I was very disappointed and disheartened by a recent Harper's article, in which the organizer of the first New York City flash mob, and the designer of the flash mob rule set that was then interpreted and modified by organizers all over the world, seeks to give the definitive word on the Mob Project. My stomach sank to read Bill call it "the most forgettable hipster fad," to hear him describe the mobs as exclusionary-by-design, and to realize that for Bill it was only the New York City mobs -- 8 out of thousands worldwide -- that mattered. The only other city's mob that he even deemed worthy of describing was the Boston mob dubbed "Ode to Bill", a tribute to... well, go figure.
I started composing a letter to the editor and then saved it in my drafts folder unfinished, determined to make my rebuttal in my dissertation, rather than the magazine. But after stumbling upon a few online responses to the article that expressed similar confusion about the content and cynicism of Mr. Wasik's article, I found myself finishing the letter.
Here it is, in case the editors at Harper's don't see fit to run it.
To the Editor:
Bill Wasik’s account of the mob project is a fascinating perspective on eight of the thousands of flash mobs that were conducted worldwide in the summer and fall of 2003. However, as one of the San Francisco flash mob organizers, I have to take issue with his article as a definitive account of the phenomenon. Here in San Francisco, for instance, we consciously designed events that would be inclusive and inviting to passersby who hadn’t already received the secret “insider” instructions. When we whirled across a pedestrian crosswalk at a famous cable car stop, the mob grew larger over the course of the 10 minutes as tourists and locals joined in. It was “transparent play”, not “dark play”—the rules were obvious to anyone who was watching, and there was ample opportunity to become a part of the experience. When we threw a massively multiplayer duck-duck-goose game in a public park, it was obvious to all nearby what we were up to—and that’s why many more people outside of the original network began to play with us. We picked a familiar childhood game so that as diverse a group as possible could jump in and take part. In short, we were explicitly working against what we perceived to be the exclusivity of the East Coast flash mobs. And that, I believe, is the true story of flash mobs—local organizers making their own decisions about which places are appropriate for play, and what kinds of play to design. Wasik invented the bones, the structure, of flash mobs—yes. But independent organizers in their own cities put their own flesh and blood on top of that skeleton. I have been enchanted and delighted by Capetown’s, Bogota’s, Montreal’s, and Warsaw’s interpretations of the flash mob, none of which looked like each other’s and each of which captured the imagination of local residents in their own site-specific, community-specific ways. That’s what makes the phenomenon interesting and meaningful in the long run: the diversity of spontaneous communities making their own public spectacles. Furthermore, I despaired to read Wasik be so dismissive of flash mobs, referring to them as a vacuous and forgettable trend. When I went to Singapore in the summer of 2004 to give a lecture about flash mobs—a lecture that was almost banned by the government because it was deemed a controversial subject matter—I met individuals who were profoundly moved and energized by the fact that three flash mobs had been successfully conducted in Singapore, despite the illegality of organizing more than four people in a public space without formal government permission. And when flash mobs were banned by the legislature in Mumbai, mobbers from all over the world joined together to offer the sole Mumbai organizer online advice and support (eventually, it was decided to move flash mobs to other cities in India.) Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that flash mobs are significant only in so far as they challenged local law. For me, the ultimate meaning lies in the lingering traces flash mob play has left in shared spaces. On more than one occasion, most recently a full two years after the fact, I have walked past the pedestrian crosswalk where we staged our first San Francisco flash mob and witnessed someone else whirling across it. I myself have continued to lead friends in whirling across it. Through our flash mob, we changed the source code of that site; a crosswalk at 4th and Market now frequently serves as a crosswhirl. Maybe I take play too seriously, but I am proud to have been a part of that change. Mr. Wasik, for many cities, flash mobs invigorated its cites and citizens for a great deal longer than the 10 minutes a traditional flash mob lasts. I’m sorry if ultimately that was not the point or the result of the flash mob experience in New York.
One further point that I didn't make in my letter, but that bothered me immensely about Wasik's piece. He speaks rather harshly about his own flash mob participants, calling them his "subjects", applying insulting labels, and basically making it sound as if he was just using them. I still have hundreds of emails sent among our own flash mob organizers in which we discussed how to make the mob as good an experience as possible for all involved. We debated which locations would give participants the best memories, what activity would leave them feeling positive, what would enable them to feel connected to each other and why that was good, what would make passerby feel magical, what would enhance the location... just all manner of positive things. We had the utmost respect for our participants. I personally felt TREMENDOUS responsibility to them. They trusted us, the anonymous organizers, enough to show up without knowing what they would be asked to do-- to commit to following our instructions--- I felt it was incumbent upon me to make it a positive, safe, memorable experience. During the mob heyday, I corresponded with dozens of other organizers in other cities and this was always the sentiment I saw reflected in their own decisions. The contempt Bill shows in his article to participants (whether he felt it at the time-- and I don't know if I believe he did, I think perhaps this is just posturing now) is the exception, not the rule. And I really want that to be something that is understood about the flash mobs. I believe the vast majority of organizers were benevolent and cared deeply about creating a positive experience.