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'My Name Is Bill . . .'

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 . . .

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.

How’d it go?

That day, I’m getting ready to go, I’m kind of nervous, I have no idea what’s going to happen. The phone rings and it’s my friend. He says, “Is it Claire’s Accessories where the mob is supposed to be?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And he was like, “There are seven policeman and a big police truck outside the store,” and I was like, “Really?”

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.

What’s that?

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.

Were there certain ideas about flash mobs that you felt particularly drawn to? It’s kind of Friendster writ large.

Yes, but while a Web page can give you some notion of being part of a group, it’s very different to then find yourself in a physical space with all those people. It’s a virtual community made literal. Again, these weren’t people who knew each other. It wasn’t an established group who decided to put on an action. Whoever got the e-mail would attend, and they represented the interconnectedness of people in a city. A crowd gathers over the Internet, but suddenly they’re able to meet each other face-to-face . . .

Did the media attention start immediately?

Yes, we started to get TV crews. The media decided it was going to be their fad of the week. The New York Times did a big piece in the Week in Review section. The hilarious thing about The Times was that their first story on flash mobs — which was started in New York — was about how they were really big in Germany. The writer tried very hard to portray the backlash against the phenomenon, which was kind of laughable because the backlash consisted of four disconnected Web sites that had half-jokingly come up with plans to disrupt future events.

Just as the media created a fad that wasn’t really there and thus spread the fad, The Times created a backlash that wasn’t really there.

I found it humorous because I knew this would happen from the beginning. It’s a natural part of the media cycle. It’s great to be the first media outlet to break a story about a fad, but the second best thing is to break a story about the end of a fad.

Growth

How did things develop? How did you solve the problem of the police shutting you down?

I picked bars near the final mob sites, and told people to congregate at those particular bars. We didn’t approach the final site until the last minute. You didn’t encounter the streams of people until the very last minute. By the end I had quite a big e-mail list because whenever someone would e-mail me, I would put them on the list. It was a little bit of a cheat, because the idea was that it would spread through person-to-person contact. But I never set up a Web page, precisely because I didn’t want people to just bookmark a site and get instruction in a passive way. You had to make an effort to get in touch with the person organizing these things and say, “Hey can you make me part of this?” To me, that action was very meaningful. People had to find a blog that had the original e-mail address on it. They had to search.

And what was M.O.B. #2 like?

It went beautifully. There were no problems. The staff at Macy’s was sort of amused by the whole thing. And when we swarmed around this one rug, we carried on this improvised deliberation on whether we were going to buy it or not among these people who had never met each other. The thing that I immediately saw was that I personally knew maybe five or 10 of the 150. So even though I was still pretty much just forwarding the invitation to friends, it had spread far beyond that.

You were seeding it, but it wasn’t necessarily your seeds that were causing all the sprouts.

That was great because I was trying to stay in the background. To me what makes the project exciting are the connections, so if it was Bill’s mob as opposed to just this leaderless Internet mob, then people would be less inclined to take on the project as their own. And that’s what happened. People in other cities began to ask if they could start their own mobs. I said go for it.

Did you give any more guidance?

I would tell them how we were doing it, but after a while they just took the idea and ran with it. That happened almost immediately after that second mob. Wired News did a piece, the bloggers picked up the story and e-mails started to come a few days after that. Within a week there were chapters in at least four or five different cities. A few weeks after that, it started to happen in other countries. So, the whole thing just blew up in this ridiculous way.

Now you mention Wired and bloggers. I remember the stories describing this as a San Francisco thing. Very Silicon Valley, very technological.

Actually, it was very un-technological. It was done through e-mail, and then when we’d get to the bars, we’d hand out slips of paper. We never even used cell phones. If people text-messaged more in this country, the whole thing may have run over some sort of SMS messaging thing, but heck, this could have been accomplished with fliers and word of mouth.

Did you just say heck?

Yes. It’s in the spirit of things. The whole thing was a little homespun.

Theory and Praxis

In some ways, in its pointlessness, flash mobs remind me of the work of Shepard Fairey, the guy who invented “Obey Giant” and began putting up all those “Andre Had a Posse” stickers that you see everywhere. He has described his project as an extension of Martin Heidegger’s ideas about phenomenology. He said the first aim is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. Does that resonate with you?

In the nicest possible way I actually saw flash mobs as something of an authority experiment. An art magazine once asked me what my artistic influences were, and I said that the artist that had influenced me the most was [social psychologist] Stanley Milgram [best known for his Obedience to Authority experiments]. The events I did in New York had an undercurrent of poking fun at everyone for being such a herd. Most of them had some dimension of obeisance or self-congratulation.

What do you mean by self-congratulation?

The participants would feel that they were cool just for participating. On some level I intended it as commentary on scenesterism, the idea that you could get hipsters to come out to anything they thought would be the next big thing, just because it’s the next big thing.

I feel like the reason a lot of people live in big cities is that we have this sense that we want to get close to the center of things, so we’re always looking for the next big band, or the next big author — partly because we really do love art and want to experience it, but partly because, in these short lifetimes, we want to get as close as we can to the greatness that might be around us.

So flash mobs are people getting together to the one point of greatness?

Yes, but of course that’s the trick. Generally speaking, the closer you get to the center of things in artistic spheres the more you realize the center doesn’t really exist. When you try to get close to it, the thing kind of evaporates. Flash mobs invite people to a non-existent center. For example, in the third mob, we lined the banister of this hotel and stared down into the lobby for five minutes. Two hundred people lined this huge, city block-sized balcony, and after five minutes we just applauded. The idea being it was just this crowd of people, but at the center of it was a vacancy.

Another way of looking at it is to acknowledge there is a social dimension to experiencing art. Your friend invites you to a concert or a reading, and you go in part because you want to be out in the scene, and see people who like to experience the same things. There’s a social commonality. Flash mobs are sort of like those scenes, but it dispenses with the art entirely. All you’re left with is the social connections.

It sounds to me like an art project that got out of control.

I intended it as a prank, but in its execution the prank became a piece of performance art. After the mob had formed, people just walking down the street would see this huge crowd, and add themselves to it, just because they wanted to know what was going on. The joke got people there but, in coming, they unwittingly became part of something that was beautiful and meaningful.

In what way?

Well, eventually I decided that what made it a compelling idea was that you were disrupting the flow of people in a city. You go down the same streets all the time and you pass hundreds of stores. You might pass the same store every day and never see more than three people inside. And I liked the idea that one day you would walk by that store and suddenly there would be 150 people, and they’d be spilling out onto the sidewalk, and they’d be yelling and screaming like they wanted what that store had to offer so much . . .

Politics and Commerce

Do you see political implications in flash mobs?

I’ll be honest. When I started I really saw it as a gag that had an artistic dimension at the end. I expressly tried to make the mobs absurd and apolitical — in part because I wanted them to be fun, in part because I didn’t want anyone to see them as disrespectful of protest, or as parody. What I didn’t expect was how many people would see the mobs as political statements.

You mentioned the group Reclaim the Streets. Wasn’t that quite similar to what you were doing?

Reclaim the Streets was a movement started in London in the mid-’90s. It later spread to a couple of other cities. The basic premise was to have guerrilla street parties. They would show up on a block, and erect three or four huge metal tripods that were sort of like ladders. People would climb up and just stand on the tops of the tripods, effectively blocking the street, and using themselves as human shields. The police or the fire department couldn’t just knock them over, or they’d hurt the person at the top. They would have to call in cherry pickers to get the people off.

If I recall correctly, they had some ties to the rave movement, and would freeze up traffic for hours. Their actions, like yours, were a bit like the tourist traffic jam scene in Jean Luc-Godard’s Weekend: bourgeois society collapsing under its own weight. You’re not an anarcho-syndicalist or something like that?

I am a political person — I’d taken part in protests before — but I’d never organized one. I didn’t want these things to be frivolous, where the point is saying, “Hey, who cares about anything, let’s just go and worship a dinosaur.”

It’s not nihilistic.

Not at all. And the more I did them, the more I realized the mobs actually did have a deeply political value. The nature of public space in America today has changed. It’s shopping malls, large chain stores, that kind of thing. The presumption is that you’re going to purchase something, but once you try to express yourself in any other way, suddenly you’re trespassing. New York City is blessed with a bunch of real public spaces, but at this point, if you’re young in America, chances are you have grown up without authentic public space. I discovered that it was political to go into one of those stores.

As long as you weren’t buying refrigerator magnets.

Right. It wasn’t commercial in any way. That was very liberating. At first, I denied any political interpretations, but eventually I became won over to the political power of my own project. It’s not as if we had a big meeting and drafted a manifesto. I didn’t know where my comrades were coming from. I had no idea. Like any reporter, I was forced to rely on anecdotal evidence — things that people told me, e-mail that people sent. Some people liked it because it was funny, many liked it because it was social, but the more I talked to people doing it in other cities, the more I came to the conclusion that it was coming out of a baseline political consciousness.

Did you ever think of trying to make the flash mobs exercise those politics more explicitly?

No, I didn’t. My sense was that you couldn’t do a flash mob that was political in a meaningful way. They were too ephemeral. At the point when it might get in people’s faces and confront them with something, they just dissipate.

Maybe sound-bite protests are the best way to make an impact in a sound-bite culture. Did you ever think of how much media attention you were getting compared to actual protests?

I thought about it a lot. And the protesting groups never tired of reminding me. Flash mobs spread so quickly, and so many people wanted to do them, and a lot of the more political, guerrilla-type art-slash-protest groups were pretty irritated — and for good reason. A lot of them were doing actions that were every bit as clever that never got any attention because they were political.

At one point, you’d mentioned to me that you were even worried about Pepsi or Kmart somehow appropriating the idea?

My personal sense is that corporations wouldn’t be able to pull it off. The kind of people who participated in flash mobs have pretty sensitive bullshit detectors. Certainly they would never get burned twice. If you showed up to a flash mob and realized you’d been made the unwitting tool of some corporation, you wouldn’t be very happy.

Many people in the blog world had suspicions that I might be a corporate operative. I kept joking that at the very end, the last mob was building up to the opening of a new Applebee’s.

Endings and a New Beginning?

How did things draw to an end?

Well, the last mob I did got completely out of my control. It was on 42nd Street near Sixth Avenue. I had created a recording and was playing it on a boom box. It was a voice that led people in a bunch of cheers and chants and various things. The idea was people would listen to this disembodied voice, as if from a loudspeaker, and would respond to it. It was a commentary on people obeying a nothing. But once people began to chant, they began to drown out the sound from the boom box, so they just started performing various actions that would just spread through the crowd.

Then there was just this guy who showed up. Somehow, he had a neon sign in a briefcase, and he started showing people this neon sign so everybody thought he was the feature performer of the event. They started to follow him, some people had their pictures taken with him, that sort of thing. A couple minutes into it, I just walked away and let it take whatever course it was going to take. It was the perfect ending to the project because it was as if the mob had developed its own logic.

Was it hard to let go?

Any creative project has to evolve or stop. If a thing doesn’t have an arc to it, it has to get off stage. In fact, part of the reason I stopped doing them was that I didn’t really feel there was a way for the concept to evolve into something more political, because of the constraints that I had put on it. Everything was supposed to be silly but, more importantly, the gatherings were only supposed to last for 10 minutes.

Then what was the point?

Early on, people would ask me, Why are you doing this? What is the purpose behind this project? And I would very confidently give an answer. But as it started to spread, the questions started to change. Suddenly, the question was why do you think people respond to this idea? Why has this become such a big phenomenon? I’d try to explain it, but basically, I’m as much of an outsider to the question as anyone who might ask me. It certainly wasn’t based on this absurdist hipster comedy I was thinking about.

So what was it?

The way I’ve come to think of the flash mobs is that it was an experiment in using e-mail to bring strangers together in a collective action directed toward simple politics. In these specific cases, people choosing fun. My hope is that someone will take the premises that made flash mobs so popular, and they will become tools in the tool kits of people who want to do art projects, or want to do political projects.

You’re saying the meme is out there.

Yes. People have already forwarded me invitations, not flash mobs per se, but the pieces of it were there. Synchronizing watches, clever e-mails being forwarded around, making people feel like secret agents, getting people to converge at the same place at the same time. The overall concepts are still out there, and I hope the best use of those ideas has yet to come.

Have you ever thought of doing some kind of follow-up project?

I have some ideas, but I’m not really . . .

. . . at liberty to say?

I’m not really ready to talk about them on the record.

Do you think it will come during the summer months?

Generally, I think street actions are always going to be a little bit better in the summertime.

Why the semi-secrecy, by the way? Why are you even telling me your name is Bill, beyond the fact that it’s appropriately anonymous, “My name is Bill W.” or some such?

I was going to stay completely out of it, but they were doing these sort of person-on-the-street interviews, and they randomly talked to a woman who knew me, and she just said, I’m here because I know Bill and he organized it. Once they had that on tape and they found me, I realized it would be a bit prima donna–ish to say, Well, I refuse to interview with you. Plus, I’ve had a number of people tell me I have a good name to be an anonymous organizer. It’s the name I was born with.


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