Perhaps this is the explanation forFusion Flash Concerts, an otherwiseinexplicable marketing program thispast summer in which Ford, attempt-ing to sell a new sedan to the under-thirty-fivemarket, partnered with Sonyto appropriate what may be the mostforgettable hipster fad of the past fiveyears. That fad is the "flash mob,"which, according to a definition hasti-ly added in 2004 to the
Oxford English Dictionary,
is "a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via theInternet or mobile phone, who per-form a pointless act and then disperseagain." In fact the flash mob, whichdates back only to June 2003, had al-most entirely died out by that samewinter, despite itshaving spreadduring those few months to allthe world's continents saveAntarctica. Not only was theflash mob a vacuous fad; it was,in its very form (pointless ag-gregation and then dispersal),intended as a metaphor for thehollow hipster culture thatspawned it.I know this because I happento have been the flashmob's in-ventor. My association with thefad has heretofore remainedsemi-anonymous, on a first-name-only basisto allbut friendsand acquaintances. For morethan two years, I concealed my iden-tity for scientific purposes, but nowthat myexperiment isessentially com-plete, corporate America having ful-filled (albeit a year later than expect-ed) its final phase, I finally feelcompelled to offer a report: on theflash mob, its life and times, and itsconsummation this summer in theclutches of the Ford Motor Company.
PHASE I: INITIAL EXPERIMENT
On May 27, 2003, bored and there-fore disposed toward acts of social-scientific inquiry, I sent an email tosixty-some friends and acquaintances.The message began:Youare invited to take part in MOB,the projectthat createsan inexplicablemob of people in New YorkCity forten minutesor less.Pleaseforwardthisto other peopleyou knowwho mightliketo join.More precisely, I
them thismessage, which, in order to concealmy identity as itsoriginal author, I hadsent myself earlier that day from ananonymous webmail account. As fur-ther explanation, the 'email offered a"frequently asked questions" section,which consisted ofonly one question:
Why wouldI wantto join an inex-plicablemob?
Tonsofother peoplearedoingit.Watches were to be synchronizedagainst the U.S. government's atomicdocks, and the email gave instructionsfordoing so. In order that the mob notform until the appointed time, partic-ipants were asked to approach the sitefrom all four cardinal directions, based
THEAUTHOR(CENTER)ATMOB#2, JUNE 17, 2003 '
on birth month: January or July, upBroadwayfrom the south; February orAugust, down Broadway from thenorth; etc. At 7:24
the followingTuesday, June 3, the mob was to con-vergeupon Claire'sAccessories,asmallchain store near Astor Place that sellsbarrettes,scrunchies, and such. Thegathering was to last for precisely sev-en minutes, until 7:31, at which timeallwould disperse.
"SHOULD REMAIN AT THESITE AFTER 7:33."
Mysubjectsweregradstudents, pub-lishing functionaries, cultured tech-nologists, comedy writers, aspiring po-ets, musicians, actors, novelists, theiragesranging from the earlytwenties tothe middle thirties. They were, that isto say, a fairly representative cross-section of hipsters, and these werepeople who did not easily let them-selvesget left out. I rated the project'schances as fair to good.As it happened, MOB
but on a technicality-apparently theNYPD had been alerted' beforehand,and sowearrivedto findsixofficersanda police truck barring entrance to thestore.' Yet the underlying scienceseemed sound, and for MOB #2, twoweeks later, only minor adjustmentswere required. I found four ill-frequented bars near the intended siteand had the participants gather atthose beforehand, again split by themonth oftheir birth. Ten minutes be-fore the appointed time, slipsof paperbearing the final destination were dis-tributed at the bars. The site was theMacy's rug department, where, all atonce, two hundred people wanderedover to the carpet in the back left cor-ner and, as instructed, in-formed clerks that they alllived together in a Long IslandCity commune and were look-ing for a "love rug."
E-MAIL' MOB TAKES MAN-HATTAN,
read the headlinetwo days later on
The successful result was alsohailed in blogs, and soon I re-ceived emails from San Fran-cisco, Minneapolis, Boston,Austin, announcing theirown local chapters. Someasked for advice, which I verygladly gave. ("[B]efore yousend out the instructions, vis-it the spot at the same time and onthe same day of the week, and figureout how long it will take people to getto the mob spot," I told Minneapolis.)·One blog proprietor- gave the con-cept a name-"flash mobs"-after a
This would prove to be the project's onlyrun-in with the law, though the legality of the project remains a murky question to this day.
the sender of the email,
suspect that I might have been found guilty of holding ademonstration without a permit, and could also have been held liable for any
done by the mob. For the Nuclear Option-a follow-up to the Mob Project that remainsunimplemented-these sorts of legalissues areto be skirted through an automation of theentire process. In Nuclear, a network of com- puter servers, located offshore, will serve assign-up points for a worldwide email list.When the total number of addresseson the list reaches some threshold-lO million, per-haps-the servers "detonate," and all on their lists receive an email in the morning instruct-ing them to converge in the center of their city that same afternoon.
Sean Savage, of Cheesebikini.