As kids, my friends and I loved to watch Candid Camera and couldn’t help laughing as some poor person was caught up in the latest prank. With the advent of the digital age, ‘pranksterism’ has spread exponentially, sweeping around the world via new mobile technologies and the Internet. The arrival of the social phenomenon which became known as ‘flash mobs’ brought the ultimate in pranking, on a much larger scale than could be achieved by Candid Camera.
I remember when flash mobs first made their presence felt in New York in May 2003 by a group calling itself the Mob Project, with the instigator, Bill Wasik, only revealed years later. These mobsters gained the world’s amused attention by dumping a handful of incongruous performances on an unsuspecting public audience during 2003, and then stopping as abruptly as they had begun. By then, however, the phenomenon had gathered momentum via wide exposure on the Internet and in the media so flash mobs continued to roll out around the world for many years to come. Some people mocked the trend, equating it to pranks like streaking or phone-booth stuffing; others were entranced.
Boyd, C. (2003). Fox 7 News Flash Mob Report Austin – August 19, 2003
So what were the features of flash mobs that made them so successful?
- The ability to communicate instantaneously with large numbers of people by mobile technology was paramount. Adam, an organiser of a London mob, said: “Flash mobs anchor the online world into the real world – they are a manifestation of your ‘cc’ list” (cited in Shmueli, 2003. para. 11).
- The employment of subterfuge tactics were used to maintain the next feature essential to their success, the element of surprise. Audiences all over the world have responded with confusion, amusement, astonishment, amazement, wonder, joy and delight.
- The performance of an inane event such as dancing in a public place, which started with no warning and concluded just as abruptly, with the performers disappearing into the throng. Years later, Muse called this “a culture of perpetual spectatorship where anyone can be an actor and anywhere a possible stage” (2010, p.11). Part of the appeal seemed to lie in the brevity of the performance which provided us with “theatre for our short attention span culture” (Muse, 2010. p. 13).
- The audience was kept in the dark as to the purpose of the event. Various reasons were later given, such as making fun of hipsters or giving the audience a day to remember. Others said they were merely “the power of many, in the pursuit of nothing”(Tom, cited in Nicholson, 2005, p. 7).
- Predominantly media-savvy youthful performers took part although later events attracted a more diverse group.
- Filming of the performance and, most importantly, the reactions of the audiences, by other mobsters was an essential feature in the longevity of the phenomenon. The video was posted to the Internet to be viewed by a secondary, much larger digital audience, far into the future. This online “diffused” audience viewed the flash mob performance in an entirely different light to its original audience, as the online audience were in on the prank (Abercrombie and Longhurst, cited in Muse, 2010. p. 11).
By 2010, flash mobs were such a global phenomenon that their huge number and variations made them harder to define. Love them or hate them, they turned up everywhere! The very messy International Pillow Fight Day was held in cities from Cape Town to Stockholm. After a sunburnt beach-goer in his red cossies led a flash mob dance on Bondi Beach, similar events appeared in Australia with great regularity.
Flip Video. (2009). Official: Bondi Beach Gets Flipped! Towel Surfing – Flip Video Flash Mob
Professional groups such as Improv Everywhere adopted the genre as their own and produced classic flash mobs like Grand Central Frozen, as well as instigating No Pants Subway Ride. Despite only having a direct audience of a few hundred, Grand Central Frozen has been viewed 34 million times on YouTube and been replicated many times, including 2,000 performers in Sydney and 3,000 in Paris!
Improv Everywhere. (2008). Frozen Grand Central
It is obvious that people loved participating in the light-hearted pranks and took great delight in watching the reaction of the audience online later. Muse remarked somewhat cynically that 21st century technology allows us to “admire the event into perpetuity” (2010. p.15).
With flash mobs eventually becoming a bit ‘ho-hum’, new pranking memes have continued to appear driven by publicity on the net. How could we forget Planking and crazy offshoots like Milking, Teapotting, Owling and Batmanning ?
Even The Ice Bucket Challenge includes a prank as the challenge itself, a brilliant strategy which has seen people from all walks of life enticed to throw a bucket of icy water over themselves, albeit for charity! Teens love watching the latest funny trends on You Tube and Vine. Undoubtedly, new trends will appear, some hopefully with the sense of fun that accompanied flash mobs and gave pleasure to an audience of millions, whether live or virtual.
Baker, S. (2011, February 12). A pillow fight that took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in front of the courthouse [Image]. Polochons-Velvia-06 CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr Retrieved 4 October, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillow_fight_flash_mob
Bhautik J. (2012, January 08). No Pants Subway Ride San Francisco [Image]. Retrieved 4 October, 2014 from https://www.flickr.com/photos/captin_nod/6664546637/
Boyd, C. (2003, August 18). Fox 7 News Flash Mob Report Austin – August 19, 2003 [Video file].Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNIQNGdpom4
Clay, B. ( 2011, July 22) Afternoon Owling with BCI [Image].Retrieved October 4, 2014 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Owling_three_women_BCI.jpg
Flip Video. (2009, November 3). Official: Bondi Beach Gets Flipped! Towel Surfing – Flip Video Flash Mob [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPypWdiC06c
Improv Everywhere. (2008, January 31). Frozen Grand Central [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwMj3PJDxuo
Muse, J. H. (2010, January 1). Theater; Flash Mobs and the Diffusion of Audience. 40(3) p.1-16. Retrieved October 4, 2014, from http://theater.dukejournals.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/content/40/3/9.full.pdf+html
Nicholson, J. A. (2006). The Fibreculture Journal; FCJ-030 Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity. 6(1-). Retrieved October 4, 2014, from http://six.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-030-flash-mobs-in-the-age-of-mobile-connectivity/
Shmueli, S. (2003, August 9). ‘Flash mob’ craze spreads. Retrieved October 3, 2014, from http://edition.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/08/04/flash.mob/