Participants with birthdays between the months of July and September were told to congregate at a bar and grill off Broadway in Midtown, a few minutes before 7 p.m. and to await further instructions.
When I arrived, the bar was packed, but not enough to attract the suspicion of management. After a few minutes, a man made his way through the crowd, slyly distributing scraps of paper with our instructions. We were to enter the Toys “R” Us superstore on Broadway at 7:14; gather around the animatronic T. Rex in the Jurassic Park section at 7:18; and at 7:20 fall to our knees in front of it, raising our arms in fear and awe, screaming like terrified worshippers for exactly four minutes.
Security guards managed to shut the dinosaur off only seconds before 7:24, our preappointed end. More impressive than the successful planning and timing, though, was the number of participants: there must have been three hundred mobbers present.
This was the sixth such event in New York. Similarly absurd mobs have sprung up in cities all over the United States and in Europe. There are several sites on the Web devoted to initiating them, but although each event is clearly the brainchild of a particular organizer, none have gone out of their way to lay authorial claim to them.
The experience-its calculated mystery, its silliness-was fun, but the whole phenomenon begs the question: what for? The trend clearly owes some debt to Situationist ideas, guerrilla theater, and other tactics of creative civil disobedience, but where the Situationists were on some level attempting to extend a Marxist critique into a post-consumerist, leisure-class age-their spraypainted slogans on the sides of buildings in Paris in 1968 may have been elliptical and self-consciously vague, but they were at least identifiable as anticapitalist critique-these flash mobs seem designed to resist such interpretation. The mob I participated in did take place in a giant toy store, and the monster we ironically celebrated was one of the few objects in sight not for sale, but the event seemed intended primarily for the sake of public absurdity.
However they were rallied, the participants showed up, it appeared, not for the creation of a pocket of quasi-public space within a proudly commercial space, but for kicks. Going in, I had expected the usual motley of anti-globalization radicals, but the group I was with was a fairly polished, young professional-looking bunch. Their appearance may lend credibility to the claim that flash mobs, with their conspicuous lack of political or economic demands, their reliance on expensive technology for organizing, and their effect on their surprised and confused bystanders, are a subtly elitist phenomenon. As we left Toys ‘R’ Us, I heard more than one person claim that the “best part” had been watching the confused expressions on staff members’ faces.
Reports on the event cropped up du...
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