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Flashmob is Dead: First Draft

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

We’ve had the pleasure of communicating with Mobile Clubbing over in London, who are responsible for, among other things, holding the first “exclusively internet-promoted massive pillow fight” and hosting a number of very successful public dance parties, with numbers up to 4,000! We are very enamored with them and certainly, their inspiration to our events is unmistakable. Their most recent event, just a few days ago, is being heralded as the largest flashmob ever.

However, I am hesitant to call their events “flashmobs”, and I hope they will be one of the first groups to abandon the word. This is part of a longer, ongoing struggle that will probably culminate in an essay on the subject, but in short, flashmobs are dead.

The flashmob, invented by Bill Wasik in 2003, is a creature entirely different from massive pillow fights, subway parties, giant games of capture the flag, and even public dance parties. If you Technorati search for flashmob, you will see that most of them occur in Europe, or notably, where Harper’s Magazine is not widely read. In his My Crowd, Bill Wasik describes how his original flashmob event was an assault on “hip culture” and the conformity that supposedly characterizes New York hipsters. However, subway parties have been happening since the 80’s, massive pillow fights since at least the 90’s and Capture the Flag games, well, probably since early in the last millennium. The only difference is that now people are more interested in doing these things together in urban areas on a massive scale. These things are not flashmobs.

It is fairly easy to tell if something is a flashmob or not: if it is anonymous, brief, and the purpose is to bewilder passersby, it is a flashmob. This includes things like “talk on a banana as it were a phone for 1 minute” and “play your cellphone ringtone at 3:14 PM as loud as you can and disperse.” In short, if something meets the criteria of the Romanian flashmob manifesto, there is a good chance it’s a flashmob. The manifesto includes such gems as, “12. The mobbers do not communicate with one another during the flash-mob.” and “14. A flash-mob must not last more than 10 minutes. The gathering and the dispersion must be natural and exact.” Wow. Mobile Clubbing’s most recent dance party several days ago lasted for over two hours. There is nothing “flash” about that, and considering how much socializing they were likely doing, doesn’t really seem like a “mob” either.

You see, the English language is just loaded with words that have a built-in disdain for large numbers of people. A “mob” is certainly the most obvious, with images of torches and pitchforks coming to mind. There are also angry mobs and, of course, organized crime. If a place is “crowded”, the conditions are uncomfortable and claustrophobic. A “herd” implies some kind of mindlessness, and a “horde” or a “throng” of people, well, we think our point is well taken.

Flashmob Timeline
A timeline showing the duration of various social phenomena, which demonstrates flashmobs’ recent advent compared to much older types of events

These free, public, internet-promoted, social, fun events we (Newmindspace and related groups worldwide) organize are not even cousins of the flashmob, nay, they have been going on for far longer. Did Wasik simply summarize all existing massive social phenomena and crystalize them in a phenomenon he claims he invented? That is impossible.

After Wasik’s article was written, the first two cities to abandon the word flashmob were, predictably, New York and San Francisco. The erudite citizens of these two metropolises realized immediately the implications of the Harper’s article: their events were being minimized and pigeonholed into a has-been phenomenon that had streaks of conformity and irrelevance, even though they had been organizing free, fun public events for years before Wasik convinced some people to meet in a department store. Beyond that, though, these cities did something that most other American cities did not: they fully embraced urbanism. New York, and to a lesser extent San Francisco, unlike nearly any other American city are totally (and thankfully!) inducted into the cult of urban living. They realize that living with so many other people is a choice, and a good one, because the critical mass required to do something fun and creative is a part of city living. It is no surprise that these cities are the most likely homes of Burning Man attendees.

New Yorkers and San Franciscans who had been organizing free, fun, public events for years, people like Madagascar Institute, TheDanger (formerly Complacent Nation) and Laughing Squid, never even paused to consider if their events were flashmobs. And thankfully, nobody knows this better than Bill Wasik himself. We took a moment to e-mail him one day, as we were a little confused. Bill reminded me that Jeff Stark, Will Etundi and the like have been doing their events for years, well before the first flashmob. Newmindspace events, he said, are not flashmobs. And by outing himself as the inventor of the flashmob, we believe, Wasik has killed flashmobs entirely.

Talking to Bill really eased our minds, but posed a new set of challenges, which will be described in part 2.

Hello world!

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

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