From Nashville airport police officers entertaining travelers with surprise dance moves Wednesday afternoon, to thousands of Santas popping up recently in Moscow subways or Manhattan’s crowded streets, flash mobs are in peak holiday form this year.
Good-hearted glee lies at the core of these flash mob events, carried out by groups of like-minded folk gathered for a serendipitous moment or three.
This year’s spate of unexpected fancies included thousands of dancers turning up to spin a Viennese waltz in the London Underground last summer as well as copycat outbursts of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus across the US since the Opera Company of Philadelphia sang it at the local Macy’s six weeks ago. Participants captured the event on cell phones and video cameras and uploaded it to the Internet, where it instantly went viral, the modus operandi of flash mobs everywhere and a favorite tool of the social media generation.
While this particular form of Dada expression has been percolating for a while – it is perfectly suited to the no-commitment younger generation, after all – the floods of poetic anarchists are in a strong uptick right now, says cultural researcher Patricia Martin, founder of LitLamp Communications in Chicago.
“A strong component of the flash mob mentality is that people be able to join in the fun, so there have to be strong shared cultural iconic images or actions,” she says, adding, “and what time of the year gives us a more shared moment than the holidays?”
Celebrate common humanity
As for why the activity is trending upwards so strongly, she suggests this is inevitable in an intensely wired world. “Connection is the essence of these events, and face-to-face, hand-to-hand interactions is the one thing that online communities can’t provide,” she notes. It makes perfect sense that a generation raised on the Web would use it to get back in touch with the real world.
And of course, she adds, the real cultural purpose of holidays is to celebrate common humanity, so flash mobbing our way through the holidays is a perfect way for this generation to do what countless before have done, she says, namely “see and be seen.”
For those who don’t like the connotation of “mob” activities, Alexander Halavais, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, offers a few more tongue-in-cheek monikers. How about “metaphysical hooligans” or “vandals of the established order?” All of which hint at a certain subversive quality, he says with a laugh.
“The activities are absolutely designed to shake up the way people see things,” he says, “but in a good way.” There is no question that the law of unintended consequences dictates that when a massive unplanned gathering of humanity descends on a public space, such as the London tube where the mass waltzing brought trains to a halt, there will be problems.
“When you shake things up, things will sometimes get broken,” he says. But by and large, the flash mobs that are generating the kind of viral video traffic worldwide are intended as a gift. “This is the gift of surprise and delight,” he adds.
Trend is upward
Expect more, not less, in coming months and years. As the digital tools for organizing and focusing human behavior only get more refined, the events will become more sophisticated and purposeful. “Events on a global scale like this, not too long ago, would have required a military kind of precision to bring off,” says Mr. Halavais.
Also, expect to see the flash mob mentality begin to merge with the performance art world to produce events with both spontaneous turnout and highly refined political and artistic messages.
Ms. Martin points to the artists who marched on the Tate museum in London earlier this year. When activists got wind of the museum’s relationship with BP after the Gulf oil spill, they hauled buckets of a gooey, black substance to pour on the front steps of the institution. This too was duly recorded as it happened and then sent around the digital world in seconds as participants uploaded their videos to the Internet.
“It was the perfect mix of flash mob action with purposeful message,” she says.