In the middle of June, groups of people began to congregate in New York without warning to carry out some daft action — the first happened in May, but the one that hit the news occurred on 15 June, when a crowd of 200 materialised in Macy’s department store in Manhattan, supposedly in search of a $10,000 “love rug”. The next, on 2 July, formed in the mezzanine of the Grand Hyatt Hotel and did nothing but burst into applause for 15 seconds on cue. These absurdist crowds were assembled through instructions passed from person to person using e-mail, text messaging and other instant media.
The figure behind these New Yorker flash mobs is known only as Bill. His Mob Project aims periodically to create inexplicable but peaceful gatherings somewhere in New York for just ten minutes at a time. Copycat schemes quickly sprouted in big cities all over America and the idea was soon exported to many other countries.
Where he got the name from isn’t known, but it’s suspected that he borrowed it from a famous SF story by Larry Niven in which the new technology of teleportation became allied to mass communications to provoke what Niven called flash crowds to assemble where something newsworthy was happening.
Was this just a manifestation of silly-season hot-summer madness, or was there more to it? One pointer to its being rather more than the fashion of a moment is that several verbal compounds of the name have already been formed, including flash mobber and flash mobbing, as well as the abbreviation mobber, always a sign of a term that has hit the collective unconscious. Some commentators argue that it is actually a reflection of a sense of alienation among young people, while others fear it has been so successful an idea that it will not be long before others adopt the concept for less benign purposes.
The “flash mob” phenomenon is part sanctioned insanity, part Seinfeld on the loose, part nonsensical wanderings through city streets en masse.
Christian Science Monitor, 4 Aug. 2003
Even the usually staid Swiss are getting into the act. During one recent flash mob scene at the Zurich railway station, flash mobbers formed a long single-file line with hands linked, dividing the station.
Toronto Star, 5 Aug. 2003