It’s strange how things suddenly pop back into your head when you hadn’t given them a moment’s thought in years. This morning I suddenly started thinking about flash mobs. Do people still do flash mobs? They certainly used to be a thing, but then the thing seemed to fade away.

The first flash mobs were organised by Bill Wasik in New York in 2003. He created them as a social experiment intended to criticise the sense of conformity among hipsters. Go to this place at this time in these clothes and perform these acts. Sit, beg, roll over. The flash mob had no purpose, no greater goal, beyond its own existence: it is pure conformity. But by conforming on this scale, in public, and spontaneously (albeit a highly organised form of spontaneity), the act also becomes subversive in some way.

“The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”

Quentin Crisp

Wasik describes the development of the flash mob (in considerable detail) here. The whole article is worth reading, but the bit that appeals to me most is when he talks about the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram is best known for his obedience experiments, but it’s his other, smaller, lesser well-known experiments which interest Wasik more:

When a British art magazine asked me who, among artists past or present, had most influenced the flash-mob project, I named Stanley Milgram—the social psychologist best known for his authority experiments, in which he induced average Americans to give seemingly fatal shocks to strangers. As it happens, I later discovered that Milgram himself did a project much like a flash mob, in which a “stimulus crowd” of his confederates, varying in number from one to fifteen, stopped on a busy Manhattan sidewalk and all at once looked up to the same sixth-floor window. The results can be seen in Figure 4, a chart from his paper “Note on the Drawing Power of Crowds of Different Size.”

Stanley Milgram deserves recognition, I believe, as one of the crucial artists of the preceding century. Consider his crowd experiment, which, it must be admitted, is fairly thin gruel as science: everyone knows that such an effect would be observed, and what value is there in quantifying it? No, the value of this experiment is entirely in its performance, the unadorned audacity of it, a small crowd in simple unison bucking the city’s flow—a Fluxus-style “happening” but without the blinkered optimism, and in that respect closer, perhaps, to a Ray Johnson “nothing.” Milgram’s crowd study was far less explanatory than it was expressive, serving as an elegant metaphor for conformism while adding little to our scientific understanding of who conforms or why.

Wasik anticipated that the flash mob fad would explode and then die out in a few short months – the initial burst of enthusiasm followed by a backlash before being co-opted commercially, and while the excitement of 2003 had waned by 2004, the concept lingered on longer than he had originally thought. An n-gram analysis of Reddit between 2008 and 2015 suggests a peak around 2011/12, which presumably is related to the Arab Spring:

flashmobngram

The Flashmob.co.uk website no longer seems to be updated, with only one event listed for 2015, while there is a certain poignancy to their final tweet:

Looking at those listed events illustrates why the flash mob eventually fizzled out, but also why it lingered on so long. The co-opting of the concept by commercial organisations that Wasik anticipated happened, and this killed much of the enthusiasm behind the idea. But by that point, the concept had mutated sufficiently that this lack of enthusiasm remained hidden. Where the original flash mobs were mostly organic – groups of friends, volunteers, insiders – who came together to create a transitory moment, it became possible to hire an entire mob. And the transitory moment itself was no longer important, it was the record of that moment that mattered. So it didn’t matter if no-one wanted to attend any more, the whole thing could be stage managed to produce an advert or YouTube clip. Brands could artificially create flash mobs for their own commercial purpose.

But I think that then is the problem – the application of purpose. If the point of the flash mob was its pointlessness, if its meaning came from its meaninglessness, then to apply a layer of purposefulness to it automatically kills its very essence. What was once a seemingly spontaneous and ephemeral act of creativity becomes seen as an overtly cynical commercial exercise. Any sense of surprise or wonder is lost.

The passerby no longer thinks “What’s going on?”, but instead they dismiss it simply with the words “Oh, it’s probably for a thing”. There’s not even any curiosity as to what that thing is – in fact, there may even be a willful desire to not find out what the thing is so as to not let them (the advertisers, the organisers, the brand, whoever) win. “You have inconvenienced me on my morning commute, brand, I shall punish you by withdrawing the attention you crave.

The brands that co-opted the flash mob had somehow managed to take the original concept, “an empty meditation on emptiness, and to render it even more vacuous,” concludes Wasik. “They had become, that is, the new and undisputed masters of the genre.”