By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Sure enough we get there, and somebody has told the store, the store has called the police, and it’s just swarming with cops. They didn’t let more than about 15 people in, and didn’t even let the rest of us stand in front. There were around 50 people milling about, but a lot more came, saw the police, and just kept walking. It’s impossible to say how many people showed up, but essentially the first mob didn’t happen. It wasn’t a bona fide mob.
Once I saw the police had broken it up I got kind of mad. When the second e-mail came, I think a lot of people who received it felt the way I did — we wanted to have our fun, and our fun was denied to us. And, like me, they said, “I’m really going to forward this along now.”
Don’t let The Man shut you down.
Yeah, everybody got a little more aggressive. There was no reason for the police to come. There’s no way you could have read the e-mail and thought that anyone was going to do something threatening. It was harmless fun.
Just factually speaking, how many of these did you organize, and just how big did it get?
There were eight. Four hundred people showed up to the biggest one. This was the one at Toys R Us in Times Square. There’s a giant Jurassic Park animatronic dinosaur on the second floor that is extremely lifelike. It growls and roars its head back and lunges and that kind of thing. The premise was that people would fall to their knees and worship the dinosaur as if it were a god, and whenever it growled they would moan and cower behind their outstretched hands. The overall effect was just amazing. The second floor of Toys R Us was literally covered with people. It was one of the most astonishing things I’d ever seen. Basically, we had taken over. For like 10 minutes.
Inspiration and Backlash
Where did the name “flash mobs” come from? Did you make that up?
No, I didn’t. I had called it “the inexplicable mob.” It was interesting, actually, how right from the start, things began to mirror the conceptual logic of the project itself. Everybody was an outsider, even me. I think the name “flash mobs” was coined by one of the bloggers. The specific inspiration was a novella by this science fiction writer, Larry Niven, called Flash Crowd. It has a neat premise. In his story, after time travel is perfected, everyone wants to go back in time to witness the same big historical events. So there is this phenomenon where right before these important events, crowds of time travelers will appear. Like at JFK’s assassination, suddenly all these extra people will just show up, then disappear when it’s over.
[Twenty years later, the term passed into common use on the Internet to describe exponential spikes in Web-site or server usage — it’s also called the slashdot effect.]
Would you cite any real historical precedents to what you were doing?
Well, certainly they exist. (See “A Brief History of Spontaneous Gatherings.") Going back to the ’60s, you have things like Situationism in France. In the ’90s, you had Spencer Tunick’s group nudes, the Reclaim the Streets movement, which is still going on today. There’s Chengwin, which is this kind of street theater where people gather to see a giant, fuzzy half-chicken, half-penguin dance in the street. There’s also the Madagascar Society. They once did this thing where they all dressed as pirates and rode the Staten Island Ferry. There’s S-A-N-T-A-R-C-H-Y.
It’s this Christmas thing where everybody dresses up in Santa suits and runs around. You could even go back to Michael Alig, the Party Monster guy. He did all these outlaw parties in New York, in the late ’80s, in subway stations and McDonald’s. He would show up with 100 club kids, and they would have a debauched party in the middle of McDonald’s. People still do subway parties.
I was thinking more along the lines of Critical Mass bike rallies up in San Francisco, but okay. So, were you pretty aware of all this stuff?
No. That’s the thing. I wasn’t aware of it at all, but a lot of people got in touch to tell me about them after the flash mob thing started. It was incredibly humbling and cool to see all this stuff had been done before. However, these predecessors were all highly organized. To me, the thing that was really interesting about flash mobs was that the people who were taking part in them were clearly not the type of people who would have taken part in protests or street theater. A lot of them were people who just got the e-mail and felt incredibly curious.
There was a low barrier to entry. You didn’t have to get a certain kind of haircut.
Exactly. You didn’t have to feel like you were cool. It got a lot of people to do something that was a little punk, and a little oppositional, just because they thought it was a clever idea and they wanted to see what would happen. But by seeing what would happen, they became a part of the mob, and the mob grew.