The Short Life of Flash Mobs
Who'd have thought a single email designed to mock New York scenesters would have turned into an international craze? The founder of flash mobs talks to Stay Free! about his experiment in social networking.
[ by Francis Heaney ]
Someday, I'll be talking to my grandchildren (which is what my wife and I will call the creatures cloned from our genetic material, grown in a vat, and raised by robots) and they'll say, "Tell us again about flash mobs!" And I'll say, "You lazy kids, why don't you just read that interview I did with the guy who came up with flash mobs?" "You mean the one where you started with that tortured introduction and where it sounded like you were never going to explain what the hell flash mobs were?"
This is why I don't want children.
Anyway, a flash mob is an event where a large group of people, having received instructions in advance, converge upon a place, do something odd there, and leave peaceably within minutes. For instance, at an early flash mob in Manhattan, participants descended upon Macy's rug department and claimed to be members of a commune in Williamsburg shopping for a "love rug." Sounds amusing, yes? Enough people evidently agreed that what started out as a single forwarded email inviting people to join an "inexplicable mob" turned into a sprawling, global fad practically overnight--and then largely faded away almost as quickly as it appeared.
To find out how and why it all happened, Stay Free! talked to the fellow who sent out the first email, Bill--or, as he is often known to journalists, "Bill." -- Francis Heaney
STAY FREE!: How did you first come up with the idea for flash mobs?
BILL: Basically, it started with an email. I created an email firstname.lastname@example.org forwarded an email to myself, and then I forwarded it to about forty or fifty friends on the premise that they would think, "Oh, Bill's heard about this interesting thing."
STAY FREE!: I didn't realize it had started out as kind of a con job.
BILL: Yeah, I wanted it to appear like one of those things circulating around the internet.
STAY FREE!: If you'd just sent it from the Mob Project, they would wonder: how did they get my email address?
BILL: Exactly. The original idea was to create an email that would get forwarded around in some funny way, or that would get people to come to a show that would turn out to be something different or surprising. I eventually came up with a lazy idea, which was that the thing would just have one simple, in-your-face aspect to it--there wouldn't be any show, and that the email would be upfront about the fact that it was inviting people to do basically nothing at all.
STAY FREE!: Well, it wasn't nothing. It was inviting people to have the opportunity to confuse other people.
BILL: That's true. But the idea was that the people themselves would become the show, and that just by responding to this random email, they would, in a sense, create something.
STAY FREE!: They become the show and the audience.
BILL: Exactly. I had conceived it specifically as a New York thing. People in New York are always looking for the next big thing. They come here because they want to take part in the arts community, they want to be with other people who are doing creative stuff, and they will come out to see a reading or a concert on the basis of word-of-mouth. Partly they want to find out what everybody else is so excited about, but partly they just want to be a part of the scene. You have this in other places too, but I feel like there's something in New York that makes it kind of a city-wide pastime. Part of what I liked about this idea was that it would be very frank about the pure scenesterism of it. What is it that would make people come to the flash mob? Well, it would be the fact that if it went off as planned, lots of other people would be coming. The desire to not be left out was part of what would grow it. I didn't have all of these grandiose notions about it at the time; I mostly just thought it was funny. But I thought of it as a stunt that would satirize scenester-y gatherings.
STAY FREE!: In a lot of ways it's so much better than other scenester activities because you don't get stuck in a club for an hour and a half. You're in and out in five minutes.
BILL: True. There was something purposely cynical even about the five-to-ten minute constraint, in that I wanted the thing to be readily consumable. "Oh, I can do that, it's only ten minutes, it's right after work, and it's near a major subway line . . . . "
STAY FREE!: They were all in the midtown Manhattan area?
BILL: Some of them were downtown near Broadway-Lafayette; they were all really accessible. The first mob was going to be at Claire's Accessories at Astor Place. I used to walk by places and think: where would it be really funny if one day there just happened to be a mob of people there? And Claire's Accessories fit that description. It's just this little sleepy store, kind of a hole in the wall. So I picked that place.
STAY FREE!: And then you got ratted.
BILL: About ten minutes before the first mob, I get a call from Eugene, and he's like, "There are seven cops and a police wagon out in front of Claire's Accessories." So I get there and they're not letting anybody stand in front of the store. They made it look as if a terrorist had threatened to wage jihad against Claire's Accessories.
STAY FREE!: Which, in a way, is just as funny.
BILL: But it made me mad. The first email said "Mob #1" and at the bottom I wrote, "Await instructions for Mob #2," or something like that. But at the time, I wasn't necessarily convinced that there would ever be a Mob #2. But now I see the cops, and I'm like, "I've got to find a way to get around this, because we've got to get a future thing." So for Mob #2, I hit on the notion of meeting in pre-mob locations, and then people would come through at the last minute and hand out flyers with the mob location. That worked fine for the second mob, which was at Macy's.
STAY FREE!: It's like debugging. You run it through the first time, and you see how it can be broken, and then you make sure it can't be broken that way.
BILL: I was sad, though, because I had hoped that the thing could be run anonymously. It's not so much because I cared if people knew who had come up with the idea. The bigger issue is that I didn't want it to seem like there was a leader. The project grew when people took it on as their own and forwarded the emails; that was what made the idea work. So it was sad having to resort to the pre-mob-location, because then there had to be people who were clearly in on the planning, walking around with the flyers. If I had figured out text-messaging . . .
STAY FREE!: . . . then you could've had text messages arriving.
BILL: Yeah, but by and large, the thing worked well and, in a way, the fact that the first one got broken up by the cops helped the project as a whole, because it felt like there was something actually at stake.
Other than when we handed out the flyers, the mobs basically did become leaderless. Sometimes I wouldn't even get there in time to participate. One flash mob was at a shoe store in SoHo. The idea was that people would suddenly swamp the store and get on their cell phones and pretend to be calling their friends and talking about how awesome the shoes were. But by the time I got there, the store was completely full. The sales clerks eventually shut the doors and the rest of us were all stuck out on the sidewalk, looking in. But that's the way that it should be; I'm not really any more inside to the project than anybody else.
STAY FREE!: So eventually it took off in other cities as well?
BILL: Yeah. Wired News wrote a story about the first successful one, Mob #2, and bloggers picked it up, and the email account started getting messages, people saying, "I'm in Chicago, are you gonna do this here?" You know, "I'm in L.A.--Can I steal your idea?" I was like, "It's not really much of an idea. Go ahead!" I had imagined it as kind of a parody of New York insiderness, and I didn't anticipate the fact that it would take off other places.
STAY FREE!: But all the places you're naming are big urban areas, and certainly they have something in common with New York--that drive toward insiderness. At least in Los Angeles.
BILL: Yeah, but there's such a big creative group in New York that you can make a living just making fun of the group around you--whether you're a writer or comedian or artist. In the art world, for example, there are all of these art projects that make fun of the art world. In New York, you can sort of do that. But one of the first places was in Minneapolis, for example, at a mall. The sensibility of the participants seemed very much to be: we're here to show all you people here in the Mall of America that we're thinking on a different plane. So it was much less of a cynical in-joke on scenesterism and much more of a genuine self-expression. The New York mob was, in a certain way, about anti-expression. It was kind of like, we're all just going to show up and we're going to chant and be a big physical presence for no reason other than we think that it's funny. Whereas in other places it took on almost a "happening" kind of vibe, to express a certain kind of commonality, and to express, say, a certain opposition to corporate space. It was taken up almost entirely in a politically tinged way, even though it was never explicitly political. When it spread to other cities, there always seemed to be a sense of ,"This is a movement." Like, we know this is absurd, but by taking part we're making a statement about the right of the people to peaceably assemble wherever they want.
As it started to spread and as I saw how people were responding to it, it became clear that it meant something different to them. I might have been the only cynical guy from the beginning! I sort of became persuaded about the political relevance of the idea.
STAY FREE!: And the potential for getting a message across?
BILL: I didn't know how they were going to become genuinely political, but I could tell that everybody wanted them to, and, in a way, I became a sort of sociologist just like anybody in the media who was writing about the phenomenon. I had to ask myself, "What is it that so many people are responding to?" To a certain extent, I became an outsider almost the moment the thing took off. I kept doing them, and I kept putting them on, and I kept trying to intuit my way towards ideas for flash mobs that I thought people would find funny.
STAY FREE!: Why do you think flash mobs took off in so many other places? What need was it fulfilling?
BILL: People have been spending a lot of time in virtual communities since the internet took off, and I think people liked the flash mobs because they had an internet component, yet allowed you to see this virtual community made literal and physical.
STAY FREE!: The net made flesh?
BILL: Yeah. If, after you get a funny email and forward it along, you asked yourself, "I wonder what would happen if all the people who got this thing showed up at the same place for five minutes?" you'd want to go just to see how many people there were.
STAY FREE!: I have a theory about why it took off as a vehicle for political statement. I used to go out with someone who was much more politically active, and so I'd go to meetings, and--Christ Almighty!--those things are boring; nothing ever gets decided. The flash mob affords an opportunity for doing something and yet completely sidesteps the whole process of discussing how it's going to happen. It's just, "Here's this opportunity, and if you agree with it, you can come be in on it, and it's going to be very quick."
BILL: I think that's true. When people asked me for advice on doing a flash mob in their city, I was basically, like, "Look. It should spread around through email. The gatherings should be less than ten minutes long. And they should be absurd or funny, they shouldn't be explicitly political." But then, people still saw the absurd things as being political.
In wanting to be a part of a flash mob, you're not really expressing anything with content, you're expressing a vague feeling: "I'm unhappy with the way things are going and I want to be out there with people showing our numbers." If you went to the Iraq war protest, you would see tons of people holding signs that you disagree with. But you want to be out there with these people who on some level feel similarly...
STAY FREE!: You can't stay home because of the nutjobs.
BILL: One thing a lot of people really liked was the fact that the mobs were generally taking place in some kind of commercial space. People wanted the mob to be disruptive.
STAY FREE!: Was that the first inkling of politicizing it--a sort of anticonsumerism?
BILL: I think that was part of it. Commercial space is quasi-public space. You're welcome to come in so long as you are considering buying something.
STAY FREE!: So if you do something crazy--
BILL: Once you try to express yourself in a way that indicates that you're not interested in buying anything, you're suddenly a trespasser. And so, when you think in those terms, the idea that all these people who seem to be shoppers show up at a Toys 'R' Us and do something completely out of their minds . . .
STAY FREE!: Like worshipping a dinosaur.
BILL: Like worshipping a dinosaur--there was a big political component to that, even though the literal statement that was made didn't have one.
STAY FREE!: So flash mobs seem to have mostly quieted, although when the Republican National Convention was here, there were a lot of flash-mob-style protests.
BILL: I've seen two strains of flash mobs that still seem to be persistent. One of them is explicitly political--organizers using flash mobs as a tool for getting people together. They've been doing this First Amendment mob down near Ground Zero--
STAY FREE!: That's Reverend Billy?
BILL: I'm not sure if it's Reverend Billy himself, but somebody in his coterie has been organizing First Amendment mobs.
STAY FREE!: Yeah, they go to various locations and mill around. It looks like they're just talking on their cell phones, but if you walk around, you notice that all these people on cell phones are reciting the First Amendment, and it's sort of subliminal. Then they get louder and louder.
BILL: There are still die-hard flash-mobs-for-the-sake-of-flash-mobs movement people out there. I got an email the other day from a Polish flash mobber who sent me to a website where they're planning a global flash mob day. The idea of flash mob solidarity is fascinating to me. On the one hand, I kind of admire it, because the flash mobs for flash mobs' sake is much closer to my original idea. And yet, I conceived of the flash mobs as a very local phenomenon.
I liked it when people who did flash mobs in other cities would pick places in those cities that made a lot of sense; it would reframe a place as the site of a mob. The idea of a global flash mob does strike me as a little weird. I don't really know what flash mobs mean in other countries, especially in countries with more real public space than we have here.
STAY FREE!: What's an example of a way people reframed a space in a city?
BILL: In San Francisco, they went down into the center of the financial district, on Market Street, and twirled through the crosswalks; they took a show of absurdity to a non-absurd part of town. They also did an event where they rolled out red carpet in front of a BART station and applauded people coming off the subway. That's a funny idea anywhere, but it's even more powerful in San Francisco, because fewer people use the public transportation system there. They're more worthy of applause.
STAY FREE!: This brings us back to the idea of flash mobs as political protest. You can question whether things like this are useful as political protest, but you could say that about any political protest.
BILL: Well, sure. But take, for example, the fact that flash mobs were less than ten minutes long. You don't go and make a political statement and then wilt into the background. That doesn't really work symbolically.
STAY FREE!: True, but to some extent visibility is defined by whether something is covered by the media. And how many more journalists wrote about people buying a "love rug" than some of the political protests that have happened in New York? Groups try their damnedest to get coverage, and often whether they get coverage depends on whether writers consider it interesting.
BILL: I know--in a way, flash mobs became really a media phenomenon above everything else. I had to make the decision early on as to what to do about the media. At the very first mob, the one that got broken up by the cops, an NPR reporter actually tracked me down. It was sort of fateful, because they had somebody on tape saying, "This was organized by my friend Bill." So when they found me at the bar afterward, I gave them an interview. Given that they already had my name on tape, I had to go by Bill, and so that set the tone from the beginning. Then I decided that I was going to give interviews to every single person who wanted to write about flash mobs. I decided that I had to have a rule, because the mob was an experiment and I had to play the thing out to its end, and so the rule was that the mob exists to grow.
STAY FREE!: "And if I do as many interviews as possible, it will grow the mob."
BILL: Exactly, and I developed a slogan: "anything that grows the mob is pro-mob." I would say that sometimes as a joke, but then at a certain point, I would use it in a serious way to my friends. But I also understood that as the Mob Project got bigger, and as it spread to more and more cities, there was inevitably going to be a backlash, and that, in the end, growing the mob was going to make the mobs less cool, and that thereby the mobs would become less popular. But I had to play the thing out to that end.
STAY FREE!: Because if there's never a backlash, were you ever popular enough in the first place?
BILL: Right, and then I would just have to keep doing the things in perpetuity. So if I could play the thing out to the point where it exploded and then became uncool, then I could just stop, which was basically what happened. The backlash took less than two months. All the different wire services had done stories on us--the New York Post did a big story, Time Out did a big story, and the New York Times hadn't. So when the woman from the Times called me, she said, "we've sort of gotten in late on this, so we're going to do a story for the Week in Review about it." We do the interview, and it becomes very clear that she is writing the backlash story . . . The flash mob phenomenon was such a light thing; there wasn't really a movement to begin with! The movement was a creation of the media.
STAY FREE!: But how much was the movement a creation of the media? It was aided by the media, but it wasn't created by them. They didn't create the desire in people, though perhaps they prodded them.
BILL: The media spread the mob. The media said, "This is the next big thing," and then the New York Times ran the first mob backlash story less than two months after the first mob, which I thought was awesome. I knew that there was going to be a backlash story, but I couldn't have dreamed it would happen that fast.
STAY FREE!: And in such a great venue!
BILL: Yeah, and so that was, on some level, the beginning of the end.
STAY FREE!: Did you do the last one thinking, "This is going to be the last one?"
BILL: Yeah, I told everybody it was the last one. And I actually think if I really had wanted to play it out, I should have kept doing it until the mobs were so lame that no one would come, but I guess my pride got in the way. Really, I should have played the experiment out to the point where I was having mobs and it would just be me saying [in a sad voice], "I guess nobody likes flash mobs no more."
STAY FREE!: For the movie version, though, that's a good wrap-up.
BILL: And they pretty much died out soon after that in other places, with the exception of these places overseas.
STAY FREE!: Well, I have to say--good job picking such a self-replicating meme. Lots of people forward email jokes, but nobody knows which one is going to be the next thing.
BILL: True. You come up with these ideas that you think are really going to spread, and nobody picks up on them. Eugene and I tried to do this thing at the Republican Convention called "Conservative Children for America." The premise was to have a bunch of children in three-piece suits handing out bizarre pro-conservative tracts using child-related examples about, for example, not being forced to share. It would be pro-conservative propaganda written by children and distributed by children, but their parents would kind of disavow it: "It's just a phase we hope he grows out of." Anyway, I sent this email around trying to recruit children, or parents with children, and the thing just didn't get anywhere. It didn't even get derided, it just went into the atmosphere and plummeted to earth. I thought it was such a good idea.
STAY FREE!: It is funny, but you've got to have something easy to do. You've got to have a kid and the kid has to have a suit
BILL: I was prepared to purchase suits for the children. But, yeah, the whole meme-making thing is weird. I have friends who basically make memes for a living--for art projects that involve spreading ideas through the internet. But things spread for reasons that are unknown to all of us.