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'My Name Is Bill . . .' 

A Q&A with the anonymous founder of flash mobs

Thursday, Aug 5 2004
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Illustration by Julie West

Date: Tue, 27 May 2003 17:46:01 -0700 (PDT)
From: The Mob Project
themobproject@yahoo.com
Subject: MOB #1

To: themobproject@yahoo.com

You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for 10 minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join . . .

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On Tuesday, June 19, 2003, at precisely 7:27 p.m., approximately 150 individuals gathered in the rug department of Macy’s midtown location in Manhattan. In orderly fashion, they surrounded a $10,000 Persian-style carpet. The mob explained that they were together, lived in a communal warehouse in Long Island City, and were in the market for a Love Rug. At exactly 7:37 p.m. the mob dispersed — sans rug — and as they exited the department store, they went their separate ways. Completely flummoxed, the department’s chubby salesman in an off-the-rack beige suit stood there, massaging his jowls and wondering: What the hell was that?

It was the world’s second flash mob. And it was hardly the last. Wired News picked up on the event, bloggers galore linked to the story, and within a month flash mobs had occurred in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Austin and Minneapolis. Soon, the trend went international. Flash mobs occurred in Amsterdam and Australia, Singapore and São Paulo, then Dublin, Zurich, Vienna. On a Wednesday in mid-August last year a crowd gathered in front of the American embassy in Berlin, popped a bottle of champagne, and toasted a non-existent woman named Natasha.

At the time, flash mob’s mysterious founder, a New Yorker named Bill who will say only that he “works in the culture industry,” gave a few enigmatic quotes. “This isn’t a movement,” he told The New York Times, “it’s a pre-movement.”

By November, the phenomenon faded in the press. So were flash mobs 2003’s version of the pet rock, or could they birth something grander? It’s hard to say at this point, but conversation teases out possibilities that a news blip does not. And so, L.A. Weekly tracked down Bill for an exclusive Q&A about the phenomenon.

Beginnings

L.A. WEEKLY: How did you come to start flash mobs?

BILL: Well, I had this idea that I’d do a performance project last summer. I wanted to have some sort of e-mail that people would forward to people who would forward it to people. The e-mail would be clever enough or funny enough to get people to see the show. I kicked around a couple of ideas for what that show might be, and then I was in the shower one day and I thought, What if there wasn’t a show? What if people were invited to just come to a place for no reason? I started to think through what that would be. It’s a mob. The idea was that the audience would become the performance. And I thought, that’s kind of funny. I figured if I told people it’d be a mob, it’d actually make them more likely to come, because while they’d know it was completely purposeless, they would enjoy it in spirit.

Practically speaking, how did it start?

I created a Yahoo account — themobproject@yahoo.com — and worked up an e-mail message. The subject head was “MOB #1.” I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a MOB #2, but I figured it would make people more likely to come if they thought it was part of some ongoing project.

I was to be extremely specific about what people were supposed to do. You were supposed to synchronize your watch, because I realized that to make it work for less than 10 minutes, people would have to be on time or the whole thing would be messed up. I mean, people in New York can be 10 minutes late just on the basis of having their watches set differently. So I told everyone to synchronize their watches to a specific government time site.

I e-mailed the invitation to myself, then forwarded it from my own account to about 50 people. I also arranged with a couple of my friends who are performers to send it to their e-mail lists. I had no idea how many people would actually come.

What was the first event?

I picked a store near Astor Place called Claire’s Accessories. It was the kind of store you walk by all the time. They sell hair scrunchies and barrettes and, you know, it seems like a fine accessories store, but you never see more than a few people shopping there. The premise was that people would arrive, fill the entire store, and that those trapped outside would start chanting “Accessories!” I instructed people to break up based on the month of their birth and approach from different streets, because I knew if they came from the same direction it would be as if a mob was traveling as opposed to forming at the last minute. It had to seem impromptu.

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