Article — From the March 2006 issue

My Crowd

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

( 2 of 10 )

phase 1: initial experiment

On May 27, 2003, bored and therefore disposed toward acts of social-scientific inquiry, I sent an email to sixty-some friends and acquaintances. The message began:

You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.

More precisely, I forwarded them this message, which, in order to conceal my identity as its original author, I had sent myself earlier that day from an anonymous webmail account. As further explanation, the email offered a “frequently asked questions” section, which consisted of only one question:

Q. Why would I want to join an inexplicable mob?
A. Tons of other people are doing it.

Watches were to be synchronized against the U.S. government’s atomic clocks, and the email gave instructions for doing so. In order that the mob not form until the appointed time, participants were asked to approach the site from all four cardinal directions, based on birth month: January or July, up Broadway from the south; February or August, down Broadway from the north; etc. At 7:24 P.M. the following Tuesday, June 3, the mob was to converge upon Claire’s Accessories, a small chain store near Astor Place that sells barrettes, scrunchies, and such. The gathering was to last for precisely seven minutes, until 7:31, at which time all would disperse. “NO ONE,” the email cautioned, “SHOULD REMAIN AT THE SITE AFTER 7:33.”

My subjects were grad students, publishing functionaries, cultured technologists, comedy writers, aspiring poets, musicians, actors, novelists, their ages ranging from the early twenties to the middle thirties. They were, that is to say, a fairly representative crosssection of hipsters, and these were people who did not easily let themselves get left out. I rated the project’s chances as fair to good.

[1] This would prove to be the project's only run-in with the law, though the legality of the project remains a murky question to this day. As the sender of the email, I suspect that I might have been found guilty of holding a demonstration without a permit, and could also have been held liable for any damages done by the mob. For the Nuclear Option—a follow-up to the Mob Project that remains unimplemented—these sorts of legal issues are to be skirted through an automation of the entire process. In Nuclear, a network of computer servers, located offshore, will serve as sign-up points for a worldwide email list. When the total number of addresses on the list reaches some threshold—10 million, perhaps— the servers "detonate," and all on their lists receive an email in the morning instructing them to converge in the center of their city that same afternoon.

As it happened, MOB #1 would fail, but on a technicality—apparently the NYPD had been alerted beforehand, and so we arrived to find six officers and a police truck barring entrance to the store.[1] Yet the underlying science seemed sound, and for MOB #2, two weeks later, only minor adjustments were required. I found four ill-frequented bars near the intended site and had the participants gather at those beforehand, again split by the month of their birth. Ten minutes before the appointed time, slips of paper bearing the final destination were distributed at the bars. The site was the Macy’s rug department, where, all at once, two hundred people wandered over to the carpet in the back left corner and, as instructed, informed clerks that they all lived together in a Long Island City commune and were looking for a “love rug.”

[2] Sean Savage, of Cheesebikini.com.

E-MAIL MOB TAKES MANHATTAN, read the headline two days later on Wired News. The successful result was also hailed in blogs, and soon I received emails from San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, Austin, announcing their own local chapters. Some asked for advice, which I very gladly gave. (“[B]efore you send out the instructions, visit the spot at the same time and on the same day of the week, and figure out how long it will take people to get to the mob spot,” I told Minneapolis.) One blog proprietor[2] gave the concept a name—”flash mobs”—after a 1973 science-fiction short story, “Flash Crowd,” which deals with the unexpected downside of cheap teleportation technology: packs of thrillseekers who beam themselves in whenever a good time is going down. The story’s protagonist, Jerryberry Jensen, is a TV journalist who inadvertently touches off a multiday riot in a shopping mall, but eventually he clears his name by showing how technology was to blame. Similar claims, as it happens, were soon made about flash mobs, but I myself believe that the technology played only a minor role. The emails went out a week before each event, after all; one could have passed around flyers on the street, I think, to roughly similar effect. What the project harnessed was the joining urge, a drive toward deindividuation easily discernible in the New York hipster population.

The basic hypothesis behind the Mob Project was as follows: seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work.

At its best, the Mob Project brought to this task a sort of formal unity, as can be illustrated in MOB #3, which took place fifteen days after #2 and was set in the Grand Hyatt, a hotel fronting on Forty-second Street adjacent to Grand Central Station. Picture a lobby a whole block long sporting well-maintained fixtures in the high Eighties style, gold-chrome railings and sepia-mirror walls and a fountain in marblish stone, with a mezzanine ringed overhead. The time was set for 7:07 P.M., the tail end of the evening rush hour; the train station next door was thick with commuters, as was (visible through the hotel’s tinted-glass facade) the sidewalk outside, but the lobby was nearly empty: only a few besuited types, guests presumably, sunk here and there into armchairs. Starting five minutes beforehand the mob members slipped in, in twos and threes and tens, milling around in the lobby and making stylish small talk.

Wasik_02_500

Fig. 2—Schematic, MOB #3 in Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Then all at once, we rode the elevators and escalators up to the mezzanine and wordlessly lined the banister, as depicted in Figure 2. The handful of hotel guests were still there, alone again, except now they were confronted with a hundreds-strong armada of hipsters overhead, arrayed shoulder to shoulder, staring silently down. But intimidation was not the point; we were staring down at where we had just been, and also across at one another, two hundred artist-spectators commandeering an atrium on Forty-second Street as a coliseum-style theater of self-regard. After five minutes of staring, the ring erupted into precisely fifteen seconds of tumultuous applause— for itself—after which it scattered back downstairs and out the door, just as the police cruisers were rolling up, flashers on.

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

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