seconds at a set point of time, it definitely attracts attention. Even if one hasnt a clue what exactly is going on.
Flash mobbing is a fleeting affair: it is nearly over when you are aware of it. However, the activities of the flash mobs are extensively described in numerous weblogs (blogs). Many participants bring their cameras to register the reactions of the baffled onlookers. Within a few minutes the shots of the mob in action are made available on the internet. Next, experiences and impressions are exchanged in the discussion forums of the blogs.
'Smart mobs' arise when communication and computer technologies reinforce the human talents for cooperation. In his book Smart Mobs Howard Rheingold has shown that the technology of mobile communication doesn't only have advantages for smartmobs, but can also be destructive. Mobile communication can be used to coordinate collective actions and social movements. Yet, the same technologies that can reinforce cooperation can also be used to intensify surveillance. In the coming years the still young smart mobs could be neutralized in passive but mobile consumers of another centrally controlled mass medium.
Flash mobs disorganize very temporarily the daily routines of social traffic in public and semi-public spaces. Afterwards the assemblers withdraw and continue what they were doing. Flash mobs are a symbol of a phenomenon that has a lasting and large-scale effect. Its the ability for groups of people to organize collective action in the face-to-face world in ways and at times that they were unable to do before the combination of the Internet and mobile telephones made it possible [Rheingold, Smart Mobs
]. Therefore it is to be expected that the phenomenon flash mobs will spread on. As people grow more familiar with internet technologies all sorts of temporary communities (moblike adhocracies) will arise that function as a platform for public performance of artists, as a happening that disorganizes or provokes citizens in the local world, or as a means to build up serious political and social movements. Smart mobs have a social or political agenda.
Thoughtless mobs with senseless actions
The meaning of the flash mobs for mobloggers themselves seems to lie in its meaninglessness. Everyone loves a thoughtless mob, says Merilyn Synder, who participated in a Manhattan mob project. No action, no protest, no necessity to reconsider my political viewpoint on a certain theme. She strongly summarizes the principle: Just be there, or be square.
As already stated, most participants join in because they find it interesting, exciting and funny. Just for the fun, is the most often heard answer flash mobbers give to the question why they participate in these gatherings. Simply because there is nothing to it. The attraction of flash mobbing lies in the intrinsic senselessness. Spontaneous flash mobs have an aesthetic and frivolous effect. However, for the participants there seems to be especially a social motive in the background. More and more people spend a great part of their lives behind computer screens. They exchange messages with and talk to people they will never meet in real life. Apparently they feel a need to bring back their virtual social interaction to local reality.
From a social-psychological perspective flash mobbing is a way to come into contact with each other. The participants of flash mobs share a secret (the instructions of the script for the flash mob) and thus create an alliance that is reinforced by the collective perception of the action. That we have been able to do this together creates a group-feeling, even if this is based on a very brief immediate experience (instant group-feeling). In dealing with the anticipation and afterglow this group feeling is cultivated even more. And they feel original because they participate in something new [Belleman 2003]. People want to belong to it.
Swarming Social Movements
To social movements 'swarming' is a technique with which at great speed a large number of individuals can be mobilized to one single position from all directions in order to reach a specific goal. A successful swarm goes through four different phases: localizing the goal, the convergence, the attack and the dissipation. In order to work out these phases properly they have to be synchronized between a diversity of seemingly unconnected individuals. Therefore there has to be a direct communication-channel between these individuals. Virtual social networks can use swarming strategies and tactics, which gang up on opponents. This is done by coordinating the convergence of numerous small nodes, that are generally separated, at a particular target from several directions to undertake an attack and then disperse again in preparation for the next operation.
There are flash mobbers who pack it in as soon as the flash mob outgrows the underground
. Others argue for bringing the flash mob into action for political manifestations and actions. They are directed towards the largely via the internet organized demonstrations that brought the WTO summit in Seattle
of 1999 to a standstill, and that initiated the fall of President Joseph Estrada in the Philippines. Also the massive protests organized against the recent war in Iraq served as an example to them [see MoveOn
]. These events demonstrate that people in the local world are able to organize themselves more effectively, more large-scale and faster due to the combination of mobile communication and the internet. It will be even easier to organize flash mobs when mobile telephones and hand-held computers are equipped with location aware technology that will emit a ping at the right moment and tell potential mobbers exactly where to go.
The flash mobbers are beginning to organize themselves more strongly. For this purpose local and national umbrella-sites have been developed, with which anyone interested is thoroughly informed about activities of flash mobs, announcements are made of actions, and in which discussions are going on about possible new actions. Flash mobs have started as the summer fashion of 2003. But it seems as if flash mobs are also resistant to other seasons. Flash mobs are a large-scale social experiment with the electronic communication technology that we have at our disposal nowadays. What started as a frivolous experiment has grown into a technique of self-organization that will inevitably be used for other aims and by other groups. Without long, flash mobs will be included in the action repertoire of social movements, of political parties that want to mobilize their supporters in election campaigns, and of companies that want to sell their products and services to customers. The idea that hundreds, thousands or millions of people are secretly electronically mobilized to appear somewhere from nowhere without a warning is at the same time strongly inspiring and terrifying.
- Armond, Paul de [1999-2000]
Netwar in the Emerald city
An analysis of the net-activism round the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, concentrated on the swarming principle.
- Arquilla, John /Ronfeldt, David 
Swarming and the Future Conflict
- Bartholomew, Robert E. / Goods, Erich 
Mass Delusions and Hysterias. Highlights from the Past Milennium
- Belleman, Bas 
Flitsmeute bevestigt vooral onze cultuur
In: De Gelderlander, 23.8.2003.
Sean Savage's site that provides a lot of information on flash mobbing.
An Irish umbrella for flash mobbers.
Information on flash mobbing in America.
- Flash Mob wann? wo? wieso?
Informs the German flash mobbers on where to be when and why.
A Belgian site with information on flash mobbing.
A satirical site that suggests that naive mobs can be lured into small alleys where they will be robbed of their properties. It shows that this technology also has a dark potential.
- Global FlashMob
An independent flashmob association unifying many local flashmob groups.
- Huizinga, Johan [1938/85]
- Kavada, Anastasia  (University of Westminster)
Social Movements and Current Network Research
Information on flash mobs all over the world.
MoveOn is a catalyst for a new kind of grassroots involvement. They support citizens in finding their political voice. The international network includes more than 2 million online activists.
- Niven, David 
Originally published in "Three Trips in Time and Space" (1973), reprinted in paperback edition of "The Flight of the Horse", 1973, pp. 99-164.
Information on flash mobs in and round Paris.
- Psychologie Magazine: Verschillende verklaringen mogelijk voor flashmobs
Several psychological explanations possible for flash mobs.
- Smart Mobs
A website and weblog on themes discussed in the book "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" by Howard Rheingold.
Upoc is a mobile service that enables people to form telephone groups that receive text messages. These groups function similar to mailing lists, with the difference that no email is received but a text message on a mobile phone (SMS) or on a wireless internet enabled phone. This enables each participant to inform the rest of the group about the events in their location.
- Why War?
Swarming and the Future of Protesting
- Wu, Hans
Flash Mobs: Fluch oder Segen?
dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Sciences
Sociology & Anthropology
University of Amsterdam
Published: 1 August, 2003
13th September, 2013