The Joy of Joining

A rumor is making the rounds at my retirement community: we’re going to organize a flash mob. I can hardly wait.

In case you don’t know what a flash mob is, according to Wikipedia it’s a crowd that suddenly gathers, performs “an unusual and pointless act” and then just as suddenly disperses.

Picture it this way: you’re in a shopping mall when you hear music. A couple of people begin to dance in an open space. Almost immediately, several others join them. Onlookers stop and stare. More dancers keep arriving until 30 or 40 are performing an enthusiastic (and well rehearsed) dance routine. When the music ends, they simply walk away, vanishing back into the sea of shoppers.

That’s a flash mob. Some of the best practice in secret for months before materializing in a mall, train station, park or other public place. And they don’t just dance, they do other things as well—like pounding each other with pillows. The goal is to surprise onlookers: those who videotape flash mobs for online posterity divide their lens-time between the performers and their astonished (and usually delighted) audience.

People in my age group love to participate in flash mobs. If you google “flash mobs, seniors,” you’ll find pages and pages listing videos and news stories. I have my theories about what their appeal is—but more about that later.

The first flash mob was organized in Manhattan in June 2003 by Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. He emailed 60-odd friends and acquaintances, invited them to join “an inexplicable mob of people” for 10 minutes or less and asked them to forward his message to others who might be interested. Wasik’s first mobbing attempt was thwarted when word got out and the police turned up, but the second succeeded. More than 100 people converged on Macy’s rug department, claiming, when asked, that they lived together on a commune and were shopping for a “love rug.”

Of course, there was media coverage and the idea of mobbing began to spread. By early August, flash mobs had appeared in scores of cities in the United States and abroad. Usually, they were organized online or by texting. Wasik notes 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.”

But why do it? Wasik was experimenting with mob psychology and what he called “the joining urge.” To him, the point of a flash mob was that there was no point except to prove you could turn out an amazing number of people, but others felt the mobs should not be pointless. The political possibilities were obvious and had already been explored. In 2001, two years before Wasik’s first flash mob, more than a million Filippinos, organized by text messaging, gathered in a public plaza in Manila to protest government corruption. The nation’s president was subsequently removed from office.

Flash mobbing soon took off in many different directions. To name just a few:

Some organizations were quick to see commercial possibilities. Today it’s possible to rent a flash mob. Corporations do it to help launch a product, and individuals sometimes hire one to make a marriage proposal unforgettable. In China, groups of shoppers organize online to mob a store and try to drive a collective bargain.

As I mentioned earlier, flash mobs are popular with older people. In 2013 in Eugene, OR, for example, 73-year-old Dick Walker got off to a low-tech start when he placed an ad in a local paper. He invited people 60 and older to join a flash mob and provided his email address. Walker was stunned when 116 responses poured in, some from individuals in their 80s. After practicing for four months, the group descended on a shopping mall, where they danced to Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” and to rap music. Newspapers as far away as London reported the event.

So why do flash mobs interest older people? They’re fun, but it’s also a chance to challenge the stereotypes of aging. If flash mobs exist largely because modern technology makes them possible—in other words, they exist because they can—then when elders form flash mobs, it’s to show that we can, defying those who write us off and assume that aging is a steady, joyless decline. Asked why he organized the Eugene flash mob, Walker said, “I wanted to show that seniors could have a life.”

It’s a shame he felt that was something he had to prove.

Unfortunately, the media coverage is often of the condescending, aren’t-they-cute variety. News stories about Walker’s flash mob referred to “elderly dancers” who performed “a hilarious routine.” They’d practiced for four months. Flash mobs may not be the most effective way to combat stereotypes of aging.

What I like most about them is that they’re subversive. Generally frowned on by the authorities, they delight both performers and spectators. How often does that happen?

Here are links to two excellent flash-mob videos:

Called “Frozen,” this mob in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station often makes lists of the 10 Best Flash Mobs.

Complete with costumes, horses, a thief making his getaway and a live chicken underfoot, this may be the best flash mob ever. It advertised the reopening of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 2013.