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Hot on the Web

For no apparent reason

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 12, 2003
(Issue 2137, Believe It or Not)

If you're ever out in a public place and see a large group of people suddenly arrive, and behave in a totally inexplicable manner, then just as quickly disappear, you've probably witnessed a flash mob.

Flash mobs are a wonderfully silly antidote to all the furrowed-brow seriousness that's ruled the Internet for the past few years. It's a form of public pranksterism – a bit of spontaneous low-brow fun that harms no one.

Intentionally apolitical, generally nonsensical bordering on the absurd, flash mobs are (so far) meant as a statement of fun in a world that increasingly frowns on frivolity.

And flash mobs are nothing if not frivolous. Some recent examples have included roughly 200 people quacking and throwing rubber ducks into a fountain in Montreal, dozens descending on a bookstore in Rome to request nonexistent titles, and a couple hundred playing a quick if rather large game of Duck, Duck Goose at a park in San Francisco.

How they work

Either through a Web site or e-mail (and, in a secondary but highly effective viral effect, by instant messenger), instructions are sent out to anyone who has signed up. In order to thwart the fun police who might try to stop these harmless pranks, the instructions are often sent out at the last minute – perhaps only a few hours before the flash mob event is set to happen.

As mentioned, there is a viral component to all this – which, given the anarchistic intent of flash mobs in the first place, only makes sense. Many folks sign up for flash mobs, and then when directions are posted or e-mailed, they forward the e-mail and/or instant message to their friends – thus growing the number of people far beyond what even the organizers may have anticipated.

The instructions are usually simple: Gather at some location at a precise time and engage in a simple but hopefully ridiculous activity for X number of minutes. Then disperse.

Why they work

Flash mobs happen for the same reason Monty Python is still a huge comedy hit 35 years after it went off the air: People crave the unexpected.

A woman identified only as "Indri" told the San Francisco Chronicle that "It's fun to see other people who usually sit behind their computers, longing for some strange, random thing to occur." The Australian IT quoted a San Francisco flash mob organizer who identified himself as The Governor as saying, "Everything makes a lot of sense nowadays, a bit too much sense. Then, for 10 minutes, you get to do something completely nonsensical. You get to be a kid for a few minutes."

Where to find them

Finding a flash mob to participate in isn't all that easy – their anarchistic nature doesn't lend itself to organization.

But there is one site, FlockSmart (, that is devoted to flash mobs (with several entries for both San Diego and Denver when we visited). promises to start offering online flash mob organizing soon. And Yahoo, of course, has a category on flash mobs. There are also (at last count) 129 Yahoo groups devoted to flash mobs (see and search for "flash mobs") – and a master Yahoo flash mob group,

You're more likely to hear about them from friends, though, or on local college or university campuses.

Or – and here's the beauty of it – start your own! You have your friends' e-mail addresses and phone numbers; they have other friends yo don't know. Think of something goofy and safe that will get folks talking and laughing. Have your friends gather at the local municipal swimming pool wearing parkas and carrying pumpkins and start singing the theme to "The Brady Bunch" ... you get the idea.

Now go have fun.