Flash mobbing and its unstoppable rise

'"Flash Mob" art causes a scene

In recent weeks, the term "flash mob" has had negative associations with violence in Philadelphia. But it's a tradition built upon trying to make people happy, says Anna Bressanin.

When it comes to gathering mass crowds via modern technology, all done with the end goal of spreading joy, no one has done more than Charlie Todd.

Todd, a 32-year-old New York resident, is the founder of Improv Everywhere, which since 2001 has produced over 100 public spectacles for unaware passers-by - some with thousands of volunteers, some with a few carefully selected participants.

"I got excited by the idea of producing projects that create a false reality, but a fun reality, that ultimately is a positive experience for all and a great story to tell," says Todd, speaking ahead of his latest project, Black Tie Beach, which premières online next week.

From lark to lifestyle

It started simply. Just after Todd moved to New York City in 2001, a friend from college told him that he looked like the musician Ben Folds. Unconvinced, Todd decided to test theory.

Start Quote

It's not that someone watches a video of Improv Everywhere and then organizes a riot”

End Quote Brian Wasik Father of the flash mob

At a West Village cafe, Todd sat at the bar and his friend at a table. Once his friend finished his meal, he came to the bar, "saw" Todd and said very loudly: "Oh my God, I can't believe it. I'm a fan of yours, can I have an autograph?"

The interaction attracted attention, and soon a small crowd was asking for autographs. Pictures were taken and free drinks were poured.

That night was the beginning of Improv Everywhere, whose bigger events now attract thousands of participants. Their most popular videos on YouTube have been seen by more than 28 million viewers.

What started as a group of friends and volunteers is now a fully-funded enterprise and a full-time job for Todd, thanks mainly to advertising on their YouTube channel.

Their spectacles - "missions" in Improv Everywhere parlance - are legendary. Take Frozen Grand Central: on a busy New York City morning in 2008, two hundred participants (or "agents") froze at the exact same second, staying still for five minutes, surprising the rushing crowd in the city's grandest train terminal.

Pillow fight in Zurich A pillow fight took place in Zurich

Improv Everywhere missions share a similar dynamic: they gather dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people, all of whom appear in public spaces, engage in a pre-arranged, organised activity and disappear suddenly. They use the internet, MP3 and mobile devices in order to make it happen.

That may sound like what we think of as a "flash mob," but to Todd, it doesn't quite fit.

To him, the term has become almost meaningless, used to describe any unpublicised gathering: from young people gathering to commit crime in Philadelphia to people dancing together to a choreographed Katy Perry routine at the mall.

In fact, Improv Everywhere started in 2001, two years before the term "flash mob" was even coined. That movement started in 2003, when Bill Wasik got the idea to create a show using email to bring people together.

"Then I got another idea: what if there was no show? What if we just get people together for no reason, just to see what happened?"

What happened is that hundreds of people showed up for a week of flash mobs in New York City. The idea spread across the globe. Just few weeks later in Rome, about 150 people went all together to a bookstore asking for non-existent books.

In London, a furniture store was suddenly packed with people speaking English without pronouncing the letter "O". Soon it was happening all over the world.

10 years of missions

  • Cell phone symphony: dozens of agents check their bags at a crowded bookstore, only to have the cell phones inside ring at a pre-arranged time
  • McDonald's bathroom attendant: a tuxedoed assistant turns a trip to the toilet into a high-class experience
  • Look up more: agents perform synchronized dance moves and calisthenics in the windows of a shopping centre facing a busy city street
  • The mobieus: customers in a crowded coffee shop are treated to a "time loop" when a six-part sequence of events is seamlessly re-enacted for an hour

"The internet shows people something fun that they can do themselves. And they do it," says Wasik. "It is a new way to perform and find an audience in the real and in the online world: a new fun stage."

It is not, he says, a catalyst for destructive events like the London riots, where some of the violence was arranged using social media and mobile phones.

"People are discovering that technology is powerful enough to get a crowd together," says Wasik. "Kids everywhere have smartphones. You can do something fun or something illegal out of it. It's not that someone watches a video of Improv Everywhere and then organises a riot."

Permits please

While recent flash mobs have used Twitter, Facebook and text messages to gather people, Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere still rely on emails - in part to keep the events a surprise. Even that is getting harder: the New York mailing list counts 50,000 people.

At the "No Pants Subway Ride" (an annual event in which agents enter a subway, remove their trousers, and continue to commute without comment) Improv Everywhere's cinematographer Keith Haskel found it hard to film the surprised reaction of commuters: there were about as many people participating in the mission as staring agape.

But not all missions involve thronging masses of volunteers. Take Star Wars Subway Car, in which a scene from the classic film is recreated, in detail, in a car of the number 6 subway train. That mission is only staged by few people for a small audience. (Then, of course, more than six million people watch it on YouTube.)

And unlike other flash mobs, Improv Everywhere is starting to ask for permits.

"I believe in free expression," explains Todd. "But if you want to bring suddenly 4,000 people to a park, asking permission is probably the polite thing to do."

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