Flash Mobs Blow Out Five Candles

Almost as soon as they started, flash mobs have been eulogized as a crested trend.

"McDonald's Bathroom Attendant" (courtesy of ImprovEverywhere.com)

In June of 2003, 200 people gathered around a carpet in the rug department of a Manhattan Macy’s, told salespeople that their “commune” was shopping for a “love rug,” then left as quickly as they had arrived. This event would come to be known as the Internet’s firstborn flash mob. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again”, the Macy’s flash mob first took the blogosphere by storm five years ago. Though this anniversary doesn’t merit a “look back,” why not a “where are they now?”

Almost as soon as they started, flash mobs have been eulogized as a crested trend. Now used as a tool by marketing companies and protest groups alike, they still make news. Last month, Taco Bell staged one outside of an MLB game in Philadelphia with hired actors in swimwear, “frozen” in place to promote their icy new treat Fruitista Freeze. In Belarus, an ice cream social flash mob was organized to protest the country’s ban on organized public activity. And of course, people are still organizing flash mobs just for the sake of it, like the silent dance party in our Capitol rotunda late last year.

Improv Everywhere is a group whose stunts have been compared to flash mobs, though they avoided being pigeonholed by the fad, distancing itself early on. They’re more like the flash mob’s older, funnier cousin. IE has been, to quote their website’s mission statement, “causing scenes” since 2001, and millions now watch their videos.

For the uninitiated, the New York City-based group is made up of “agents” who perform “missions” with the goal of giving onlookers a good story to tell. The stunts are closer to good old fashion fun than in-joke, although a 2005 This American Life episode detailed some of their pranks’ accidental mishaps.

Missions range from gimcrack to big budget: a tuxedoed agent dispenses hand towels and chewing gum from a makeshift amenities table in a Times Square McDonald’s toilet; hundreds of pants-less agents board subway cars; 80 agents enter a Best Buy dressed in blue polod and khakis, the store uniform; a group disguised as U2 perform atop an apartment building across from Madison Square Garden, hours before the actual U2 concert; a JumboTron, complete with NBC sportscaster doing play-by-play, set up at a random Little League baseball game, with the Goodyear Blimp overhead, team names crawling across its ticker tape sign. That mission, “The Best Game Ever,” is one those Little Leaguers will never forget. This is viral video at its best.

IE reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon. Outside of a performance space, a man asks a woman, “How come there’s no feel-good performance art?” Clearly, the cartoon man has never seen “McDonald's Bathroom Attendant.”

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flash mobs, Improv Everywhere, McDonald's Bathroom Attendant

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