A flash mob (or flashmob) is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and pointless act for a brief time, then quickly disperse. The term flash mob is generally applied only to gatherings organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails. The term is generally not applied to events organized by public relations firms, protests, and publicity stunts.
The first flash mob was created in Manhattan in May 2003, by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine. The origins of the flash mobs were unknown until Wasik published an article about his creation in the March 2006 edition of Harper's. The first attempt was unsuccessful after the targeted retail store was tipped off about the plan for people to gather. Wasik avoided such problems during the second flash mob, which occurred on June 3, 2003 at Macy's department store, by sending participants to preliminary staging areas – in four prearranged Manhattan bars – where they received further instructions about the ultimate event and location just before the event began.
More than 100 people converged upon the ninth floor rug department of the store, gathering around an expensive rug. Anyone approached by a sales assistant was advised to say that the gatherers lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York, that they were shopping for a "love rug", and that they made all their purchase decisions as a group.
Subsequently, 200 people flooded the lobby and mezzanine of the Hyatt hotel in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds, and a shoe boutique in SoHo was invaded by participants pretending to be tourists on a bus trip.
Wasik claimed that he created flash mobs as a social experiment designed to poke fun at hipsters and to highlight the cultural atmosphere of conformity and of wanting to be an insider or part of "the next big thing". The Vancouver Sun wrote, "It may have backfired on him... [Wasik] may instead have ended up giving conformity a vehicle that allowed it to appear nonconforming."
Flash mobs began as a form of performance art. While they started as an apolitical act, flash mobs may share superficial similarities to political demonstrations. Flash mobs can be seen as a specialized form of smart mob, which is a term and concept forwarded by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.
In 1973, the story "Flash Crowd" by Larry Niven described a concept similar to flash mobs. With the invention of popular and very inexpensive teleportation, an argument at a shopping mall – which happens to be covered by a news crew – quickly swells into a riot. In the story, broadcast coverage attracts the attention of other people, who use the widely available technology of the teleportation booth to swarm first that event – thus intensifying the riot – and then other events as they happen. Commenting on the social impact of such mobs, one character (articulating the police view) says, "We call them flash crowds, and we watch for them." In related short stories, they are named as a prime location for illegal activities (such as pickpocketing and looting) to take place.
In 19th century Tasmania, the term flash mob was used to describe a subculture consisting of female prisoners, based on the term flash language for the jargon that these women used. The 19th century Australian term flash mob referred to a segment of society, not an event, and showed no other similarities to the modern term flash mob or the events it describes.
The first recorded use of the term flash mob as it is understood today was in 2003 in a blog entry posted in the aftermath of Wasik's event. The term was inspired by the earlier term smart mob.
Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English defines flash mob as “a group of people who organize on the Internet and then quickly assemble in a public place, do something bizarre, and disperse.” This definition is consistent with the original use of the term; however, both news media and promoters have subsequently used the term to refer to any form of smart mob, including political protests; a collaborative Internet denial of service attack; a collaborative supercomputing demonstration; and promotional appearances by a pop musician. The press has also used the term flash mob to refer to a practice being used in China where groups of shoppers arrange online to meet at a store at the same time in order to drive a collective bargain with the store owner.
Another example of a well known flash mob was the April 2006 silent disco in London. At various London Underground stations, people gathered with their portable music devices, and at a set time began dancing to their music. It was reported that more than 4,000 people participated at London Victoria station. This impacted the regular service of the system enough for the city's police to begin crowd control and slowly clear people. Though no one was arrested, it was reported that the City of London pledged to counter future disruption of the underground system. Since 2006, there have been several flash mobs in the London Underground, including subsequent silent discos comparable in size.
Worldwide Pillow Fight Day (or International Pillow Fight Day) was a pillow fight flash mob that took place on March 22, 2008. Over 25 cities around the globe participated in the first "international flash mob", which was the world's largest flash mob to date. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 5,000 participated in New York City, overtaking London's 2006 Silent Disco gathering as the largest recorded flash mob. Word spread via social networking sites, including Facebook, Myspace, private blogs, public forums, personal websites, as well as by word of mouth, text messaging, and email. Participating cities included Barcelona, Basel, Beirut, Boston, Budapest, Chicago, Copenhagen, Dubai, Dublin, Dundee, Houston, Innsbruck, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Melbourne, Monterrey, Montreal, New York City, Paris, Pécs, Shanghai, San Francisco, Stockholm, Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver, Washington, D.C., and Zurich.
In the United States, police have been accused of using excessive force in response to flash mobs. In April 2009, police used pepper spray to break up a flash mob event at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and arrested five people. In December 2009, Old Dominion University campus police pepper-sprayed a flash mob.
In May 2008, police stopped a planned flash mob event over concerns for "public health and safety". In February 2009, the British Transport Police criticized flash mobs, saying "when you get thousands of commuters trying to go home at a very busy station in the middle of rush-hour and then joined by thousands of people who want to dance that can then be a problem."
The Association of German Retailers filed a legal complaint in Germany's highest court to ban the use of flash mobs during labor disputes, following a Federal Labor Court ruling that flash mobs are a legitimate form of industrial action.