Towards the end of the 20th century, western civilisation took a cultural turn for the worse when the dynamism, excitement and experimentation of modernism were superseded by the dreary nihilism and cynical sneer of postmodernism. Well, we all have bad days, I thought. Things can only get better.
Then came flash mobbing.
For the benefit of those just back from a news-free holiday, flash mobbing is a worldwide movement in which crowds of strangers are mobilised via e-mail to converge on a public place and join in a brief, seemingly spontaneous act of absurdity such as waving bananas or umbrellas in the air and chanting meaningless mantras.
The craze originated in New York in June, when a crowd of more than 100 people mobilised by an internet prankster known only as "Bill" gathered in the carpet department at Macy's, respectfully debated the qualities of a large and expensive rug and dispersed a few minutes later as quickly and mysteriously as it had appeared.
Flash mobbing spread to London this month when a crowd gathered at Sofas-UK, a central London store, to worship the merchandise. Unfortunately, the store manager, Derrick Robinson, had closed early and gone to the pub because exceptionally hot weather had left him without any customers. But when someone alerted him to the crowd outside his shop, he went back, opened the door, and stood aside as the worshippers chanted "Oh wow, what a sofa!" before melting into the balmy evening.
New York has now had about seven events and London three or four. Flash mobbing has spread all over Europe and North America as well as reaching Australia, Singapore and, a few days ago, Hong Kong. And already, the parodies have started: an anonymous group in Austin, Texas, claimed on the internet to be preparing the first "slash mobbing", in which people would gather at a predetermined point, kill all those around them and disperse, leaving the onlookers "dazed, bewildered, and hopefully dead".
What do these acts of meaninglessness mean? It is hard to resist a twinge of despair. Here we have mobile phones and the internet offering us undreamt-of levels of connectedness and empowerment, and what do we do with them? To be fair, there was a moment when anti-globalisation protesters employed the new technology in their fight for what they saw as a more equitable world. But what sort of post-post-modern society is it in which people use text messaging and e-mail to marshal each other into pointless acts of stupidity?
All right, so the past century was not without its eccentrics. Some flash mobbers have drawn parallels between their own activities and those of the 1960s situationists or Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, who toured America in a psychedelic bus, engaging in bizarre acts of street theatre and promoting the use of hallucinogenic drugs.
Much as these movements were unconventional, however, they were certainly not pointless. Like the dadaists and surrealists of earlier decades, the situationists and the Merry Pranksters were motivated by an ideology. They wanted to liberate people from the drudgery and boredom of their everyday existence through a cultural revolution and they hoped to achieve it by constructing situations that jolted people out of their normal way of thinking and acting.
Flash mobbing could so easily have been a movement in the same mould. It could have challenged us to think why flash mobbing was any more pointless than going to work each day, watching television, going to an air show or buying a fondue set. Instead, it revels in its pointlessness, even to the extent of defending itself against those who would try to impose some sort of political or cultural agenda upon it. The final instruction to participants in the first London flash mob was: "At all times, remember that a mob is just fun."
So, there we have it. The parallel to be drawn is not with bizarre counter-culture movements of the 1960s but with cases where people simply derive pleasure from a bit of exhibitionism. After all, a flash mob would not be funny if nobody saw it - the bewilderment of the audience is an essential ingredient - so the precedents that apply are those where people set out to draw attention to themselves: streaking, for example, or getting into the record books with pointless achievements such as the world's loudest burp. (Thank you Paul Hunn of London who, according to Guinness World Records, hit 118.1 decibels on a television show in April 2000.)
There is, however, an obvious difference: streakers and record-breakers are usually individuals, whereas flash mobbers strike in groups. At some level, individual attention-seekers require at least an element of bravado and perhaps even personal courage, whereas those participating in group actions surrender their own identities to the anonymity of the crowd.
According to media reports, flash mobbers tend to be white, middle-class, in their 20s or 30s and employed in information technology. Perhaps these are people who would hesitate to do something stupid or outrageous on their own. But the wonder of the internet is that it can agglomerate their secret desires to make an exhibition of themselves and give harmless vent to them in the safety of a group of like-minded people.
At least it gets them away from their computer screens for a while. Or at least, it did. The bad news is that, although New York's next flash mobbing has been scheduled for September 10, the mysterious "Bill" has announced it will be the city's last, possibly indicating that the movement is about to die out as quickly as it began.
A follower named Fred speculates in his web log that, having sparked an international phenomenon, "Bill" has had the wisdom to realise it is time to move on. "Besides, who wants to hang around outside in the winter?" he notes.
Oh well. Whatever.
By Richard Tomkins
Financial Times; Aug 29, 2003
ещё одна попытка, на это раз респектабельной FT, понять природу флэшмоба... товарищ, к сожалению, не рюхает...