Flash mobs and surprise parties

I guess it’s because I haven’t lived in any big cities in the last few years, but I’ve mostly missed the “flash mob” phenomenon. I‘ve been reading about it because of the wonderful Christmas present given shoppers at an Ontario food court and in Philadelphia’s Macy’s Department Store. The YouTube recording of both events has been making the rounds all over the Internet. I’m self-conscious about being a sucker for Christmas music and try to stay dry-eyed through every “Silver Bells” I chance to hear, but when people going about their day suddenly find themselves in the middle of a massive choir singing the Messiah, when hundreds of full-throated choristers introduce the subject of the Divinity in the most mundane of settings, well… what can you do but cry, or at least swallow hard?

Wikipedia defines a flash mob as “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, then disperse.” Strictly, speaking, the appellation applies only to gatherings organized through e-mail or one of the social media, which may eliminate both Messiahs. It may also eliminate another Internet favorite—when 200 dancers who a moment before were simply more coming-and-going passengers—started dancing to the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music in a Belgian train station. Whatever. They were all three surprising and joyful interruptions to everyday life.

Apparently, flash mobs began in 2003 with an action in New York City instigated by a Harper’s Bazaar editor named Bill. More than 100 people gathered around an expensive carpet in a ninth-floor rug department, explaining to the sales people that they lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York, that they made all their purchase decisions as a group, and were shopping for a “love rug.”

 

Pillow fight. Photo by Jonathan S. Igharas. 2006. Creative Commons license.

The phenomenon spread rapidly. There was a worldwide pillow fight day that broke out in 25 cities around the globe. Flash mob participants suddenly appeared at a Toys-R-Us to worship a huge toy dinosaur. Dressed as twins (maybe all of them were!), they gathered on a subway car, each person paired with their look-alike, and mirrored each other’s actions. The video of this particular action is not only amusing: it’s wonderful ballet. In London, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, began singing “Hey Jude.”

Another lovely Christmas event happened last year in Times Square when a lone Salvation Army bell-ringer was joined one-by-one by 14 professional bell ringers. Watching as his confusion turned to amazement, at the same time as he kept on ringing, was a Christmas treat.

Flash mob actions can be very special—kind of like surprise parties. And they can turn bad just  like some surprise parties do. Unfortunately, some are becoming political. Some are turning into a form of advertising. Worse, some have become criminal:  in Philadelphia mobs of teenagers have gone on destructive rampages. In some European cities, flash mobs have been made illegal, sometimes more because of their inconvenience than their lawlessness. Even in San Francisco where celebration is often the norm, rules were put in place after too many pillow feathers were left to the street cleaners and the taxpayers.

It’s sad that it may end, this creative activity that has no purpose except that we can all do it together—this mass art that makes us laugh, dance and sing. One newspaper declared it therapeutic in a hectic, economically depressed Christmas season. But as joyful as a mob of people can be singing the Hallelujah chorus, taking off their pants in the subway, or applauding each other for no reason at all… a mob can also turn into just that—a mob. Not hundreds of artists, not hundreds of art appreciators, but a depressing variation.

I think there may be something to learn about social media in all this. I wish we could learn it quickly, whatever it is, and keep right on surprising ourselves with laughter, music and mime in the least likely places.

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