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What is a Flash Mob?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A relatively new phenomenon, a flash mob is am unexpected gathering of people who assemble in a predetermined location, perform an action, and then disperse. Participants network through email, bulletin boards, and websites, and generally assemble silently and without comment before vanishing equally mysteriously. The first recorded flash mob appears to have occurred in Manhattan in June, 2003, when a large crowd of people consulted staff at Macy's about purchasing a “love rug” for a suburban commune. Since then, mobs of varying sizes have appeared in cities all over the world.

There are two primary ways to organize a flash mob. In the first, participants are given a place, time, and action, as is the case with Pillow Fight Club, a type of flash mob in which participants gather to hold a large pillow fight. If attending the mob requires some sort of prop, such as pillow, participants are expected to conceal the props until the starting time of the event, to maintain an air of mystery and to avoid alarming law enforcement. Usually, organizers choose harmless and non-threatening props to avoid antagonizing police, and also ask that participants not involve people who are not actively participating in the flash mob, to avoid upsetting innocent bystanders.

In another organizing technique, participants are told that an event is occurring, but are not given details. Instead, they assemble at multiple pre-staging locations where they are given their assignments and then proceed to the rally point. Organizing in this way prevents news of the details from leaking out, and also allows organizers to stage large and complex events.

Numerous improv and street theatre groups organize flash mobs including No Pants Day and the Mp3 Experiment, two famous events organized by New York City group Improv Everywhere. The general purpose is to create a light-hearted gathering of people to intrigue and mystify bystanders. In the Mp3 Experiment, for example, participants downloaded musical tracks before attending the event, and spontaneously broke into dance, following instructions embedded in the tracks. During No Pants Day, participants ride the New York City subway system without pants.

A flash mob differs from a political gathering in two primary ways. The first is that organizers do not apply for permits to gather. They rely on the Internet to spread information about the event, and participants try to gather and disperse quickly to evade detainment by law enforcement. A flash mob also usually does not have a political motive; the point is to have fun, not necessarily to make a statement.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wsheppard — On Apr 13, 2008

Hello, in relation to the term Flash Mob, back in the 60's we did what was called "A happening"

As art students at Ohio State University, we secretly planned events that were unannounced that were timed to take place in the hall during class changes. We created environments such as a beach scene with real sand (on plastic sheeting) waves (a fan blowing under plastic to make it move). People (in the winter) were dressed in swim suits, putting on tanning oil, listening to portable radios (boom boxes) throwing beachballs, etc. acting oblivious to the crowds that would gather to watch.

By anon11305 — On Apr 13, 2008

In one of his stories about "Teleport booths" Larry Nevin described 'flash mobs' that teleported to disasters or public events. I think this was the seed of the internet based 'mobs'

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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