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Flash mob

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A public pillow fight in Bologna, Italy

A flash mob (or flashmob)[1] is a group of people that assembles suddenly in a public place, performs for a brief time, then quickly disperses, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and/or artistic expression.[2][3][4] Flash mobs may be organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails.[5][6][7][8][9]

The term, coined in 2003, is generally not applied to events and performances organized for the purposes of politics (such as protests), commercial advertisement, publicity stunts that involve public relation firms, or paid professionals.[7][10][11] In these cases of a planned purpose for the social activity in question, the term smart mobs is often applied instead.

The term "flash rob" or "flash mob robberies", a reference to the way flash mobs assemble, has been used to describe a number of robberies and assaults perpetrated suddenly by groups of teenage youth.[12][13][14] Bill Wasik, originator of the first flash mobs, and a number of other commentators have questioned or objected to the usage of "flash mob" to describe criminal acts.[14][15] Flash mob has also been featured in some Hollywood movie series, such as Step Up.[16]


First flash mob[edit]

Flash mobbing was quickly imitated outside of the United States. This picture is of "sydmob" 2003, the first flash mob held in Sydney, Australia.

The first flash mobs were created in Manhattan in 2003, by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine.[7][9][17] The first attempt was unsuccessful after the targeted retail store was tipped off about the plan for people to gather.[18] Wasik avoided such problems during the first successful flash mob, which occurred on June 17, 2003, at Macy's department store, by sending participants to preliminary staging areas—in four Manhattan bars—where they received further instructions about the ultimate event and location just before the event began.[19]

More than 130 people converged upon the ninth-floor rug department of the store, gathering around an expensive rug. Anyone approached by a sales assistant was advised to say that the gatherers lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York, that they were shopping for a "love rug", and that they made all their purchase decisions as a group.[20] Subsequently, 200 people flooded the lobby and mezzanine of the Hyatt hotel in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds, and a shoe boutique in SoHo was invaded by participants pretending to be tourists on a bus trip.[9]

Wasik claimed that he created flash mobs as a social experiment designed to poke fun at hippies and to highlight the cultural atmosphere of conformity and of wanting to be an insider or part of "the next big thing".[9] The Vancouver Sun wrote, "It may have backfired on him ... [Wasik] may instead have ended up giving conformity a vehicle that allowed it to appear nonconforming."[21] In another interview he said "the mobs started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could".[22]

Precedents and precursors[edit]

In 19th-century Tasmania, the term flash mob was used to describe a subculture consisting of female prisoners, based on the term flash language for the jargon that these women used. The 19th-century Australian term flash mob referred to a segment of society, not an event, and showed no other similarities to the modern term flash mob or the events it describes.[23]

In 1973, the story "Flash Crowd" by Larry Niven described a concept similar to flash mobs.[24] With the invention of popular and very inexpensive teleportation, an argument at a shopping mall—which happens to be covered by a news crew—quickly swells into a riot. In the story, broadcast coverage attracts the attention of other people, who use the widely available technology of the teleportation booth to swarm first that event—thus intensifying the riot—and then other events as they happen. Commenting on the social impact of such mobs, one character (articulating the police view) says, "We call them flash crowds, and we watch for them." In related short stories, they are named as a prime location for illegal activities (such as pickpocketing and looting) to take place. Lev Grossman suggests that the story title is a source of the term "flash mob".[25]

People dancing at the Eutopia 15 Flashmob Event while crossing Puerta del Puente in Córdoba, Spain (2015)

Flash mobs began as a form of performance art.[18] While they started as an apolitical act, flash mobs may share superficial similarities to political demonstrations. In the 1960s, groups such as the Yippies used street theatre to expose the public to political issues.[26] Flash mobs can be seen as a specialized form of smart mob,[7] a term and concept proposed by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.[27]

Use of the term[edit]

The first documented use of the term flash mob as it is understood today was in 2003 in a blog entry posted in the aftermath of Wasik's event.[17][19][28] The term was inspired by the earlier term smart mob.[29]

Flash mob was added to the 11th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary on July 8, 2004, where it noted it as an "unusual and pointless act" separating it from other forms of smart mobs such as types of performance, protests, and other gatherings.[3][30] Also recognized noun derivatives are flash mobber and flash mobbing.[3] Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English defines flash mob as "a group of people who organize on the Internet and then quickly assemble in a public place, do something bizarre, and disperse."[31] This definition is consistent with the original use of the term; however, both news media and promoters have subsequently used the term to refer to any form of smart mob, including political protests;[32] a collaborative Internet denial of service attack;[33] a collaborative supercomputing demonstration;[34] and promotional appearances by pop musicians.[35] The press has also used the term flash mob to refer to a practice in China where groups of shoppers arrange online to meet at a store in order to drive a collective bargain.[36]


The city of Brunswick, Germany, has stopped flash mobs by strictly enforcing the already existing law of requiring a permit to use any public space for an event.[37] In the United Kingdom, a number of flash mobs have been stopped over concerns for public health and safety.[38] The British Transport Police have urged flash mob organizers to "refrain from holding such events at railway stations".[39]


Referred to as flash robs, flash mob robberies, or flash robberies by the media, crimes organized by teenage youth using social media rose to international notoriety beginning in 2011.[12][13][14][40] The National Retail Federation does not classify these crimes as "flash mobs" but rather "multiple offender crimes" that utilize "flash mob tactics".[41][42] In a report, the NRF noted, "multiple offender crimes tend to involve groups or gangs of juveniles who already know each other, which does not earn them the term 'flash mob'."[42] Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said that most "flash mob thuggery" involves crimes of violence that are otherwise ordinary, but are perpetrated suddenly by large, organized groups of people: "What social media adds is the ability to recruit such a large group of people, that individuals who would not rob a store or riot on their own feel freer to misbehave without being identified."[43]

It's hard for me to believe that these kids saw some YouTube video of people Christmas caroling in a food court, and said, 'Hey, we should do that, except as a robbery!' More likely, they stumbled on the simple realization (like I did back in 2003, but like lots of other people had before and have since) that one consequence of all this technology is that you can coordinate a ton of people to show up in the same place at the same time.

— Bill Wasik[44]

These kids are taking part in what's basically a meme. They heard about it from friends, and probably saw it on YouTube, and now they're getting their chance to participate in it themselves.

— Bill Wasik[14]

HuffPost raised the question asking if "the media was responsible for stirring things up", and added that in some cases the local authorities did not confirm the use of social media making the "use of the term flash mob questionable".[15] Amanda Walgrove wrote that criminals involved in such activities do not refer to themselves as "flash mobs", but that this use of the term is nonetheless appropriate.[44] Dr. Linda Kiltz drew similar parallels between flash robs and the Occupy Movement stating, "As the use of social media increases, the potential for more flash mobs that are used for political protest and for criminal purposes is likely to increase.".[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Facebook flashmob shuts down station". CNN. February 9, 2009.
  2. ^ "Va-va-voom is in the dictionary". BBC. July 8, 2004. Retrieved May 5, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c "definition of flash mob from Oxford English Dictionaries Online". Oxford University Press. July 8, 2004. Archived from the original on May 10, 2011. Retrieved May 9, 2010.
  4. ^ "Mixed feelings over Philadelphia's flash-mob curfew". BBC. August 12, 2011.
  5. ^ Athavaley, Anjali (April 15, 2008). "Students Unleash A Pillow Fight On Manhattan". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on January 11, 2009. Retrieved May 19, 2008.
  6. ^ Fitzgerald, Sean D. (March 21, 2008). "International Pillow Fight Day: Let the feathers fly!". National Post. Canada. Retrieved May 19, 2008.[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ a b c d Judith A. Nicholson. "Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity". Fibreculture Publications/Open Humanities Press. Archived from the original on December 2, 2010. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  8. ^ "Time Freezes in Central London". ABC News. April 30, 2008. Retrieved January 25, 2009.
  9. ^ a b c d Sandra Shmueli (August 8, 2003). "'Flash mob' craze spreads". CNN.
  10. ^ "Manifestul Aglomerarilor Spontane / A Flashmob Manifesto". December 5, 2004. Archived from the original on February 9, 2007. Retrieved December 27, 2011.
  11. ^ Ed Fletcher (December 23, 2010). "Failed choral 'flash mob' may not have qualified for term". Toronto Star. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  12. ^ a b Annie Vaughan (June 18, 2011). "Teenage Flash Mob Robberies on the Rise". Fox News. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  13. ^ a b Erin Skarda (May 12, 2011). "Flash Mobs Turned Criminal: The Rise of Flash Robberies". Time. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  14. ^ a b c d Bill Wasik (November 11, 2011). "'Flash Robs': Trying to Stop a Meme Gone Wrong". Wired. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
  15. ^ a b "'Flash Mob' Attacks Used By Gun Rights Advocates To Build Concealed Carry Support". The Huffington Post. August 8, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
  16. ^ "'Step Up Revolution' Director, Choreographers Talk Flash Mob Attraction and Former Martial Artist Ryan Guzman's Debut". The Hollywood Reporter. July 26, 2012. Retrieved May 25, 2020.
  17. ^ a b Wasik, Bill (January 2012). "#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You". Wired. Retrieved January 22, 2012.
  18. ^ a b Goldstein, Lauren (August 10, 2003). "The Mob Rules". Time. Vol. 162, no. 7 - April 18, 2003. ISSN 0040-781X. OCLC 1767509. Retrieved May 8, 2021.
  19. ^ a b Wasik, Bill (March 2006). "My Crowd, or, Phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob" (Subscription). Harper's Magazine. March 2006: 56–66. ISSN 0017-789X. OCLC 4532730. Retrieved February 2, 2007.
  20. ^ Bedell, Doug. "E-mail Communication Facilitates New 'Flash Mob' Phenomenon", Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, July 23, (2003)
  21. ^ McMartin, Pete (July 12, 2008). "Waterfight in Stanley Park, but are flash mobs starting to lose their edge?". Canwest Publishing Inc. Archived from the original on July 14, 2008. Retrieved July 14, 2008.
  22. ^ Ian Urbina (March 24, 2010). "Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message". The New York Times. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  23. ^ "The Flash Mob". Cascades Female Factory Historic Site. Female Factory Historic Site Ltd. Archived from the original on October 6, 2007. Retrieved October 23, 2007.
  24. ^ Nold, Christian (2003). "Legible Mob". p. 23.
  25. ^ Grossman, Lev, (June 13, 2012). "Lord of the Ringworld: In Praise of Larry Niven". Time.
  26. ^ Cosmic Trigger III, Robert Anton Wilson, 1995, New Falcon Publications
  27. ^ Chris Taylor (March 3, 2003). "Day of the smart mobs". CNN.
  28. ^ Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke (June 10, 2014). "The New York Times Magazine Names Bill Wasik Deputy Editor". The New York Observer. Retrieved January 17, 2016.
  29. ^ McFedries, Paul (July 14, 2003). "flash mob". WordSpy.com. Logophilia Limited. Archived from the original on March 15, 2006. Retrieved March 14, 2006.
  30. ^ "Henry inspires English dictionary". BBC. July 8, 2004. Retrieved May 9, 2010.
  31. ^ "flash mob". Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.6). Retrieved April 27, 2007.
  32. ^ "Putin protest by flash mob". BBC News. February 28, 2004. Retrieved May 3, 2007.
  33. ^ Musil, Steven (February 11, 2005). "This week in Web threats: The Internet is always good for a little fear and loathing". CNET News. CNET. Retrieved May 3, 2007.
  34. ^ Biever, Celeste (March 29, 2004). "A Flash mob to attempt supercomputing feat". New Scientist. ISSN 0262-4079. OCLC 2378350.
  35. ^ Gardner, Elysa (February 27, 2004). "Avril Lavigne, in the flesh, at 'flash mob' appearances". USA Today. Archived from the original on October 14, 2007. Retrieved September 22, 2021.
  36. ^ "China's new shopping craze: 'Team buying'". Christian Science Monitor. December 5, 2007. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved February 12, 2008.
  37. ^ "Flash mobs banned in Braunschweig". The Local Europe. July 28, 2009. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  38. ^ Robert Leigh (May 19, 2008). "Videos: Police step in to prevent Facebook flash mob events". Daily Mirror. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  39. ^ "Rail police criticise flash mobs". BBC News. February 26, 2009. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  40. ^ Daniel Denvir (September 26, 2011). "Are Violent 'Flash Mobs' Really a Trend?". CityLab. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  41. ^ Jeffrey Ian Ross (2013). Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1412999571. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  42. ^ a b "Multiple Offender Crimes" (PDF). National Retail Federation. 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 14, 2014. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
  43. ^ Leary, Mark (August 19, 2011). "Why People Take Part in Violent Flash Mobs". Duke University News and Communications. Retrieved September 6, 2011.
  44. ^ a b Amanda Walgrove (June 20, 2011). "Who Put the 'Flash Mob' in Flash Mob Robberies?". The Faster Times. Archived from the original on September 3, 2014. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  45. ^ Linda Kiltz. "Flash Mobs: The Newest Threat to Local Governments". Public Management Magazine. No. December 2011. Archived from the original on August 26, 2014. Retrieved June 18, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of flash mob at Wiktionary
  • Media related to Flash mobs at Wikimedia Commons