Mob rule: The phenomenon of flash mobbing

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They appear in public places as if by chance, perform random acts of communal silliness, then disappear. Madeleine North celebrates five years of flash mobbing – and reflects on the joyful pointlessness of it all

It started five years ago, in the rug department of Macy's, New York, and shows no signs of letting up. In fact, flash mobbing is bigger than ever. The Chambers Dictionary describes the phenomenon thus: "A group of people who arrange to assemble briefly in a public place to perform some activity, often of a humorous or surreal nature." These "activities", word of which is spread via forwarded e-mails, social networking sites, text messages and water-cooler conversations, have taken the form of silent discos, kiss mobs, musical statues without the music, Circle Line parties, shouting in the manner of stock exchange traders, "wobbly bridge" congas – and the most recent incarnation, rick mobbing, rick rolling or, to give it its full Latin name, The Rick Astley Flash Mob, in which hundreds of people descend on a rush-hour station concourse and sing, a cappella, the lyrics to "Never Gonna Give You Up". And then leave.

If there is a finer way to do something pointless, I'd like to hear it.

Initiated by a New York journalist in the summer of 2003, flash mobbing is very much a city thing. There's a reason you don't hear about Llanmadoc's village post office besieged by, say, flash huggers. If there are no spectators to surprise, no swathes of busy people whose flow can be interrupted, well, then it really would be the most pointlessly pointless of acts.

But just why has something so apparently trifling endured? The Situationists of the Sixties would no doubt have had an answer. Perhaps it's because flash mobs possess that satisfying mix of harmless anarchism, gleeful interaction, an element of performance art and much power-to-the-people-ness – the allure of which, in increasingly rule-obsessed times, is not to be underestimated. But, in essence, it's a little bit of mischief, a hiccup in people's ordered day: at best it makes those being "mobbed" smile, at worst it adds a few extra strides on to their journey home. And let's face it, it's cities that are most in need of these random outbursts of silliness, these light-hearted nudges not to take things too seriously all the time.

Things do occasionally get out of hand. A Facebook-engineered water-fight mob in Leeds a few months back wound up with a lot of trampled plants and a fairly unamused city; another in London's Hyde Park at the end of July resulted in a punch in the face for one teenage girl; then there was the messy and widely reported Tube-train party at the end of May (an example of how flash mobbing's turned political – this one was organised in protest at the drinking-on-the-Tube ban). Not exactly in the spirit of the original events: early pillow-fight mobbers were kindly requested to clear their feathers up after them.

That said, the "movement" has undoubtedly tapped into, and sometimes paved the way for, a different sensibility. There's now a team of "guerrilla gardeners", for instance, sprucing up ugly urban spots with some covert planting; a Free Hugs Campaign, in which participants walk around with a banner declaring their willingness to offer strangers a squeeze (early American huggers were briefly stopped in their efforts because they didn't have "public liability insurance"; a 10,000-strong petition took care of that); and there's the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation – self-explanatory, and the gentlest kind of people power.

The point, surely, in a world threatened by big acts of God, and big acts by people who think they're God, is to keep doing small things that buck the trend. As one replete pillow-fight mob attendee put it: "This is how we should really fight wars."

So, in honour of a nobly inane concept, we salute flash mobbing and celebrate its fifth birthday with a look at its most gloriously harebrained moments:

Britain's very first flash mob

The date? 7 August 2003. The venue? A sofa shop near Tottenham Court Road, central London. Around 200 people tipped up on the dot of 6.30pm, flooded the furniture store and simultaneously made mobile phone calls praising the goods on offer. It was an elaborately orchestrated affair: the initial e-mail only revealed that flash mobbers had to congregate at one of three pubs in the vicinity, the boozer you chose dependent on your star sign. Once there, participants were surreptitiously handed pieces of paper entitled "London Mob No 1: Sofa So Good", on which were written further instructions, including a rule about not using the letter "O" while cooing over the settees. The shop's manager, nursing an end-of-day pint at a nearby pub, first of all thought there was a fight in his shop, then a celebrity. After that he was just baffled. One mobber commented: "People were walking around hugging cushions, which was nice."



Zombie Mobs

Now, zombie mobs – or zombie marches, hordes, lurches, shuffles, walks or pub crawls – take themselves slightly more seriously than your average mob. There are debates and whole blogs devoted to appropriate zombie behaviour, realistic zombie sounds or utterings, and whether or not they're really into eating brains. So don't just turn up to the next zombie gathering with some ketchup round your mouth and a torn shirt and think that'll do. You will get some irate zombies after you. Actually you won't. Because zombies cannot express normal human emotions. They can just moan. And chew their arms off. I think that's right. Anyway, the idea of a zombie mob is for participants, dressed appropriately, to make their way in an orderly zombie fashion, through town to the nearest cemetery. If, say, asked for directions, they should not respond, "Sure, just carry on up here, past the supermarket, and it's on your right", but should rather "communicate in a manner consistent with zombie behaviour". If you're not sure what that entails, rent Return of the Living Dead on DVD.



Silent Disco

"Dance like you've never danced before." These were the instructions e-mailed out to interested parties for one of the first silent discos, or mobile clubbing events. In September 2003, London Liverpool Street commuters, on their way home from work, were confronted with the almost-normal sight of a smattering of people jigging more enthusiastically than usual to whatever was on their iPod. It made people smile. It even made some of them dance (to what we're not sure, as they were iPod-less). And guess what? No one even missed their train. "It is ... a force for good," pronounced Geoff Dyer, author of Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, who took part in a 2006 knees-up. Such is this particular flash mob's popularity that last year's Victoria Station silent disco attracted 4,000 people who danced for two hours solid. There is now an official site – mobileclubbing.com – and the event has morphed into a more organised version, as witnessed at this year's Meltdown Festival, in which silent (well, if you don't count the whooping and off-key karaoke-ing that tends to accompany it) clubbers tune in to a choice of DJ sets. One blogger's tip? "Don't hold back – totally go for it. You look stupid and you're behaving madly in a public place. This is not normal (probably) so you might as well throw yourself in to the spirit of the thing."



Splash Mob

OK, so the past couple have got out of hand – but let's just appreciate the idea behind this, shall we? Lots of people, gathered in a park, with the sole purpose of pelting each other with water. The simple pleasures, eh ... July's Hyde Park affair came about after a student invited a few of his friends along for a summer afternoon's lark. Of course, he did this on Facebook, and the next thing he knew, almost 100,000 people had signed up. In the event, about 300 splash mobbers took part, and most went about wetting each other in a reasonable enough fashion – but as predicted, things got a wee bit messy, with several arrests and one girl knocked off her feet after she poured red drink over a boy's white T-shirt.

The lesson? Keep it small, guys, keep it small.

Tango Commute

If you think a station full of people prancing about to non-existent beats sounds odd, wait till you see the tango version. While it may not consider itself a flash mob, tango commute has all the hallmarks: rush-hour locations, the element of surprise for passers-by, plus the usual good-natured intentions. Never much of a wallflower, the Argentine dance makes for an arresting sight among commuters, who have to choose between dodging unpredictable leg flicks or giving in to gawp. This mob's quite the charmer: a couple will simply drift into view – a shared iPod between them – lost in their own little tango world. The next one's planned for New York on 11 September.



Pillow Fight Mob

Britain's first recorded pillow fight flash mob was outside St Paul's Cathedral on 6 October 2004. Feathers flew. And it wasn't just the pigeons. It has since spawned its own stand-alone organisation, The Pillow Fight Club. First rule of the club? Tell everyone. Pillows are hidden near the secret location, or brought in bin liners, and at the pre-arranged time, or at the sound of a whistle, pillow bashing commences. Events have been known to last for several hours. "It's like you are with all your mates," said one pillower, "but you don't know anyone." On 22 March 2008, at least 25 cities, including Beirut, LA and Dublin, participated in the first International Pillow Fight Day. More than 5,000 people took part in the New York event, making it the largest-known flash mob to date.

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