The Dangers of Flashmobbing?


Having woken up at some godawful hour last week, I stuck on a This American Life podcast while trying to doze. It usually helps lull me back into unconsciousness, with Ira Glass reading me a nice story.

But this one grabbed me too much to sleep; it was all about mind games and tales of people screwing with other people’s heads.

The main bit was about the NYC pranksters Improv Everywhere, a group of flashmobbers I’ve been following for a while now. (I use the term prankster cautiously, ‘cos the head chap there, Charlie Todd, refers to his capers as ‘missions’, with the people carrying them out as ‘agents’.) If you haven’t seen them, I’m sure you’ve come across something similar. They perform subtle flashmobby acts in public to spice up people’s days and shake them out of their reverie.

I love the idea of flashmobs; I generally see them as good innocent fun. But what jabbed me was the reaction from those who’d been the target of the mobs. They hated it.

For one of Improv Everywhere’s stunts – ‘best gig ever’ – they took a tinpot band who no-one had ever heard of and set up a scenario where everyone in the crowd seemed to be their biggest fan. You know the deal – they made band T-shirts and learnt all their lyrics, and generally treated this band like they were the living embodiment of rock and sex onstage.

The band loved it on the night and gave it their all. But when no-one showed up for their next gig, and later when they found out the whole thing had been a piss-take, one described it as like ‘a stab in the heart’.

In another flashmob the agents chose some putz in a bar and decided to treat him as if it was his birthday. They all gave him cards, bought him drinks and presents and made him look like the king of the world. But the chap was totally mystified. He was freaked out and twitchy and the episode bugged him for weeks.

So this flashmob thing, which I tend to applaud for its gentle subversion, was in fact making people’s lives miserable. Charlie Todd defended his actions by saying that at least they were providing one great night/gig/etc to spice up these guys’ crappy lives.

But it didn’t sit well. It all seemed rather selfish and self-satisfied. I’m less sure about the whole thing now – it seems a bit more sinister. If anyone’s got thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them. I’m pretty new to the whole flashmob sphere, and don’t want to blithely start pissing people off.

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