Communication Currents

Flash Memory: A History of Flash Mobs

June 1, 2013
Theater & Performance

In 2003, writer and cultural critic Bill Wasik stunned the world with his newest experiment, the MOB Project, which flooded the streets of New York City with strange performances quickly labeled “flash mobs” by participants and local media. With the goal  of understanding the communicative purpose and function of these new performance events, this essay describes research conducted to create a history of the flash mob, using Wasik’s original eight flash mobs from 2003 as a starting point for investigation. Through the construction of both a comparative analysis with the traditional archive, as well as a genealogy based upon the work of Michel Foucault and Joseph Roach, I revealed a network of particular practices and behaviors linking the flash mob to the historical avant-garde and other less acclaimed sites of performance, as well as examined the particular characteristics of the flash mob that make it unique as a performance event.

As products of the digital age, flash mobs require a certain level of technological advancement to form, namely e-mail and text message technology created in the latter part of the 20th century.  Flash mobs typically begin with an e-mail (often from an anonymous account or organizer using a pseudonym) announcing the date and time of occurrence, along with either a set of instructions for action or the promise of instructions to be delivered on site. Recipients then forward this e-mail to others through computers and cell phones, forming the mob (or at least its virtual potential) with each successive email or text message. Usually, upon arrival, participants are given instructions on fliers detailing what they should do during the flash mob. By design, flash mobs tend to last no longer than ten minutes. Participants arrive at a site, perform their action(s), and then leave, often just before the police arrive. Bill Wasik, cultural critic and former editor of Harper’s Magazine, produced the original eight flash mobs that acted upon the streets of New York City in the summer of 2003.

In the nine years since Wasik’s flash mobs burst onto the streets of New York City, the use of this new form and/or method of performance multiplied exponentially, as did its moniker. All sorts of public performances, including pillow fights,freezes, dances, even political protests seem to fit this new category of performance art. Today, we see flash mobs operating as elaborate in-jokes, outright protests, and even television program plot lines. The worldwide embrace of the flash mob points toward an interesting and ever-expanding fusion of performance, culture, and new technologies. 

Their representation in popular culture indicates that flash mobs are also trendy. Dance flash mobs have appeared in episodes of popular television shows like GleeModern Family and most recently, Grey’s Anatomy. The prevalence of flash mobs points to the fact that these new styles of performance are more than some meaningless fad, an “empty meditation on emptiness” as creator Wasik once stated. Whether used to memorialize the death of a cultural icon such as Michael Jackson or to celebrate the particularities of the horror movie subculture, such as in the zombie mobs, flash mobs are here to stay. The sheer variety of offspring as well as our delight upon witnessing their occurrence (whether on video or in person), speaks to their power as a prevalent form of performance and communication. Still, little if any work has been done to link these new performances to the larger history of performance and communication studies, to employ familiar descriptive vocabulary drawn from this history, or to examine the particular characteristics of the flash mob that make it unique as a performance event.

What I found by attempting to do such work was that flash mobs share a number of characteristics with the performances of the Dadaists and Surrealists in the early 20th century, as well as with the Situationists and Happenings artists of the 1950s and 60s. These characteristics include: simultaneity of action, a general spirit of anarchy, tactics of juxtaposition, and surprise, the use of detournement (a hijacking or alteration), an emphasis on place and space, and the use of games and play. Although flash mobs contain these similarities to previous forms, the ways in which they use each particular tactic or artistic technique are vastly different.

Aside from comparing flash mobs with other types of performance found in the traditional archives, I also sought to focus on the cultural significance of the flash mob. I investigated what sort of cultural function the flash mob might be serving, and then returned to the historical archive, looking for other sorts of performances or practices throughout history that operated in a similar way. I found similarities between the flash mob and the dancing manias of the Middle Ages, the gallery shows and parties of the Incoherents in late 19th century France, and the practices and pathologies of modern day streakers, flashers, and mooners. These similarities include a desire to act out against accepted standards of behavior, an ironic yet incisive sense of humor, and a reaction to tightly controlled, surveillance-laden social structures. The flash mob offers its participants a way to use social media to transgress social norms and build community within an often isolating, restrictive, post 9/11 world. 

Archives are often tricky. The documents we find within them capture moments, record events, even share opinions, yet something is always missing – the body. In my research, I sought to provide the reader an answer as to what flash mobs are – a performative practice existing within a long and complex history of similar practices. I focused primarily on Bill Wasik’s original eight flash mobs, as they offered not only a point of origin but also a strong set of shared characteristics that often differed from the pre-staged, well-rehearsed, elaborate performance events labeled flash mobs today. Hopefully, further research will provide insight into both these new types of flash mobs as well as the performers and cultural context of this exciting new form of performance.

About the author (s)

Rebecca Walker

Southern Illinois University

Assistant Professor