Article — From the March 2006 issue

My Crowd

Or, phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob

Wasik_Crowd

The author (center) at MOB #2, June 17, 2003. Photograph (detail) courtesy Mike Epstein/satanslaundromat.com.

[T]hey have a goal which is there before they can find words for it. This goal is the blackest spot where most people are gathered.
—Elias Canetti

introduction

Before we break down our present cultural situation, it will be worthwhile to revisit the concept of deindividuation, which psychologists put forward in the mid-twentieth century to address the question of evil more generally. As first defined by Festinger, Pepitone, and Newcomb (1952), deindividuation is “a state of affairs in a group where members do not pay attention to other individuals qua individuals”; when in a crowd or pack, the theory ran, each man sees he doesn’t stand out and so his inhibitions melt away. Indeed, the writers observed, even “the delegates to an American Legion convention, all dressed in the same uniform manner, will sometimes exhibit an almost alarming lack of restraint.” Zimbardo (1969) broke down the causation into ten input variables, enumerated A through J, ranging from anonymity (A) and arousal (E) to sensory input overload (F) and altered states of consciousness (J). Experimental heft was soon supplied by Diener, Fraser, Beaman, and Kelem (1976) in their paper “Effects of Deindividuation Variables on Stealing Among Halloween Trick-or-Treaters,” which put hard numbers to the theory (see Figure 1).

fig. 1—percentage of children transgressing

  Total number of children           Percent transgressing

Nonanonymous     

   
Alone 40 7.5
Group 384 20.8

Anonymous
   
Alone 42 21.4
Group 297 57.2

 

In recent decades, the concept of deindividuation has fallen into scientific neglect, and yet I believe that it possesses great theoretical usefulness today. Consider the generational cohort that has come to be called the hipsters—i.e., those hundreds of thousands of educated young urbanites with strikingly similar tastes. Have so many self-alleged aesthetes ever been more (in the formulation of Festinger et al.) “submerged in the group”? The hipsters make no pretense to divisions on principle, to forming intellectual or artistic camps; at any given moment, it is the same books, records, films that are judged au courant by all, leading to the curious spectacle of an “alternative” culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes. What critical impulse does exist among their number merely causes a favorite to be more readily abandoned, as abandoned—whether Friendster.com, Franz Ferdinand, or Jonathan Safran Foer—it inevitably will be. Once abandoned, it is never taken up again.

Over those who would sell to the hipsters, then, hangs the promise of instant adoption but also the specter of wholesale and irrevocable desertion. One thinks of Volkswagen, which for years has produced lavish network spots with plots that play to hipster preoccupations, all artfully shot on grainy stock, layered over with the latest in ethereal priss-pop, and for what? Fleeting ubiquity and then ruin; today the company is in disastrous straits, its target U.S. demographic once again favoring Toyotas, Hondas, and even the upstart Koreans. With a rising generation so mercurial, one wonders whether even the notion of “branding,” i.e., the building of long-term reputations, which has remained the watchword among our corporations for more than a decade, will itself come to lose its luster; whether the triumph of Internet commerce, the widening readership of online news and blogs (with the concomitant narrowing of the news cycle, such that stories are often considered stale by the time a newspaper can print them), and the proliferation of cable television channels (many of which are devoted either explicitly to shopping or effectively to product placement) will swing tastes so faddishly that rather than courting consumers for life, the corporation will be content merely to hitch itself to a succession of their whims.

Perhaps this is the explanation for Fusion Flash Concerts, an otherwise inexplicable marketing program this past summer in which Ford, attempting to sell a new sedan to the underthirty- five market, partnered with Sony to appropriate what may be the most forgettable hipster fad of the past five years. That fad is the “flash mob,” which, according to a definition hastily added in 2004 to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.” In fact the flash mob, which dates back only to June 2003, had almost entirely died out by that same winter, despite its having spread during those few months to all the world’s continents save Antarctica. Not only was the flash mob a vacuous fad; it was, in its very form (pointless aggregation and then dispersal), intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it.

I know this because I happen to have been the flash mob’s inventor. My association with the fad has heretofore remained semi-anonymous, on a first-name- only basis to all but friends and acquaintances. For more than two years, I concealed my identity for scientific purposes, but now that my experiment is essentially complete, corporate America having fulfilled (albeit a year later than expected) its final phase, I finally feel compelled to offer a report: on the flash mob, its life and times, and its consummation this summer in the clutches of the Ford Motor Company.

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is a former senior editor of <em>Harper's Magazine.</em>

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