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Flash mob: Startling, fun and resilient fad

Updated on November 12, 2013

Wherever this fad pops up its greeted by smiles and applause


Video samples include some unusual and historic flash mobs

Russia: 'Putting on the Ritz' mob

Grand Central Station freeze mob

Sweden: A horizontal flash mob

Fads. They come and go. Fads start with the young; many are born on college campuses. In the 1920 and 30s flapper era, Americans were captivated by the dance marathon craze. In the decades that followed, the country was fascinated by live goldfish swallowing, streaking, tie dye shirts, planking, twerking and many others.

Flash mob is one of the current fads enjoyed by millions throughout the world.

This craze involves groups of people who suddenly appear in public places. They perform a prearranged act, usually involving singing and dancing. After a brief time the flash mob disperses as swiftly as they appeared. Some flash mobs are arranged to highlight marriage proposals, anniversaries and retirements or to showcase a product. Most are staged just for the fun of it.

Most of us weren’t there to witness hundreds of flash mobbers freeze for a minute in New York City’s bustling Grand Central Station ► or to watch a group of Australian sun worshipers jump off their beach blankets, dig their heels in the sand and begin singing and dancing en masse. But we’ve seen these flash mobs on YouTube.

As with all fads that are indicative of their time, this craze is tied in with today’s technology. Flash mob participants usually receive instructions about an upcoming flash mob event via Webmail or text messages sent to their smartphones. These phones are also prominently displayed at the event as hundreds of people record the flash mob and post it on social media.

The flash mob is one of those fads that’s nearly universally accepted as a positive, enjoyable experience.

Google “Flash Mob” and you get 260 million hits. Search for it on YouTube and you’ll find 15.6 million videos (6.6 million this year alone). Most flash mobs include music, dancing and singing. These activities induce smiles and applause from the public, which unexpectedly becomes an audience.

Think of flash mob videos. As you watch them you start smiling. Well, they make me smile — even the awful ones.

Perhaps that’s why flash mobbing continues to have a loyal following and is still a fad after ten years.

Jerusalem: Classical music mob

Denver Airport: 'In the Mood' etc.

South Korea: 'Singing in the Rain'

Maryland students – a seated mob during a basketball game

The first flash mob flopped

The first flash mob occurred in New York City in 2003. It began as a sociology experiment created by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Wired Magazine. (He held the same position at Harper's Magazine in 2003.) He said this fad “started on a lark.”

After a failed first attempt, (when NYC authorities were tipped off) Wasik arranged the first successful flash mob on June 3, 2003. Over 100 people flash mobbed Macy’s rug department. Once assembled, the mob members told store clerks they all lived together in a commune and we’re buying a “love rug” for their home.

Two days later, Wired News ran a story under the headline “Email Mob Takes Manhattan.” Bloggers picked up the story and soon Wasik was getting emails from others interested in the fad. Folks in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston and elsewhere asked him for flash mob advice.

The following month, Wasik staged a flash mob (MOB #3) in the lobby and mezzanine of a NYC hotel. The mobbers took their positions and on cue they burst into applause for 15 seconds. Many New Yorkers didn’t realize at the time, but they were witnessing the beginning of a cultural phenomenon.

Soon flash mobs popped up across the country, then they spread to Europe and were exported around the world. “Even the usually staid Swiss are getting into the act,” reported the Toronto Star in August 2003.

The fad hadn’t been christen “flash mob” in its early days. Wasik called his craze “mob.” He explains in Harper’s that he “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,” Wasik recalls for Harper’s, “I did perhaps thirty different interviews, not only with local (New York) newspapers, but also with Time, the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and countless websites.”

Australia: Dancing on the beach

Holiday mob singing 'Hallelujah'

London mob: 8 different dances

London mob: Behind the scenes

Over the top proposal mob

"Oh! That swarming thing"

The Christian Science Monitor captured the craze in August 2003: “They've burst into applause on the mezzanine of New York's Grand Hyatt, whirled like dervishes on San Francisco streets and jerked robotically in the Mall of America. Now they're milling through the aisles of the Harvard Coop bookstore in Cambridge. ‘Oh my God, they're doing that thing in our store,’ says a cashier, ‘that swarming thing.’

“The ‘flash mob’ phenomenon," the Monitor continued, “is part sanctioned insanity, part Seinfeld on the loose, part nonsensical wanderings through city streets en masse.”

Clay Shirky, New York University professor, said flash mobs are a "cross between streaking and being in a marching band,” according to the Monitor.

As the fad grew in popularity, some organizers were surprised with the number of participants their events attracted. In February 2009, Liverpool Street Station was flash mobbed by thousands of dancers, who performed eight different types of dances.

"The entire main concourse was packed full of people dancing, cheering and screaming," reported Simon Hooper of CNN. "There were camera flashes going off constantly. There were also loads of people crammed around the edge of the upper level of the station, looking down at the scene below... but nobody seemed to mind too much. Everyone seemed pretty good humored," he said.

People have accepted this fad and that’s why it continues to thrive.

Comedian Charlie Todd, founder of a group that organizes flash mobs in New York, told CNN the goal of the craze is to brighten people’s lives.

“We bring excitement to otherwise unexciting locales and give strangers a story they can tell for the rest of their lives,” Todd said. “We're out to prove that a prank doesn't have to involve humiliation or embarrassment; it can simply be about making someone laugh, smile, or stop to notice the world around them.”

One of the unique aspects of flash mobs is the highlight for mob organizer Wasik. “I love seeing all the people come together, seemingly out of nowhere," he said.

"Flash mobs are fun because they are out of the ordinary,” said flash mobber Fred Hoysted. “They are a shared activity and a silly one at that," he told CNN.

"Joyous fun" is how flash mobber Suzie Sims-Fletcher termed the fad. "It breaks down everybody's routine," she told the Monitor. "And there's a certain weird camaraderie."

Inappropriate or healing mobs?

While it’s okay to break into dance in the middle of a mall, you can take this fad a little too far as Yankee Peddler, an animation company, captured in a video entitled “Inappropriate Flash Mob.” ▲

The funny flick shows people flash mobbing during: a funeral, surgery, riding an elevator, a bank robbery, a newscast and on a spaceship.

Perhaps Dr. Deborah Cohan, a gynecologist, never saw that cartoon because she staged a dancing flash mob on Nov. 7, 2013, before her mastectomy surgery. The six-minute YouTube video went viral. ▼

She “organized a flash mob inside an operating room moments before she underwent a (double) mastectomy,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

Dr. Cohan and her medical team, all wearing surgical masks and scrubs, shake to Beyonce's "Get Me Bodied." The video, which ends with hugs and thank yous, is a testament to the infallible human spirit.

The cancer patient said the flash mob was good therapy because it took her mind off the upcoming operation. “I was more nervous about how the flash mob was going to go than how the surgery was going to go," Dr. Cohan said.

On the CaringBridge website numerous people pay tribute to her spirit. “I can't stop watching your video," said one poster. “You are a true champion and my hero!! May your spirit continue to soar and touch others.”

Multitude of marvelous mobs

As the fad grew and evolved the type of mobs diversified. They include:

• air guitar flash mobs

• "Where's Waldo?" flash mobs

• silent dancing flash mobbing

• clucking chicken flash mobs

• finger gun fighting flash mobs

• ninja flash mobs

• pillow-fighting flash mobbers

One of the songs most used by early flash mobbers was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with hundreds of dancers acting like zombies. Beyonce's hits seem to appeal to a lot of mobbers,as do classic rock and show tunes.

In a few years, the fad which originally challenged conformity became more and more mainstream. In 2009, organizers, who initially staged their events as a fun and creative outlet, went commercial.

One mob company, Dance Mob Nation, charges an average of $2,000 to $4,000 per event and as much as $10,000, depending on the presentation. The Cadillac of the fad is Flash Mob America. It claims “to create Joy thru Surprise” and charges up to $80,000 to produce that at corporate events.

The Wall Street Journal reported that after businesses started contacting the San Francisco group known as Bay Area Flash Mob it transitioned from free to fee. "We never dreamed corporate America would call us up," Carol Johnstone, the group’s co-founder, told the Journal.

Companies are aware of the public’s acceptance of flash mobs and want to be associated with the fad.

The positive feelings people get when watching flash mobs are often "transferred to the brand responsible for creating the experience," Brad Haley, an executive with Carl's Jr., told the Journal. To promote a new chicken sandwich, Carl's Jr. contracted for a funky-chicken dance flash mob.

Unfortunately, thieves have recently corrupted flash mobbing by swarming stores and stealing merchandise. Many of these teen gangs roll entire clothes racks out the front door. The media has dubbed these thefts “flash robs.” Many of these coordinated thefts have occurred primarily in Philadelphia and Chicago. Other flash robberies have happened in other eastern and mid-west cities.

These criminal flash robs haven’t adversely affected flash mobs. After being a part of our culture for a decade, flash mobbers don’t seem ready to hang up their boom-boxes just yet.

Periodically, there have been stories about its demise, but the fad hasn’t faded. Flash mobs continue to surprise and delight city dwellers. And videos are regularly uploaded to YouTube featuring the latest flash mob that suddenly popped up somewhere on the planet. –TDowling

© 2013 Thomas Dowling


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    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks again for your positive comments, HappyMikeWriter.

      You and a guy commenting on another of my Hubs are going to make my head swell up so large I won't be able to fit through the doorway.



    • HappyMikeWritter profile image


      4 years ago

      OMG I had to read this twice but I guess I had to do it again. This one is soo cool. I mean How do you come up with something like this? Excellent!


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