Here's how it works: Would-be mob leaders post an e-mail address on a mob site for interested parties to contact (Portlanders can try pdxflashmob.com). People pass the address along to their friends, who pass it along to their friends, linking a society of strangers. Eventually, central command instructs them to meet at a public place and act casual--they will receive further instructions on-site. Then the weirdness begins. In Manhattan, one flash mob crammed a mid-market shoe store, claiming to be flabbergasted tourists. A Roman mob invaded a bookstore, requesting volumes by fictional authors.
I asked a Seattle group the dreaded question mobbers seem to hate and debate--what is the significance of a flash mob?
"If there's any importance or significance, it's always bestowed on us," one said. "It's in the eye of the beholder--we want people to come to their own conclusions."
Some observers have concluded that flash mobbers are irrelevant twits who will be half-remembered as cute faddists from the early 21st century. But let's play pointy-headed social scientist for a moment and take them seriously--more seriously than they take themselves. (The mob illuminati have already dismissed attempts at serious analysis as missing the point, with many mobbers seemingly irritated by all media interest, worrying that too much coverage will destroy the spirit and originality of the events.) If they refuse to tell us, we must try to answer for ourselves--what does all this mobbing mean?
In his essay "Walking in the City," social theorist Michel de Certeau described the fragile rigidity of modern cities' spatial and behavioral regimes. Simply moving through a city can redefine it by vandalizing public spaces with the private poetry of memory and imagination--this corner is a first kiss to one, a fistfight to another. According to de Certeau, "things extra and other insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order."
To a public sex troller, for example, a city park is an erotic playground, where the lines blur between strolling and catching a quick hump in the bushes. The park's intended function (strolling) melts into its actual function (humping). "One thus has the very relationship between spatial practices and the constructed order," de Certeau wrote. "The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order."
A spatial-behavioral order is only as strong as its least imaginative practitioners--a crosswalk is for crossing as long as we don't use it for anything else. Whether or not they admit it, flash mobs are part performance art and part anarchistic civil disobedience. They lampoon the mundane by turning uncontroversial places into sites of bizarre delight.
Flash mobs have become explosively popular. According to one website (www.flashmob.info), Google queries for "flash mob" have jumped from 1,210 on July 13 to 40,600 in under a month. And, like any fad, they attract derision.
One anonymous critic has already called flash mobbers knuckleheads "with the great noble purpose of puzzling shopkeepers... Stop wasting your time and start making the world a better place." Such critics fail to recognize the genius of the flash mob--like streaking and drunkenness, they are, more than anything, fun. Flash mobs clearly don't aim to democratize North Korea or legitimize gay marriage or redistribute resources. America is already swarming with pundits, loudmouths, and lobbyists. A flash mob is first and foremost a six-minute party. That these parties happen in the unlikeliest places is a subtle, perhaps unconscious protest that runs deeper than any single issue. The mobs are a playful critique of everyday life--a critique so general and strange, it can only happen under the umbrella of art. BRENDAN KILEY