Flash mob

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This article is about the social activity. For other uses, see Flash mob (disambiguation).
Flash mobs, like this pillow fight flash mob in Downtown Toronto (2005), are designed to surprise passers-by.

A flash mob (or flashmob)[1] is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, before quickly dispersing. They are often used for the purposes of entertainment, satire or artistic expression [2][3][4] and are organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails.[5][6][7][8][9]

There is some question as to whether the term, coined in 2003, is applied to events and performances organized for the purposes of politics (such as protests), commercial advertisement, publicity stunts that involve public relation firms, or paid professionals.[7][10][11] In these cases of a planned purpose for the social activity in question, the term smart mobs is often applied instead.

The term "flash rob" or "flash mob robberies", a reference to the way flash mobs assemble, has been used to describe a number of robberies and assaults perpetrated suddenly by groups of teenage youth.[12][13][14] Bill Wasik, originator of the first flash mobs, and a number of other commentators have questioned or objected to the usage of "flash mob" to describe criminal acts,[14][15] however, in a number of reported cases, flash mobs have turned violent or led to criminal activity.[16][17]


First flash mob[edit]

Flash mobbing was quickly imitated outside of the United States. This picture is of "sydmob", the first flashmob held in Sydney, Australia

The first flash mobs were created in Manhattan in 2003, by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine.[7][9][18] The first attempt was unsuccessful after the targeted retail store was tipped off about the plan for people to gather.[19] Wasik avoided such problems during the first successful flash mob, which occurred on June 17, 2003 at Macy's department store, by sending participants to preliminary staging areas—in four Manhattan bars—where they received further instructions about the ultimate event and location just before the event began.[20]

More than 130 people converged upon the ninth floor rug department of the store, gathering around an expensive rug. Anyone approached by a sales assistant was advised to say that the gatherers lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York, that they were shopping for a "love rug", and that they made all their purchase decisions as a group.[21] Subsequently, 200 people flooded the lobby and mezzanine of the Hyatt hotel in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds, and a shoe boutique in SoHo was invaded by participants pretending to be tourists on a bus trip.[9]

Wasik claimed that he created flash mobs as a social experiment designed to poke fun at hipsters and to highlight the cultural atmosphere of conformity and of wanting to be an insider or part of "the next big thing".[9] The Vancouver Sun wrote, "It may have backfired on him ... [Wasik] may instead have ended up giving conformity a vehicle that allowed it to appear nonconforming."[22] In another interview he said, "the mobs started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could".[23]

Precedents and precursors[edit]

In 19th-century Tasmania, the term flash mob was used to describe a subculture consisting of female prisoners, based on the term flash language for the jargon that these women used. The 19th-century Australian term flash mob referred to a segment of society, not an event, and showed no other similarities to the modern term flash mob or the events it describes.[24]

In 1973, the story "Flash Crowd" by Larry Niven described a concept similar to flash mobs.[25] With the invention of popular and very inexpensive teleportation, an argument at a shopping mall—which happens to be covered by a news crew—quickly swells into a riot. In the story, broadcast coverage 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 events as they happen. Commenting on the social impact of such mobs, one character (articulating the police view) says, "We call them flash crowds, and we watch for them." In related short stories, they are named as a prime location for illegal activities (such as pickpocketing and looting) to take place.

Flash mobs began as a form of performance art.[19] While they started as an apolitical act, flash mobs may share superficial similarities to political demonstrations. In the 1960s, groups such as the Yippies used street theatre to expose the public to political issues.[26] Flash mobs can be seen as a specialized form of smart mob,[7] a term and concept proposed by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.[27]

Use of the term[edit]

The first documented use of the term flash mob as it is understood today was in 2003 in a blog entry posted in the aftermath of Wasik's event.[18][20][28][29] The term was inspired by the earlier term smart mob.[28]

Flash mob was added to the 11th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary on July 8, 2004 where it noted it as an "unusual and pointless act" separating it from other forms of smart mobs such as types of performance, protests, and other gatherings.[3][30] Also recognized noun derivatives are flash mobber and flash mobbing.[3] Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English defines flash mob as "a group of people who organize on the Internet and then quickly assemble in a public place, do something bizarre, and disperse."[31] This definition is consistent with the original use of the term; however, both news media and promoters have subsequently used the term to refer to any form of smart mob, including political protests;[32] a collaborative Internet denial of service attack;[33] a collaborative supercomputing demonstration;[34] and promotional appearances by pop musicians.[35] The press has also used the term flash mob to refer to a practice in China where groups of shoppers arrange online to meet at a store in order to drive a collective bargain.[36]


The city of Braunschweig, Germany has stopped flash mobs by strictly enforcing the already existing law of requiring a permit to use any public space for an event.[37] In the United Kingdom, a number of flash mobs have been stopped over concerns for public health and safety.[38] The British Transport Police have urged flash mob organizers to "refrain from holding such events (silent disco) at railway stations".[39][40]


Main article: Flash rob

Referred to as flash robs, flash mob robberies, or flash robberies by the media, crimes organized by teenage youth using social media rose to international notoriety beginning in 2011.[12][13][14][41] The National Retail Federation does not classify these crimes as "flash mobs" but rather "multiple offender crimes" that utilize "flash mob tactics".[42][43] In a report, the NRF noted, "multiple offender crimes tend to involve groups or gangs of juveniles who already know each other, which does not earn them the term "flash mob"."[43] Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said that most "flash mob thuggery" involves crimes of violence that are otherwise ordinary, but are perpetrated suddenly by large, organized groups of people: "What social media adds is the ability to recruit such a large group of people, that individuals who would not rob a store or riot on their own feel freer to misbehave without being identified."[44]

It’s hard for me to believe that these kids saw some YouTube video of people Christmas caroling in a food court, and said, ‘Hey, we should do that, except as a robbery!’ More likely, they stumbled on the simple realization (like I did back in 2003, but like lots of other people had before and have since) that one consequence of all this technology is that you can coordinate a ton of people to show up in the same place at the same time.

— Bill Wasik [45]

The Huffington Post raised the question asking if "the media was responsible for stirring things up", and added that in some cases the local authorities did not confirm the use of social media making the "use of the term flash mob questionable."[15] Amanda Walgrove wrote that criminals involved in such activities don't refer to themselves as "flash mobs", but that this use of the term is nonetheless appropriate.[45] Jeff Gardere theorized the motivations for flash robs stemmed from discontent and bored youth.[46]

This sense of powerlessness is part of the motivation behind the Occupy Wall Street protests that started in September 2011 in New York City and are spreading across the nation to such cities as Boston, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Washington D.C. While these groups are not flash mobs, they are using social media to organize, communicate, and raise awareness on a number of issues. As the use of social media increases, the potential for more flash mobs that are used for political protest and for criminal purposes is likely to increase.

— Dr. Linda Kiltz, PM Magazine

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Facebook flashmob shuts down station". CNN.com. February 9, 2009. 
  2. ^ "Va-va-voom is in the dictionary". BBC. July 8, 2004. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c "definition of flash mob from Oxford English Dictionaries Online". Oxford University Press. July 8, 2004. Retrieved May 9, 2010. 
  4. ^ "Mixed feelings over Philadelphia's flash-mob curfew". BBC. August 12, 2011. 
  5. ^ Athavaley, Anjali (April 15, 2008). "Students Unleash A Pillow Fight On Manhattan". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 19, 2008. 
  6. ^ Fitzgerald, Sean D. (March 21, 2008). "International Pillow Fight Day: Let the feathers fly!". National Post (Canada). Retrieved May 19, 2008. 
  7. ^ a b c d Judith A. Nicholson. "Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity". Fibreculture Publications/Open Humanities Press. Retrieved July 15, 2009. 
  8. ^ "Time Freezes in Central London". ABC News. April 30, 2008. Retrieved January 25, 2009. 
  9. ^ a b c d Sandra Shmueli (August 8, 2003). "'Flash mob' craze spreads". CNN. 
  10. ^ "Manifestul Aglomerarilor Spontane / A Flashmob Manifesto". December 5, 2004. Archived from the original on October 12, 2007. Retrieved December 27, 2011. 
  11. ^ Ed Fletcher (December 23, 2010). "Failed choral 'flash mob' may not have qualified for term". Toronto Star. Retrieved December 30, 2010. 
  12. ^ a b Annie Vaughan (18 June 2011). "Teenage Flash Mob Robberies on the Rise". Fox News. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  13. ^ a b Erin Skarda (12 May 2011). "Flash Mobs Turned Criminal: The Rise of Flash Robberies". TIME. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  14. ^ a b c Bill Wasik (11 November 2011). "‘Flash Robs’: Trying to Stop a Meme Gone Wrong". Wired. Retrieved 2014-06-19. 
  15. ^ a b "'Flash Mob' Attacks Used By Gun Rights Advocates To Build Concealed Carry Support". The Huffington Post. 8 August 2011. Retrieved 2014-06-17. 
  16. ^ Sheehan, Kevin; Velez, Natasha; O'Neill, Natalie (2013-12-27). "Hundreds of teens trash mall in wild flash mob". nypost.com. The New York Post. Retrieved 2014-07-10. 
  17. ^ Haimy Assefa (29 December 2013). "Mob of teens overruns mall in Brooklyn". CNN. Retrieved 2014-07-10. 
  18. ^ a b Wasik, Bill (January 2012). "#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You". Wired. Retrieved January 22, 2012. 
  19. ^ a b Goldstein, Lauren (August 10, 2003). "The Mob Rules". Time Europe 162 (7). ISSN 0040-781X. OCLC 1767509. Retrieved March 14, 2007. 
  20. ^ a b Wasik, Bill (March 2006). "My Crowd, or, Phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob" (Subscription). Harper's Magazine: 56–66. ISSN 0017-789X. OCLC 4532730. Retrieved February 2, 2007. 
  21. ^ Bedell, Doug. "E-mail Communication Facilitates New 'Flash Mob' Phenomenon", Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, July 23, (2003)
  22. ^ McMartin, Pete (July 12, 2008). "Waterfight in Stanley Park, but are flash mobs starting to lose their edge?". Canwest Publishing Inc. Retrieved July 14, 2008. 
  23. ^ Ian Urbina (March 24, 2010). "Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message". The New York Times. Retrieved December 30, 2010. 
  24. ^ "The Flash Mob". Cascades Female Factory Historic Site. Female Factory Historic Site Ltd. Retrieved October 23, 2007. [dead link]
  25. ^ Nold, Christian (2003). "Legible Mob". p. 23.
  26. ^ Cosmic Trigger III, Robert Anton Wilson, 1995, New Falcon Publications
  27. ^ Chris Taylor (March 3, 2003). "Day of the smart mobs". CNN. 
  28. ^ a b McFedries, Paul (July 14, 2003). "flash mob". WordSpy.com. Logophilia Limited. Retrieved March 14, 2006. 
  29. ^ Savage, Sean (June 16, 2003). "Flash Mobs Take Manhattan". cheesebikini. Retrieved March 14, 2007. 
  30. ^ "Henry inspires English dictionary". BBC. July 8, 2004. Retrieved May 9, 2010. 
  31. ^ "flash mob". Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.6). Retrieved April 27, 2007. 
  32. ^ "Putin protest by flash mob". BBC News. February 28, 2004. Retrieved May 3, 2007. 
  33. ^ Musil, Steven (February 11, 2005). "This week in Web threats: The Internet is always good for a little fear and loathing". CNET News (CNET). Retrieved May 3, 2007. 
  34. ^ Biever, Celeste (March 29, 2004). "A Flash mob to attempt supercomputing feat". New Scientist. ISSN 0262-4079 OCLC 2378350. 
  35. ^ Gardner, Elysa (February 27, 2004). "Avril Lavigne, in the flesh, at 'flash mob' appearances". USA Today. Retrieved May 3, 2007. 
  36. ^ "China's new shopping craze: 'Team buying'". Christian Science Monitor. December 5, 2007. Retrieved February 12, 2008. 
  37. ^ "Flash mobs banned in Braunschweig". The Local Europe. July 28, 2009. Retrieved December 30, 2010. 
  38. ^ Robert Leigh (May 19, 2008). "Videos: Police step in to prevent Facebook flash mob events". Daily Mirror. Retrieved December 30, 2010. 
  39. ^ "Rail police criticise flash mobs". BBC News. February 26, 2009. Retrieved December 30, 2010. 
  40. ^ Goldberg, Lesley (November 15, 2012). "'Big Bang Theory' Cast Surprises Showrunners With 'Call Me Maybe' Flash Mob (Video)". The Hollywood Reporter.
  41. ^ Daniel Denvir (26 Sep 2011). "Are Violent 'Flash Mobs' Really a Trend?". CityLab. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  42. ^ Jeffrey Ian Ross (2013). Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America. Sage Publications. ISBN 141299957X. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  43. ^ a b "Multiple Offender Crimes" (PDF). National Retail Federation. 2011. Retrieved 2014-06-19. 
  44. ^ Leary, Mark. "Why People Take Part in Violent Flash Mobs". Duke University News and Communications. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  45. ^ a b Amanda Walgrove (20 June 2011). "Who Put the ‘Flash Mob’ in Flash Mob Robberies?". The Faster Times. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  46. ^ Linda Kiltz (December 2011). "Flash Mobs: The Newest Threat to Local Governments". PM Magazine. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Wasik, Bill (March 2006). "My Crowd". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved 2014-06-18. 
  • Agar, Jon (2003). Constant Touch: A Global History of the Mobile Phone. Cambridge: Icon. 
  • Carey, James (1989). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: Unwin Hyman. 
  • "Smart mob storms London". BBC News. August 8, 2003. Retrieved August 11, 2009. 
  • Dickey, Christopher (March 22, 2004). "From 9/11 to 3/11". Newsweek. pp. 27–28. 
  • Losowsky, Andrew (March 25, 2004). "A 21st century protest". The Guardian (London). Retrieved October 3, 2010. 
  • Melloan, George (August 12, 2003). "Whoever Said August was a Dull Month?". Wall Street Journal. pp. A13. 
  • Shmueli, Sandra (August 8, 2003). "Flash mob craze spreads". CNN.com/Technology (CNN). Retrieved August 11, 2009. 
  • "Dadaist lunacy or the future of protest?". The Social Issues Research Centre. Retrieved 23 December 2013. 

External links[edit]