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My Crowd. Or, Phase 5: A Report From the Inventor of the Flash Mob by Bill Wasik

My Crowd. Or, Phase 5: A Report From the Inventor of the Flash Mob by Bill Wasik

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Published by: catatoniatoday on Jul 07, 2011
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Or, Phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob
 B y B i l
[Tlhey have a goal which
there be- fore they can find words for it. This goal
the blackest spot where most peopleare gathered.
-Elias Canetti
Before we break down our presentcultural situation, itwillbe worthwhileto revisit the concept of 
which psychologistsput forwardin the mid-twentieth century to ad-dress the question of evil more gen-erally. As first defined by Festinger,Pepitone, and Newcomb (1952),deindividuation is "a state of affairsin a group where members do notpay attention to other individuals
individuals"; when in a crowdor pack, the theory ran, each mansees he doesn't stand out and so his \ inhibitions melt away. Indeed, thewriters observed, even "the delegatesto an American Legion convention,all dressed in the same uniform man-ner, will sometimes exhibit an almostalarming lack of restraint." Zirnbar-,do (1969) broke down the causationinto ten input variables, enumerated
J ,
ranging from anonymity
(A )
and arousal
(E )
to sensory inputoverload
(F )
and altered states of con-sciousness
Experimental heft wassoon supplied by Diener, Fraser, Bea-man, and Kelem (1976) in their pa-per "Effects of 
individuation Vari-ables on Stealing Among HalloweenTrick-or-Treaters," which put hard
 Bill Wasik 
a senior editor of 
MARCH 2006
numbers to the theory (see Figure 1).In recent decades, the concept of  / deindividuation has falien into scien-tific neglect, and yet I believe that itpossesses great theoretical usefulnesstoday. Consider the generational co-hort. that has come to be called the
those hundreds of thou-sands of educated young urbaniteswith strikingly similar tastes. Have so
Total Percentnumberof transgress-childreningNonanonymousAlone
40 7.5
384 20.8
297 57.2
many self-alleged aesthetes everbeen more (in the formulation of Festinger et a!.) "submerged in thegroup"? The hipsters make no pre-tense to divisions on principle, to.forming intellectual or artisticcamps; at any given moment, it isthe same books, records, films thatare judged au courant by all, leadingto the curious spectacle of an "alter-native" culture more unanimousthan the mainstream it ostensiblyopposes. What critical impulse doesexist among their number merelycauses a favorite to be more readilyabandoned, as abandoned-whetherFriendster.com, Franz Ferdinand, orJonathan Safran Foe~-it inevitably'will be. Once abandoned, it is nevertaken up again.Over those who would
to thehipsters, then, hangs the promise of instant adoption but also the specterof wholesale and irrevocable deser-tion. One thinks of Volkswagen,which for years has produced lavishnetwork spots with plots that play tohipster preoccupations, all artfullyshot on grainy stock, layered overwith the latest in ethereal priss-pop,and for what? Fleeting ubiquity andthen ruin; today the company is indisastrous straits, its target U.S. de-mographic once again favoring Toy-otas, Hondas, and even the upstartKoreans. With a rising generationso mercurial, one wonders whethereven the notion of "branding," i.e.,the building of long-term reputa-tions, which has remained thewatchword among our corporationsfor more than a decade, will itself come to lose its luster; whether thetriumph of Internet commerce, thewidening readership of online newsand blogs (with the concomitant nar-rowing of the news cycle, such thatstories are often considered stale bythe time a newspaper can 'printthem), and the proliferation of ca-ble television channels (many of which are devoted either explicitly toshopping or effectively to productplacement) will swing tastes so fad-dishly that rather than courting con-sumers for life, the corporation will becontent merely to hitch itself to asuccession of their whims.
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.
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:
Q ,
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
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.
the emailcautioned,
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
Photograph (detail) courtesy MikeEpstein/www.satanslaundtomat.com
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."
read the headlinetwo days later on
Wired News.
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.
1973 science-fiction short story,"Flash Crowd," which deals with theunexpected downside of cheap tele-portation technology: packs of thrillseekers who beam themselvesin whenever a good time is goingdown. The story's protagonist, Jerry-berry Jensen, is a TV journalist whoinadvertently touches off a multidayriot in a shopping mall, but eventu-ally he clears his name by showinghow
was to blame. Similarclaims, as it happens, were soon madeabout flash mobs, but I myselfbelievethat the technology played only aminor role. The emails went out aweek before each event, after all; onecould have passed around flyers onthe street, I think, to roughly similareffect. What the project harnessedwas the
joining urge,
a drive towarddeindividuation easily discernible inthe New York hipster population.The basic hypothesis behind theMob Project wasasfollows:seeinghowall culture in New York was demon-strably commingled with
the appeal of concerts and plays andreadings and gallery shows derivinglessfrom the work itself than from thesocial opportunities the work mightengender, it should theoretically bepossible to create an art project con-sisting of 
scene-meaning thescene would be the entire point of thework, and indeed would itself consti-tute the work.At itsbest, the Mob Project broughtto this task a sort of formal unity, ascan be illustrated in MOB #3, whichtook place fifteendaysafter#2 and wasset in the Grand Hyatt, ahotel frontingon Forty-second Street adjacentto Grand Central Station. Picture alobbya whole block longsportingwell-maintained fixtures in the high Eight-.iesstyle,gold-chromerailingsand sepia-mirror wallsand afountain in marblishstone, with a mezzanine ringed over-head. The time wassetfor7:07
thetail end of the evening rush hour; thetrain station next door was thick withcommuters, aswas (visiblethrough thehotel's tinted-glassfacade) the sidewalk outside, but the lobby wasnearly emp-ty:only afewbesuited types,guestspre-sumably,sunk here and there into arm-chairs.Starting.fiveminutesbeforehandthe mob members slipped in, in twosand threes and tens, milling around in
58 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / MARCH 2006Elevators
 Mobbers, 7:06 
the lobbyand making stylishsmalltalk.Then all at once, werode the eleva-tors and escalatorsup to the mezzanineand wordlesslylined the banister, asde-picted in Figure 2. The handful of ho-tel guestswere still there, alone again,except now they were confronted witha hundreds-strong armada of hipstersoverhead, arrayedshoulder to shoulder,staring silently down. But intimida-tion was not the point; we were star-ing down at
where we had just been,
and also across at one another, twohundred artist-spectators comman-deering an atrium on Forty-secondStreet as a coliseum-style theater of self-regard. After five minutes of star-ing, the ring erupted into precisely fif-teen secondsof tumultuous applause-for itself-after which it scattered back downstairs and out the door, just asthe police cruisers were rolling up,flashers on.
I endeavored to devise a
on the project's own terms.The mob was all about the herd in-stinct, I reasoned, about the desirenot to be left out of the latest fad;logically, then, it should grow asquickly as possible and then-thisseemed obvious-buckle under the
weight of its own popularity. I devel-oped a single maxim for myself, ascustodian of the mob: "Anything thatgrows the mob is pro-mob." And inaccordance with this principle, I gaveinterviews to all reporters who asked.In the six weeks following MOB #3,I did perhaps thirty different inter-views, not only with local newspa-pers (the
and the
Daily News,
though not yet the
onthat later) but also with
Time, TimeOut New York,
Christian Science Monitor,
San Francisco Chronicle,
Chicago Tribune,
the AssociatedPress,Reuters, Agence France-Presse,and countless websites.There was also the matter of how Iwould be identified. My original pref-erence had been to remain entirelyanonymous, but I had only half suc-ceeded; at the first, aborted mob, a ra-dio reporter had discovered my firstname and broadcast it, and so I wasforced to be Bill-or, more often,"Bill"-in my dealings with the mediathereafter. "[LjikeCher and Madonna,prefersto useonlyhisfirstname," wrotethe
Chicago Daily Herald.
To thosewho asked my occupation I repliedsimplythat I worked in the "culture in-dustry." (I was, and still am, an editorat this magazine.)Usually a flash-mob story would in-

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