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.

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.

phases 2 & 3: propagation and backlash

I endeavored to devise a media strategy on the project’s own terms. The mob was all about the herd instinct, I reasoned, about the desire not to be left out of the latest fad; logically, then, it should grow as quickly as possible and then—this seemed obvious—buckle under the weight of its own popularity. I developed a single maxim for myself, as custodian of the mob: “Anything that grows the mob is pro-mob.” And in accordance with this principle, I gave interviews to all reporters who asked. In the six weeks following MOB #3, I did perhaps thirty different interviews, not only with local newspapers (the Post and the Daily News, though not yet the Times—more on that later) but also with Time, Time Out New York, the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and countless websites.

There was also the matter of how I would be identified. My original preference had been to remain entirely anonymous, but I had only half succeeded; at the first, aborted mob, a radio reporter had discovered my first name and broadcast it, and so I was forced to be Bill—or, more often, “Bill”—in my dealings with the media thereafter. “[L]ike Cher and Madonna, prefers to use only his first name,” wrote the Chicago Daily Herald. To those who asked my occupation I replied simply that I worked in the “culture industry.” (I was, and still am, an editor at this magazine.)

[3] It became evident that the "shadowy" nature of the project was helping to spread it in the media. In the Nuclear Option, the project is designed to seem even more dangerous— not only anonymous and automated, but threatening to inflict "benevolent catastrophes" (as the Nuclear manifesto would describe them) on all major world cities—so as to spread even more widely.

Usually a flash-mob story would invoke me roughly three quarters of the way down, as the “shadowy figure” at the center of the project. There were dark questions as to my intentions.[3] “Bill, who denies he is on a powertrip, declined to be identified,” intoned Britain’s Daily Mirror. Here is an exchange from Fox News’s On the Record with Greta Van Susteren:

anchor: Now the guy who came up with the Mob Project is a mystery man named Bill. Do either of you know who he is?
mobber one: Nope.
mobber two: Well, I’ve—I’ve emailed him. That’s about it.
mobber one: Oh, you have? . . .
anchor: What—what—who is this Bill? Do you know anything about him?
mobber two: Well, from what I’ve read, he’s a—he works in the culture industry, and that’s—that’s about as specific as we’ve gotten with him.

By MOB #6—in which, on the first Thursday evening in August, five hundred mobbers suddenly fell to their knees in the Times Square Toys “R” Us and cowered before the store’s animatronic, to-scale Tyrannosaurus rex— flash mobs had been either scheduled or executed not only in scores of U.S. cities but also in Toronto, Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, Rome. The following week, the interview request from the New York Times finally arrived. On the phone the reporter, Amy Harmon, made it clear to me that the Times knew it was behind on the story. They would be remedying this, she told me, by running a prominent piece on flash mobs in their Sunday “Week in Review” section.

What the Times did, in fascinating fashion, was not just to run the backlash story (which I had been expecting in three to five more weeks) but to do so preemptively—i.e., before the backlash actually had materialized. Harmon’s piece bore the headline GUESS SOME PEOPLE DON’T HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO, and its nut sentence ran: “[T]he flash mob juggernaut has now run into a flash mob backlash that may be spreading faster than the fad itself.” As evidence, she mustered the following:

E-mail lists like “antimob” and “slashmob” have sprung up, as did a Web site warning that “flashmuggers” are bound to show up “wherever there’s groups of young, naive, wealthy, bored fashionistas to be found.” And a new definition was circulated last week on several Web sites: “flash mob, noun: An impromptu gathering, organized by means of electronic communication, of the unemployed.”

[4] To my further surprise, Harmon wrote a second article on flash mobs on August 31, in which she attended MOB #7 and wrote with noticeable excitement about the same trend she had peremptorily dismissed just two weeks earlier. Here, I think, it was not journalistic logic but rather her own professional logic that held sway; this piece was for the City section, in which Times reporters are sometimes allowed to "write." E.g., "I tore myself away from observing the bizarre ballet and hurried to the back. A muted euphoria kicked in. The mob was proud of itself. It was almost impossible to detect ironic detachment. People smiled. I smiled."

Two email lists, a website, and a forwarded definition hardly constituted a “backlash” against this still-growing, intercontinental fad, but what I think Harmon and the Times rightly understood was that a backlash was the only avenue by which they could advance the story. The competition had soundly beaten the Times already on what, using my taxonomy, one might call the Phases 1 and 2 stories (the experiment and its rapid propagation), and so their thinking progressed naturally to the subsequent phase—i.e., the backlash. It followed inexorably from the subconscious logic of contemporary journalism: just as a popular president requires momentous looking photo spreads in newsweeklies, or as the rise of a new technology requires think-pieces about its threat to the very fabric of civil society, so a fad like the flash mob requires a backlash.[4] Whether through direct causation or mere journalistic intuition, the Times timed its backlash story (8/17/03) with remarkable accuracy (see Figure 3).

Wasik_03_500

I announced that MOB #8, in early September, would be the last. The site was a concrete alcove right on Forty-second Street, just across from the Condé Nast building. Participants had been told to follow the instructions blaring from a cheap boombox I had set up beforehand atop a brick ledge. The cheering of the hundreds grew so great that it drowned out the speakers. The mob had become unmoored. All of a sudden a man in a toque, apparently some sort of opportunistic art shaman, opened his briefcase to reveal a glowing neon sign, and the crowd bent to his will. He held up two fingers and the mob began chanting “Peace!” The project had been hijacked by a figure more charismatic than myself. The stage had been set for Phase 4.

prior research

When a British art magazine asked me who, among artists past or present, had most influenced the flash-mob project, I named Stanley Milgram—the social psychologist best known for his authority experiments, in which he induced average Americans to give seemingly fatal shocks to strangers. As it happens, I later discovered that Milgram himself did a project much like a flash mob, in which a “stimulus crowd” of his confederates, varying in number from one to fifteen, stopped on a busy Manhattan sidewalk and all at once looked up to the same sixth-floor window. The results can be seen in Figure 4, a chart from his paper “Note on the Drawing Power of Crowds of Different Size.”

Wasik_04_500

Stanley Milgram deserves recognition, I believe, as one of the crucial artists of the preceding century. Consider his crowd experiment, which, it must be admitted, is fairly thin gruel as science: everyone knows that such an effect would be observed, and what value is there in quantifying it? No, the value of this experiment is entirely in its performance, the unadorned audacity of it, a small crowd in simple unison bucking the city’s flow—a Fluxus-style “happening” but without the blinkered optimism, and in that respect closer, perhaps, to a Ray Johnson “nothing.” Milgram’s crowd study was far less explanatory than it was expressive, serving as an elegant metaphor for conformism while adding little to our scientific understanding of who conforms or why. Other of Milgram’s creations seem more akin to collaborative art. He had Parisians draw “mental maps” of their city that he then himself collated into a consensus work—prefiguring, for example, the contemporary artists Komar and Melamid’s brilliant “favorite painting” projects of the 1990s. In yet another premonition of Ray Johnson, Milgram also fixated on the mail as a medium; this was chiefly through his famous “lost letter” technique, in which dozens of sealed, stamped letters addressed to controversial-sounding organizations (e.g., Equal Rights for Negroes, Friends of the Nazi Party) were left such that they would be found by passersby and mailed (or not) to their destinations. In this manner he even attempted to predict the outcome of the1964 presidential election, leading to a remarkable coup de théâter in which hundreds of letters in support of each candidate were dropped onto Worcester from a prop plane.

The Milgramite tradition in art would be defined, I think, by the following premise: that man, whom we now know to respond predictably to social forces, is therefore himself the ultimate artistic medium. This is certainly the primary force of Milgram’s authority experiments: others had done research on conformism and authority, but what set Milgram’s apart was the vertiginousness of the narrative he made out of men. On the faux shock machine itself, with its manufacturer’s label (shock generator, type zlb) from the fictitious “Dyson Instrument Company” in Waltham, Mass., was a series of thirty labeled switches, beginning with slight shock and ending with extreme intensity shock, danger: severe shock, and, simply, x x x. This final switch, so ominously marked, was nevertheless quite willingly employed, even after the subject’s screams had subsided into silence. This was what stirred the public—the sheer barbarity of what Milgram had made men do, and how easily he made them do it.

There is also a virulent counterstrain of this tradition, one that Milgram himself characteristically foresaw: reality television, which seeks to entertain through simple documentary voyeurism. In one of his last published papers before his death, he co-authored an essay on the subject of Candid Camera, which could fairly be called the ur-reality-TV show. His essay was largely and justifiably laudatory—the show “gives us a new vision through the disruption of the habitual,” he wrote, in a neat summation of the Milgramite aesthetic. And yet: “Above all, Candid Camera is a commercial activity. The overriding goal of the producer is to create materials that can be sold to a network or a sponsor. . . . The scientific”—and here we may as well substitute artistic—”deficiencies of the Candid Camera material stem from its origin as commercial entertainment.”

His most telling example of such deficiencies is in the way the show is managed down to a simple, digestible narrative message—in Candid Camera‘s case, for laughs, but the point could have been as easily applied to the cheap drama of The Apprentice or the luridity of Trading Spouses. “[T]he viewer is instructed by the narrator about exactly what to look for; his comments reinforce the notion that what we are about to see will be funny,” Milgram wrote. “Studio laughter accompanies each episode as a way of continually defining the actions as funny, prompting the home viewer to experience the scene as amusing, rather than feeling sympathy or compassion for the victim’s plight, or searching to understand it.” It is precisely here that we who would make Milgramite art must keep vigilant: in resisting simple story lines and embracing, instead, the ambiguities in our data.

phase 4: co-optation

To the many demerits of City Hall Plaza in Boston I can add this: it is a singularly poor spot to hold a flash mob. It is as if the space were calibrated to render futile any gathering, large or small, attempted anywhere on its arid expanse. All the nearby buildings seem to be facing away, making the plaza’s eleven acres of concrete and brick feel like the world’s largest back alley. There is no nearby community to speak of, the historic neighborhood there—the old Scully Square, a convivial knot of tightly packed apartment houses and popular burlesque theaters—having been entirely razed in the early 1960s. In its stead was laid down a plaza so devoid of benches, greenery, and other signposts of human hospitality that even on the loveliest fall weekend, when the Common and Esplanade and other public spaces teem with Bostonians at leisure, the plaza stands utterly empty save for the occasional skateboarder grinding a lonely path across its long, shallow steps to nowhere. The Hall itself, hailed at its construction as a paragon of what then was approvingly called the “New Brutalist” movement, approximates both the shape and the charm of an offshore oil platform; its concrete facade is now pocked with spalls and dulled by weeping dark patches of smut.

I had traveled to Boston last summer to observe a “Fusion Flash Concert”—a marketing campaign I had first learned of two weeks earlier, through a Financial Times column emailed to me by a friend. A “series of flash mobbing events,” the FT had reported, was “being staged by Ford Motor with Sony Pictures Digital to promote the launch of the new Ford Fusion car.” Weren’t you always concerned about this? _my friend had written in the subject heading. I had never been concerned about it but rather had expected and even welcomed it, since co-optation of the flash mob by the nation’s large conglomerates would, I reasoned, be its final (and fatal) phase. Up to this point, the only sign of co-optation so far had been a 2004 episode of _CSI: Miami, one of the five-top-rated television shows in the nation, that centered around a flash mob. Entitled “Murder in a Flash,” the episode begins with a flash mob that leaves a dead body in its aftermath, but by the end—and here is where the writers really earn their residuals—we learn that the stiff had been there already, the mob sent later by an honest teen to clue police in to the deed.

[5] I have been alerted to an even more ambitious co-optation of the idea by Swatch, the watch company. This winter and spring it is running a competition in which contestants stage flash mobs and send videos of them to the company; the winner will be awarded a free trip to Switzerland. A Swatch press release explains: "By using 'Flash mobbing'—spontaneous gatherings that act out humorous and fun exercises—a simple yet strong synergy with the Swatch brand was unearthed and an opportunity to become the 'Flash Mobber's watch of choice' was there for the taking."

That had been a mere reference to flash mobs, whereas Fusion Flash Concerts was a true co-optation: Ford was itself appropriating the trend, and was doing so in order to make a product seem cool.[5] By presenting myself as an interested member of the news media, I was able to confirm this latter point with Ford directly. Ford was, a spokesman told me by phone, “looking for cool ways to connect with their target audience,” at both a “price point” and what he called a “cool point.” The flash concerts idea, he said, had “a spontaneity and a cool factor that was attached to it.”

He invited me to come and see a flash concert for myself, and of course I agreed. The featured act would be a band called Staind, whose upcoming album Rolling Stone had described as “a unique combo of AA-meeting ballads and fetal-position metal.” Most concertgoers would have to register at the site and wait to receive the details just beforehand, but to a reporter in good standing he was willing to reveal the secret show date. It was a week and a half away, in early August—the same date, as a matter of fact, that Staind’s new album was to be released.

Wandering the site two hours before showtime, I was struck by how every vestige of “flash” had already been stripped from the evening’s event. The “last-minute” emails had in fact gone out six days beforehand. Two radio stations had been tapped to promote the show with ads (“just to pump everything up,” another Ford rep had told me). Newspapers had listed the concert in their daily arts calendars. Here at City Hall Plaza a tremendous soundstage had already been erected, its prodigious backdrop displaying the cover art from Staind’s new album. Phalanxes of motorbike cops rumbled around, eyeing the hundred-strong klatch of diehard Stainders lumped directly before the empty stage. Ford had already set up a hospitality tent, had cordoned off a VIP area, and, atop yard-high stands in the near distance, had perched two new Ford Fusions, the eponymous guests of honor, tilted widthwise as if banking gnarly turns.

While we waited for the sound check, Barry Grant, a Ford rep, offered to show me around the product. Barry was a sunny fellow whose face had a pleasingly Mephistophelian aspect, with a neat goatee and a shaved head atop which unnecessary sunglasses were perched. I knew that recent years had not been kind to Ford; its auto operations were losing nearly a billion dollars a quarter, and in May its bonds were reclassified as junk. Its stock price was down by a third since the beginning of the year, and soon (during the course of the Fusion Flash Concerts series) it would drop by even more.

As Barry and I cut through the crowd toward the Fusions, I asked him in very general terms who Ford thought the car’s ideal customer was likely to be. As it turns out, he said, the company had done a great deal of “psychographic profiling” on just this question.

“What we’re looking at here is someone who’s moving ahead in their lives, they’re moving forward in their career,” he said. “It’s a person who’s entrepreneurial, thinking outside the box. They’re generally young, they’re either in a relationship now or are getting married sometime soon, and they’re into activities like music, technology, exercise.”

[6] Since canceled.

Really, I reflected, he was describing no one so much as myself, whose own marriage was then only six weeks away and who was, at least at that moment, in possession of a gym membership.[6]

“See the contrast stitching, and the nice chrome accents and details, the piano-black finish—all for less than twenty and a half.” Barry gestured through the window at the dash. “It’s all about how this vehicle looks, how it feels, how it moves, you know?” He delivered his final judgment with genuine awe: “I think we’ve hit on all the senses with this one.”

As we talked, a roadie onstage had begun to test the drums individually. With each stroke a deafening clap shot out across the plaza, caromed off a Brutalist wall, and rebounded past us again, barely diminished. I looked around at the crowd, the average age of which was perhaps nineteen, a motley collection of wan goth girls, leathery semidrifters, wiry North Shore bullies in wifebeaters. A bleach blonde wandered by in a tight T-shirt reading no bar’s too far. I remarked to Barry that, psychographically speaking, the crowd did not seem to be what he and Ford had in mind.

It was true, Barry acknowledged, that the Fusion was “really going for people who are mid-twenties to, say, late thirties,” but he added, “We know the vehicle has youth appeal . . . . This vehicle, it kind of shakes things up a little bit. I mean, look at the black one—I think it looks a little bit different from an Accord or Camry.” His tone implied severe understatement.

I looked at the black one. In point of fact, the vehicle shook nothing up. Its design was supremely generic, as if an Accord, a Camry, and every other sedan on the market had been meticulously averaged together. I could safely say that no one present at this concert hoped ever to have to buy this car. A word began to hover in my mind with respect to the Fusion Flash Concerts program, and that word was desperation.

subject population

Boston’s first flash mob, in July of 2003, had been entitled “Ode to Bill.” In it, hundreds had packed the greeting-card aisles of a Harvard Square department store, telling bystanders who inquired that they were looking for a card for their friend Bill in New York. Although the gesture was rendered somewhat hollow by the fact that I failed to receive a single card, I nevertheless approved of Boston’s mob on strictly artistic grounds. Nothing is more defining of hipsterism than semi-ironic coronation of its own celebrities, and by making a half-hearted, jesting attempt to elevate me to celebrity status, Boston had given its mob an appropriately sly turn.

Although the field of hipster celebrities is constantly changing, I have attempted a partial version of the current schema in Figure 5. This phenomenon is, I think, a simple corollary of the drive toward deindividuation as postulated above. I made explicit reference to this in MOB #7, where participants were instructed to materialize suddenly as an immense single-file line leading from a disused door on the side of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The line, which would eventually stretch a quarter-mile around the entire block-sized church, was to be unaccountably present for precisely five minutes; and if, during this time, a bypasser asked the mobbers what they were lining up for, they were to respond that they “heard they’re selling Strokes tickets.” The Strokes were a then-popular rock band among the hipsters.

Wasik_05_550

Almost all of the mobs I organized had been, in some sense, jokes on the subject of conformity. MOB #4 pretended to be a tour group from Maryland (my home state) so excited to be in a New York shoe store that they had to pull out their cell phones and tell their friends about it. There was #6, with the genuflecting in the corporate toy store, and then #8, of course, where in essence the mob followed orders made by speakers on a pole—nothing more straightforward than that, I thought. In #7, though, my point was sharpened somewhat, in that the mob was enacting obedience not just in some generic sense but in specific reference to hipster culture, so that the self-ridicule was made explicit. I was pointing out that hipsters, our supposed cultural avant-garde, are in fact a transcontinental society of cultural receptors, straining to perceive which shifts to follow. I must hasten to add that this is not entirely their fault: the Internet can propagate any flashy notion, whether it be a style of eyewear or a presidential candidacy, with such instantaneity that a convergence on the “hip” tends now to happen unself-consciously, as a simple matter of course.

But hipsters, after becoming aware of this very dynamic, have responded in a curious and counterintuitive way. Even as they might decry this drive toward unanimity, they continually embrace it and re-embrace it in an enthusiastic, almost ecstatic fashion. No phenomenon of recent years illustrated this point as clearly as the aforementioned Strokes, who for most of 2002 held the top-band spot in hipsterdom. This was a band that, albeit enjoyable and skilled, had been clearly manufactured precisely for hipster delectation. Moreover, the hipsters were well aware of this fact, and they complained about it incessantly even as they cued up the record at parties and danced with special abandon. Indeed, one could perceive something palpably different, something animal, in the hipster species when the Strokes came over the speakers; and it was, I think, the reckless, self-abnegating joy of this simple unanimity, of oneness for its own sake. The Strokes made a natural object of this unanimity because their sound—derivative candy, 1970s punk simplicity dressed up with some 1990s indie-rock aloofness—was an easy common denominator. They were no Pixies, no Fugazi, no Joy Division, no band to which pledging allegiance implied the endorsement of a principle. They were, moreover, easily discarded, and the top-band mantle has been passed many times since then, in rapid succession—to equally derivative groups possessing the required sheen of sophistication, such as Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, Bloc Party, and, as of this writing, an outfit called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Popular music, perhaps, has always been a fickle thing. So let us turn to literature. The most significant literary movement the hipsters have produced is McSweeney’s, which itself had essentially the characteristics of a pop-music fad. Soon after Dave Eggers started the journal/website/publishing house in Brooklyn, its writers became not just sought-after publishing prospects but also minor celebrities whose readings across the country soon overflowed with devotees. The style of these readings, which blended attempts at semiserious prose with comedic flourishes and live music, was itself widely mimicked. (If you have ever been forced at a reading to watch Rick Moody play guitar, you have McSweeney’s to blame.) Its minimalist graphic design, sometimes down even to its Garamond typeface, was fast borrowed by publications ranging from webzines to major book houses. And its elliptical prose stylings were duly parroted by what seemed at times to be an entire generation of writers.[7]

[7] I should mention here that I myself made a few minor contributions to McSweeney's and its website. Also, with regard to the preceding paragraph, I own records by all the bands mentioned and have seen some of them live in concert.

Like the Strokes, McSweeney’s promised a cultural watershed for hipsters while making no demands on them. Readers accustomed to a choice between low entertainment and serious literature did not, with this journal, have to make such a choice at all. And for would-be writers, buckling under the weight of the literary task, McSweeney’s mapped out an easier and far more pleasurable route. In its pages literature appeared as a sort of pot-luck barbecue where the young litterateur, merely by whipping up some absurdist trifle or other, could throw the Frisbee with established authors who were publishing their castoffs there. Almost none of the young writers could deploy McSweeney’s style to anywhere near the effect that Eggers, a genuinely affecting writer, could; one suspects that most would have been better (if less well known) writers today if the journal had never existed.

Inevitably, even as McSweeney’s has matured and gained more seriousness of purpose, it has receded in hipster esteem, just as did trucker hats, Hush Puppies, the mullet. Like starlings on a trash-strewn field the hipsters alight together, peck intently for a time, and at some indiscernible signal take wing again at once. If they are the American avant-garde it is true, I think, in only this aspect—the unending churn of their tastes, this adult faddishness in the adolescent style.

propagation tool: the blog

While waiting for the sound check, I was given the opportunity to chat with Howie Cockrill, who wrote the official weblog on the Fusion Flash Concerts website. I had very much hoped to meet Howie and had familiarized myself with his work beforehand, because I hoped to make further study of the blog’s utility as a propagation device. The role that blogs had played in the spread of flash mobs came very much as a surprise to me; at the time, I had thought word of the mobs would spread through forwarded emails alone, so that the mobs themselves would be cross-sections of an unbroken network of acquaintanceship—i.e., any mob attendee would sit at the end of an email chain that stretched back directly, if distantly, to myself. I refused to put up a website for the project, or to reveal the project’s email address to reporters who had not yet learned it, in order that the mob would be made only by this sort of direct person-to-person contact, extended out exponentially. Each person who forwarded the email was, in my view, taking on the project as their own; in enlisting his or her own social network each was as responsible for the mob, earned as much praise or blame for it, as I.

Yet when people had begun to ask if they might post the mob emails on their blogs, I concluded that the answer should be yes. It is true that blogs, like all websites, are inherently undirected, in that anyone can navigate to them as he or she pleases, and this was definitely a concern: I did not want anyone to learn the mob details without making human contact with another mob member. But blogs are by their nature such intimate endeavors that even the most widely read among them seem to foster a sense of close connectedness among their readers. This stems, perhaps, from their inherently arcane content—i.e., the blogger’s ceaseless mental minutiae, of which any avid reader will be a truly compatible soul. A mob spread partly by blogs was still, as I had intended, a virtual community made physical.

Howie’s Fusion Flash Concerts blog, though, was a somewhat more complicated case. He normally wrote on a group blog called “Crazy Talk,” where he offered such comments as the following:

[W]hen bands start to get noticed, all sorts of people come out of the woodwork with contracts & pens, looking to “help their career”—record labels, managers, publicists, publishers, producers, distributors, accounting firms and let’s not forget lawyers. . . . [M]ost artists live completely in the dark about the terms of the contracts they sign, the money coming in and going out, their obligations to the different parties they sign on with and vice versa. . . . [M]usicians are so fucked its not even funny.

But on the Fusion Flash Concerts blog, one encountered a different Howie:

I’m out of breath from typing so much, but there’s just so much to say! So here’s the details for the next flash concert: JERMAINE DUPRI will hit the stage @ 8 PM @ CENTENNIAL PARK in Downtown Atlanta! (Doors open at 6:30 PM). You think its hot in Atlanta now . . . .just wait ’til tomorrow night!

Or:

The Jermaine Dupri show in Atlanta was just plain nuts! His So So Def crew stirred it up good, and the crowd got down so hard that it rained.

Now its time to pass the torch for the next flash concert!

When I met Howie, I brought up this issue of tone and found him admirably self-aware on the subject. He called his posts “experiential reviews,” by which he meant “not, this is what I think of the band, or this is what I think of how the show went, but this is what the audience thought of the show.” He made his point a little more explicit: “I try to infuse a little bit of hyperbole into it. Make it a little bit of a short story, you know what I mean?” In order to chat, he and I had retreated from the din of the crowd into the Plaza’s modernist tundra. Howie is an affable Arkansan with half-tinted glasses and a full but well-maintained blond beard; when not blogging he was a law student at the University of San Francisco, and had been set up with the gig, which he called “the most sweet summer job of all time,” by a friend who worked at Sony. On the subject of Staind, Howie was noncommittal, but he added: “It’s popular for a reason, I guess—you know? And that’s sort of what I have to tap into when I write the reviews. These people obviously love Staind, and there’s a reason that they love Staind.”

The sound check finally went on at nearly 6:30, and afterward I returned to the media desk to wait for the show. A giant Ford rep with a graying goatee asked me about my story. I was writing about what happened to flash mobs, I told him.

He looked at me intensely. “They’re dead,” I thought I heard him say.

I stared back at him. Here, finally, was a Ford rep willing to throw down.

“The Dead,” he said again. “They’d do concerts like this. And raves. Flash concerts are pretty much like raves.” I could barely hide my disappointment at this turn. We looked out at the restless crowd of “flash mobbers” packing up against the stage, their boredom having prompted them to throw a hailstorm of increasingly dangerous material into the air: balloons, then empty water bottles, then full water bottles, then aluminum cans. Sporadic fistfights had begun to break out.

The Ford rep shook his head at the scene and smiled. “Everybody wants to feel like an insider,” he said.

social ramifications: howard dean and “the perfect storm”

In the media coverage of flash mobs, the most curious undercurrent was the notion, almost a wish, that they would someday become something serious. A very smart person named Howard Rheingold happened a year before the fad to have published a book called Smart Mobs, about the phenomenal social ramifications of mobile-phone and other miniaturized computing technologies—ideas that the “flash mob” frankly seemed a nihilistic perversion of, but Rheingold let himself be drawn into the media scrum nevertheless. Without fail it became his role to supply a quote alleging that this completely puerile fad was in fact a harbinger of something important. “[A] symptom of a phenomenon that has a long-term and large-scale effect,” said Rheingold tactfully in the Dallas Morning News, which also referred to him as a “futurist”; “early signs of something that’s going to grow much bigger,” he said in the Christian Science Monitor.

Bloggers tended to share this vision, and as the Mob Project persisted in its absurdism they began to chafe. Even those who did not want the mobs to espouse explicit politics nevertheless hoped they might begin to demonstrate in some way to the surrounding spectators. For example, MOB #6, in the Times Square Toys “R” Us, was the largest and arguably most successful of all the mobs, but almost unanimously the bloggers panned it. “Another Mob Botched,” was the verdict on the blog Fancy Robot: “[I]nstead of setting the Flash Mob out in public on Times Square itself, as everyone had hoped, The Flash Master decided to set it in Toys ‘R’ Us, with apparently dismal results.” SatansLaundromat.com (a photo-blog that contains the most complete visual record of the New York project) concurred—“not public enough,” the blogger wrote, without enough “spectators to bewilder.” Chris from the CCE Blog wrote: “I think the common feeling among these blogger reviews is: where does the idea go from here? . . . After seeing hundreds of people show up for no good reason, it’s obvious that there’s some kind of potential for artistic or political expression here.”

The idea seemed to be that flash mobs could be made to convey a message, but for a number of reasons this dream was destined to run aground. First, as outlined above, flash mobs were gatherings of insiders, and as such could hardly communicate to those who did not already belong. They were intramural play; they drew their energies not from impressing outsiders or freaking them out but from showing them utter disregard, from using the outside world as merely a terrain for private games. Second, flash mobs were by definition transitory, ten minutes or less, and thereby not exactly suited to standing their ground and testifying. Third, in terms of physical space, flash mobs relied on constraints to create an illusion of superior strength. I never held mobs in the open, the bloggers complained, in view of enough onlookers, but this was entirely purposeful on my part, for like Colin Powell I hewed to the doctrine of overwhelming force. Only in enclosed spaces could the mob generate the necessary self-awe; to allow the mob to feel small would have been to destroy it.[8]

[8] This also is why the plan for the Nuclear Option is so grand: huge numbers (hundreds of thousands) of attendees will be required to make a mob-style gathering feel large enough out in the open.

[9] Unsurprisingly, those who believed flash mobs should become political often thought that the beneficiary of this advocacy should be Howard Dean. In a particularly surreal development, after the comic strip Doonesbury featured a character planning a “flash mob for Dean” at Seattle's Space Needle, the mob actually took place as a result.

Four months after the final New York flash mob, there was a series of gatherings in Iowa whose dismal outcome supported my theory on these points. Those gatherings were the “Perfect Storm,” four weekend-long pushes by the Howard Dean campaign in Iowa in advance of that state’s January 19 caucus. In keeping with their name (which, like “flash mob,” employed a properly meteorological metaphor), the Perfect Storm weekends brought in 3,500 out-of-state Dean supporters to walk door to door and stump for their man. The volunteer headquarters occupied an entire city block; the out-of-town storm troopers all wore matching orange stocking caps, precisely to accentuate their number, to flaunt their ubiquity. They were, like a flash mob, a virtual community made physical, in that the great preponderance of the members had developed their relationship with the campaign online.[9] Indeed, Dean’s klatch of cybergurus had come to envision the entire campaign as a form of “social software,” in which supporters dwelled in a virtual locale called “DeanSpace.” When Wired magazine asked one of these gurus (a tech entrepreneur named Joi Ito) how these online masses would be led, he replied, “You’re not a leader, you’re a place. You’re like a park or garden. If it’s comfortable and cool, people are attracted. Deanspace is not really about Dean. It’s about us.”

That is: just like flash mobs, the Dean campaign was also pure scene, the appeal having become less about the candidate than about his chat rooms, and about how connected one felt inside his youthful and seemingly numberless throng. To allow the Dean campaign to feel small—outnumbered, embattled—was to destroy it; and during those four weeks in Iowa, as the orange-hatted 3,500 dissipated out into the frozen plains, spilling out their passion to the politically benumbed, the candidate’s chances collapsed (see Figure 6).

Wasik_06_500

Fig. 6—Dean

experimental effect on subjects

There was, however, one successful element of politics in the flash mob—a vague and dark thing, a purely chaotic impulse that (surprisingly enough, for a fad born of the Internet) was tinged almost with Luddism. It could best be seen at the very moment that a mob came together: a sort of fundamental joy at seeing society overtaken, order stymied; at silently infiltrating this pseudopublic space, this corporate space, these chain stores and shopping malls, and then rising at once to overrun them.

The acme of this feeling was (ironically, given its subsequent panning on just these grounds) MOB #6, which for a few beautiful minutes stifled what has to be the most ostentatious chain store in the entire city: the Times Square Toys “R” Us, whose excesses are too many to catalogue here but include, in the store’s foyer, an actual operational Ferris wheel some sixty feet in diameter. Up until the appointed time of 7:18 P.M. the mobbers loitered on the upper level, among the GI Joes and the Nintendos and up inside the glittering pink of the two-floor Barbie palace. But then all at once the mob, five hundred strong, crowded around the floor’s centerpiece, a life-size animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex that growls and feints with a Hollywood-class lifelikeness. “Fill in all around it,” the mob slip had instructed. “It is like a terrible god to you.”

Two minutes later, the mob dropped to its knees, moaning and cowering at the beast behind outstretched hands; in doing so we repaid this spectacle, which clearly was the product of not only untold expenditure but many man-months of imagineering, with an en-masse enactment of the very emotions—visceral fright and infantile fealty—that it obviously had been designed to evoke. MOB #6 was, as many bloggers pointed out pejoratively, “cute,” but the cuteness had been massed, refracted, and focused to such a bright point that it became a physical menace. For six minutes the upper level was paralyzed; the cash registers were cocooned behind the moaning, kneeling bodies pressed together; customers were trapped; business could not be done. The terror-stricken store personnel tried in vain to force the crowd out. “Is anyone making a purchase?” one was heard to call out, weakly. As the mob dispersed down the escalators and out into the street, the police arrived downstairs, telling us to leave, but we had already accomplished the task, had delivered what was in effect a warning.

Did these dark impulses remain with the participants, I wondered, or did they dissipate with the mob? This question, as it happens, also troubled Stanley Milgram long after his authority experiments were complete; he was bedeviled his entire life by critics who claimed he had permanently changed his subjects, had in fact victimized them. One such critic, the Welsh poet Dannie Abse, wrote a play entitled The Dogs of Pavlov that was loosely based on Milgram’s authority experiments. Before its publication as a book, he sent his introduction, which was directly critical of Milgram, to the professor himself for comment.

In the subsequent exchange, Milgram relates the story of a young man who had been through the study in 1964 and six years later sent a letter to Milgram telling him that, as a result, he was seeking CO status to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

He was going to be sent by our government to Southeast Asia to drop napalm on innocent villagers, to despoil the land, to massacre. He informs me, as many others have done, that the experiment has deepened his understanding of the moral problems of submitting to malevolent authority. He has learned something. He takes a stand. He becomes a conscientious objector. Has he been victimized by the experiment, or has he been liberated by it?

In the same letter, Milgram offers Abse a rationale for the experiments that is stunning in its utter lack of scientific disinterest:

The obedience experiment is not a study in which the subject is treated as a passive object, acted upon without any possibility of controlling his own experience. Indeed the entire experimental situation has been created to allow the subject to exercise a human choice, and thus express his nature as a person.

Was this not what flash mobs could have done, in some purer and more ideal form? I had meant them as an authority experiment, in the Milgramite style, but was not their promise instead to have been the mirror image—an anti-authority experiment,This is precisely what the Nuclear Option is intended to be. When first hearing about the project, each person is presented with a private choice: to join the list and thereby become an insider, privy to the details in advance, or else to face being left out. Even strident opponents, I expect, would reason their way toward joining the list—to monitor its activities, for example, or to wage a counterdemonstration on the appointed day—and thus contribute to its growth. Similarly, once the numerical threshold is crossed and the world awakens to find the Nuclear communiqué in its inbox, each of us will again be faced with a choice: to stay inside, stick to the day’s agenda items as laid out in the planner, or watch as civic order is cut off at the knees. Could a society of spectators resist bearing witness to its own undoing?a play at revolution, an acting-out of the human choice to thwart order?

conclusion

I myself left the “flash concert” ten minutes after it began: the maximum length of a flash mob. I remained, to my own surprise, a flash-mob purist, even though the day’s event had abandoned every precept of the original idea. For the subway ride back to my car I had bought the day’s Globe, and prominent in the Arts section I found a story about the evening’s show.

It began: The “flash mob” concept where people gather on short notice after contacting each other through e-mails and text messages has come to rock ‘n’ roll. This summer’s Fusion Flash Concert series . . .

And this, I realized, was the extent of the co-optation, and perhaps its only point. Ford and Sony did not care to steal the concept, or even to sap its essence. To place stories like this, they needed only to take the term, even if in so doing they stripped it entirely of its meaning. Ford and Sony had managed to take my fad, an empty meditation on emptiness, and to render it even more vacuous. They had become, that is, the new and undisputed masters of the genre.

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

More from Bill Wasik:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content