Follow the Crowd: Tom Vanderbilt on New-Model Flash Mobs

By Vanderbilt, Tom | Artforum International, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Follow the Crowd: Tom Vanderbilt on New-Model Flash Mobs


Vanderbilt, Tom, Artforum International


IN AN OBSCURE 1973 STORY titled "Flash Crowd," the science-fiction writer Larry Niven describes how an argument at a shopping mall, which happened to be covered by a news crew, swells into a riot. The broadcast riot in turn attracts the attention of other people, who use the widely available technology of the teleportation booth to swarm first that event--thus intensifying the riot--and then other breaking events. One character in Niven's story, articulating the police view, says, "We call them flash crowds, and we watch for them."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

More than three decades later, in August 2003, at the Sawgrass Mills shopping mall in Sunrise, Florida, a group of thirty people who had assembled at a predetermined spot were given cards with a specific set of instructions: Exchange dollar bills with one another, then drop them on the ground, presumably to be picked up by passing shoppers. But the dollar drop never happened: As the event's organizer was distributing the cards, mall security approached and demanded that the group cease and desist.

The event in question was an aspirant "flash mob," in which an "inexplicable crowd"--as described by the originator of the first mob, a New Yorker known simply as "Bill"--is summoned to a particular location via e-mail or SMS to engage in a loosely choreographed activity. Bill first dubbed his efforts the Mob Project, a phrase that soon became conflated with Niven's coinage, which interestingly had already been co-opted to refer to sudden spikes in Internet traffic. Beginning in the spring of 2003, a series of flash mobs, originating in New York City but soon proliferating across the globe, began to appear. In New York, a hundred people grouped at Macy's to inquire about buying a giant "love rug" for their "suburban commune," and subsequent mobs amassed in a Hyatt lobby (where they broke into applause) and infested a SoHo shoe store. In Rome, several hundred people flooded a bookstore and requested a book that does not exist, while in New Zealand some two hundred assembled at a Burger King and mooed for a minute before quickly dispersing. In Moscow, a group of "neo-communist" activists with the KPRF flocked to the steps of the Pushkin Theater, which was screening The Matrix Revolutions, clad in Russian Civil War--era attire and "Neo" sunglasses (clearly, they had taken the red pill). Police had to be convinced the event was not a demonstration. "Our law enforcement bodies have yet to learn what a flash mob is," one of the organizers told Wired. "But in the end they let us go ahead with the event and everything went fine."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What the flash mobs had in common with the historical antecedents in Niven's short story is that they always seemed to take place under the gaze of some media eye, and, fueled by what Margaret Thatcher once called the "oxygen of publicity," they attracted flash crowds of their own--i.e., the viewers and readers who flocked to each absurdist exercise--and grew in importance beyond their physical numbers.

As it happens, this is exactly what Bill had in mind when he began last year to plot a project that would use the power of e-mail distribution to bring people to some kind of show. "At a certain point," he says, "I began to think: What if there wasn't a show at all?" Trying to exploit the particular desires of New Yorkers to "be at the center of things, to find the next big thing," he extrapolated the idea of people gathering someplace simply because they knew there was going to be a crowd. He compares it to an art opening without art, where the sole cultural production is "people self-consciously frolicking in their own self-regard." An influence for him was Adrian Dannatt's The Three, begun in 1990, a project in which the only art generated by the Three, a series of changing, always attractive models, is in fact the coverage of the Three.

As media coverage inevitably disseminated the phenomenon of the flash mob, befuddled clerks were interviewed, while police and security officials soberly assessed the public-safety implications. …

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