Rise of the flash mob

Phenomenon created in 2003 by magazine editor

On Oct. 20, flash mob participants danced to “Moves like Jagger” on the corner of University Avenue and Union Street in support of Nick Francis’ campaign for rector.
On Oct. 20, flash mob participants danced to “Moves like Jagger” on the corner of University Avenue and Union Street in support of Nick Francis’ campaign for rector.
The Queen’s Step Crew club leads a flash mob outside of Stauffer Library on Nov 20.
The Queen’s Step Crew club leads a flash mob outside of Stauffer Library on Nov 20.

Imagine hurrying through Grand Central Station, amidst the busy hustle of Manhattan, when you bump into the person in front of you. You turn to apologize when you realize he’s standing still, mid-step. Confused, you look around to see more than 200 people scattered through the station, frozen in place. Then suddenly they unfreeze and disperse as if nothing happened, leaving onlookers puzzled and amused.

This is a flash mob — a large group of people who perform a premeditated action, often a brief dance, and immediately disperse.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been seen on university campuses across Canada, and Queen’s is no exception.

Rector Nick Francis chose to use flash mobs instead of an election video as part of his successful campaign last fall.

“I was a little worried that it would be interpreted as a gimmick and I’m so glad that it wasn’t,” he said.

“You could feel the positive energy, it was such a rush,” Francis, ArtSci ’13, said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling being a part of something like that.”

Rebecca Flynn, ArtSci ’13, and Ryan Keogh, ArtSci ’14, choreographed the dance to Maroon 5’s “Moves like Jagger.” Before the flash mob on Oct. 20, a video of the choreography was sent out to a group of around 100 people on Facebook. Roughly 30 students committed to learning the dance and participating in the flash mob on the corner of University Avenue and Union Street. Participants included friends and followers of the campaign.

“My whole thing with flash mobs is that they can be really difficult to create,” Francis said. “It’s always impressive to see people so synchronized but to be impactful like we were is more difficult.”

Choreographers borrowed moves from various Frosh Week dances to ensure simplicity, Francis said.

“They were really smart about it because they figured if they made it easy to follow, people will want to be involved,” he said.

Francis said people react best to flash mobs when the organizer’s goal is sincere. “It might be a bizarre translation, but it’s like feeling a sense of support,” he said. “It’s so difficult to mobilize humans, so to see so many people co-operating is impressive and uplifting.” Flash mobs have become vehicles for advertising, and corporations like Ford have even used flash mobs to push products, like the Ford Fusion.

But flash mobs weren’t created with a serious purpose in mind.

Bill Wasik, the senior editor of Wired Magazine and former senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, is widely credited as the inventor of flash mobs.

In 2003, Wasik sent an email to 60 friends and acquaintances, requesting that they forward it to others. The emails instructed participants to meet at four different bars on June 3, where they received slips of paper telling them to go to the Macy’s rug department in Manhattan. From there, 200 people gathered around a particular carpet in the back corner of the store, telling the salespeople that they lived in a Long Island City commune and were looking for a “love rug.”

Wasik went on to organize other flash mobs, including one where 200 people flooded the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds.

Wasik only publicly revealed himself as the inventor of the flash mob in 2006. In a 2006 interview with Harper’s Magazine, Wasik said flash mobs were “just a bunch of people doing something nonsensical for no real reason.” According to Queen’s Sociology Professor Vincent Sacco, flash mob success is due to effectively engaging the masses.

“Sites like YouTube are not only the forum for group expression, but also the medium which continues to popularize the whole idea of the flash mob.”

It’s not a totally new idea, Sacco said.

“In the 1960s people used to talk about a similar kind of idea, a public space of some sort called in the quaint language of the time, ‘a happening.’ Of course they involved much more work because the organizational logistics were so much more complicated.” Though social media is an effective organizational tool, it can contribute to the darker side of flash mobs.

In March 2010, the New York Times reported on criminal offences during flash mobs. At least four violent flash mobs in 2009-10 broke out in Philadelphia, leading to injuries, property damage and at least three arrests. Onlookers described one such mob as chaotic and a “tsunami of kids.”

Flash mobs can also create mass inconvenience. In 2009, the BBC reported that the British Transport Police discouraged the implementation of flash mobs in busy public places, after Liverpool Station was closed when nearly 12, 000 revelers assembled to dance.

Regardless of their effect, flash mobs appeal to the masses.

“They allow anyone to take part in a public drama or public entertainment, which others can watch or react to,” Sacco said. — With files from Jessica Fishbein

Flash mobs for change

Students at the University of Guelph garnered national media attention for a flash mob in support of environmental sustainability.

On Nov. 24 2010, students stripped off their clothes and danced in protest of the rejection of Bill C-311, the Climate Accountability Act.

In November 2010, Conservative senators decided to kill Bill C-311, a private member’s bill sponsored by the NDP that would have required targets on greenhouse gas emissions to be brought to 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The video of the scantily-clad mob saw nearly 40,000 YouTube views and received national media attention.

Paul Wartman is a fifth-year student at Guelph University and a flash mob enthusiast. He said ultimately, flash mobs can be described as exhilarating and exciting.

“Euphoria takes over as a large group of friends does something socially exciting in a rather stagnant social environment such as a food court or library.”

Wartman participated in the University of Guelph’s “Vote Mob,” a non-partisan flash mob that aimed to combat voter apathy and raise awareness about federal elections.

“We got the idea for many of the flash mobs from videos online,” he said, adding that flash mobs were advertised through Facebook, Twitter, community list-serves and local community radio. Videos of the flash mobs then went viral. “In one perspective, a flash mob is a type of protest that relies on positive actions to get the message across,” Wartman said, “which I believe to be the strongest tool in change.”


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