Hitmen of Hilarity
The first ever flash mob involved an overpriced rug, a departmental store and the cheeky gratification one might derive from successfully stupefying staff of a posh departmental store.
In 2003, Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, summoned a group of about 100 people by e-mails, text messages and blogs. In the furniture section of a Macy’s departmental store in Manhattan, they surrounded a rug reportedly costing $10,000 and informed salespeople deadpan that they were part of a free-love community living in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of New York City. They claimed to be making a communal decision in purchasing a ‘love rug’.
They dispersed after 10 minutes and proceeded to take their place in the league of Internet legends.
A flash mob is a social event organised primarily by Internet means – in today’s terms, that would expand beyond e-mail chains and blogs to include social media like Twitter and Facebook. Flash mobbers voluntarily gather in an agreed-upon venue and collect instructions for the event. They participate in a seemingly spontaneous “silly and harmless” activity – like breaking out in song or attacking each other with weapons of mass fluffiness, catching passers-by offguard. They then disperse just as quickly.
Flash mobs since their early days in 2003 have become more and more in vogue and no less absurd. One of the most notorious flash mobs organised annually by prankster group Improv Everywhere (tagline: “We Cause Scenes”) is No Pants Subway Ride. Every January, subways around the world are flooded with people – the novelty being their conspicuous lack of (surprise, surprise) pants.
What began as a small prank exploded to include participation by thousands of people in various cities around the world. Even Malaysia, a conservative Islamic nation, has taken its own fun little spin on it by organising Keretapi Sarong (keretapi means ‘train’ in Malay), where participants throng the capital city’s Light Rail Transit system, donning the traditional sarong instead of, well, nothing.
While these guerilla events were not necessarily invented by the Internet, it is hard to deny that they would be anywhere as huge a phenomenon without it. Social media has made the planning and execution of such precisely engineered events possible, and one might even go so far as to say it has cultivated a culture of appreciation for the spontaneous (and somewhat meaningless).
After all, one might wonder why perfectly rational, law-abiding citizens would be willing to put their dignities aside for the sake of a very public, highly profiled act of silliness. (Logically, it does take a measure of testicular fortitude to appear in public without pants, especially knowing it will be well-documented on social media.) Perhaps it is the quite literal mob mentality that drives them to participate, albeit for fun rather than violence.
Caryn Ng, 25, believes that it is literally just for the fun of it that people join flash mobs, citing the Trafalgar Square pillow fights and the Sound of Music in the Antwerp train station as examples.
When asked if she would participate in one given the chance, she replies, “Why not? Wouldn’t you?”
Which, I suppose, sums up the attitude many have towards this bizarre culture: Well, why not?