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Playing With Strangers

Flash Mobs expose Boise to the perks of play

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Fidgeting, I made hurry-up eyes at the checker who was taking her dear, sweet time ringing up the customer in front of me. I glanced at my phone: nine minutes. That was nine minutes to pay for a sack of balloons and an umbrella, squeal out of Rite Aid, find a parking spot downtown and full-out run to the post office. With just three minutes left, heart pounding, I plodded through a back alley downtown, adjusting the reusable grocery bag that was thrown over my shoulder. Inside, there was one lime green umbrella, one inflated pink balloon, a can of garbanzo beans and an iPod containing roughly nine minutes of an unknown MP3. All this for a silly flash mob.

By now, the term flash mob has nudged its way comfortably into our popular culture. YouTube is teeming with videos of jubilant food court musicals, train station freezes and massive, impromptu pillow fights. When dozens of strangers suddenly broke into dance on the Showtime drama Weeds, a befuddled Nancy Botwin asked what was going on and the stranger next to her casually replied, "Oh, it's a flash mob." Then there was Oprah's "surprise" 20,000-person choreographed dance to a Black Eyed Peas song. All of these happenings have been lumped together, accurately or not, as flash mobs.

In 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the term flash mob as: "a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again." But Boise Flash Mob administrator Will Schmeckpeper has a more colloquial description: "A flash mob is like a good bank robbery. You're in, you're out, nobody knows what happened."

Schmeckpeper started the Boise Flash Mob group on Facebook not quite a year ago, and membership has climbed to nearly 2,400 members. BFM has already organized five events since January--a mall freeze, a pillow fight, a squirt gun battle, a slow motion walk through the Curb Cup and the aforementioned MP3 experiment. Though Schmeckpeper, a low-budget documentary filmmaker, has been on the front lines organizing these mobs, he's hesitant to claim full ownership or responsibility for the community.

"The Facebook group is pretty open; I consider myself the Internet liaison at the very most. Anybody can post anything they want to on that board. If it's offensive, I'll take it down," said Schmeckpeper.

But Boise Flash Mob isn't the only game in town. Before the group planned its first mission, there was another, brainier flash mob crew lurching through the streets. In 2006, Wendy Fox helped organize the first Boise Zombie Walk along with pals Lisa Money and Jake Hite.

"It started during the Bush administration: There was this idea of following the leader, all this mindless following ... That's what zombies do, they're only after one thing," explained Fox. "It wasn't political per se, but to me, zombies seemed like an interesting form. We had this idea to do a quick little zombie walk, which is just one form of a flash mob."

Though the event started out small, with a dozen zombies participating, the living dead spread, and by the next year, around 80 people showed up. Web developer Erik Goodlad and his son Johnathan were some of the zombie pioneers who stooped and shuffled their way through downtown in 2007 and ended up at Pioneer Cemetery.

"We met at the Modern Hotel, and I remember getting close and looking to see if there are other people dressed like zombies, because I look like a zombie and it's still daylight out. I remember there was that weird feeling," said Goodlad. "But as soon as you saw one person, you were like, 'OK, at least there's one other."

The Goodlads had such a rad time that in 2008, they returned with daughter/sister Lydia in tow. That year, Julia Green and Leigh Ann Dufurrena took the organizing reins, and more than 150 zombies oozed into the streets of downtown.

But these zombie walks didn't begin in Boise. Wikipedia lists Sacramento, Calif., as the host of the first documented zombie walk. The event, billed as the Zombie Parade, went down in August 2001 as a part of the Trash Film Orgy movie festival and has now become anannual tradition. Since those early days, zombie walks have exploded worldwide--with cities from Pittsburgh to Seattle to Brisbane, Australia, all vying to set the Guinness World Record for most zombies in attendance.

While a zombie walk is one form of a flash mob, the term encompasses much more than that. The word flash mob was initially coined by Sean Savage of cheesebikini.com in 2003, referring to an event staged in New York City by Harper's Magazine senior editor Bill Wasik. The event was a convergence of 200 strangers in the Macy's rug department, all of whom were instructed to inform sales associates that they were shopping for a "love rug" to decorate their Long Island commune. Though Wasik initially concealed his identity, he later outed himself in an article in Harper's in 2006, explaining his motives in the following way:

"The basic hypothesis behind the Mob Project was as follows: Seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene--meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work."

But, by the time 2006 had rolled around, Wasik's biting social commentary on the vacuousness of hipsters had been overshadowed by the immense popularity of the flash mobs he created. From Barcelona to Hong Kong, strangers were taking to the streets, performing random acts for no apparent reason and then dispersing just as randomly. Spurred, in a large part, by the increased accessibility and organizing potential of cell phones and the Internet, these flash mobs started to get much larger and garner considerably more attention.

A group based out of New York called Improv Everywhere was, and remains, at the forefront of the flash mob craze. Though IE explicitly states that the events they organize are not flash mobs--in fact, they started doing them in 2001, well before the term was coined--many of their missions have become widely used models for flash mobbers around the globe. In addition to inventing the now-famous No Pants subway rides in New York, IE is also behind Slo-mo Home Depot, where agents walk through a chain store in slow motion; the Grand Central Freeze, where agents stop and freeze for five minutes in a crowded place; and the MP3 Experiments, where thousands of people download the same MP3, then meet in the same place, push play and follow the instructions. Charlie Todd, founder of IE, credits a large part of the group's success to the Internet and availability of new technology.

"We did the first MP3 Experiment in 2004 at a point where iPods were becoming pervasive," explained Todd via e-mail. "I don't think we could have pulled it off in 2003. Well, maybe, but it would have been a bunch of people with burned CDs and Discmans."

While groups like BFM are now wholly reliant on the social networking prowess of Facebook to facilitate communication with members, Todd is quick to credit YouTube over social networking sites for the widespread attention Improv Everywhere receives.

"We were organizing and mobilizing large groups of people long before MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.," said Todd. "That said ... IE could not have happened in the same way in the 1990s. Had we started then, we would not have been able to expand past my friends and a few friends of friends. We would not have had the global audience YouTube provides us. We would not have been able to affordably document our work. The Internet has democratized the means of communication, production and distribution. Anyone with a great idea can make a huge impact, regardless of their connections."

And it's this democratic "anybody can do it" sentiment that inspired Schmeckpeper to organize the Boise Flash Mob after he watched some of Todd's videos on YouTube.

"It's one of those things where you see it on the Internet and say, 'Whoa, that's cool,'" said Schmeckpeper. "Then you think about it and say, 'Yeah, I could do that.'"

To get a feel for how the Boise community would respond to flash mobs, Schmeckpeper chose the Boise Town-Square mall as the first event location. Participants met up before-hand in a nearby parking lot and received their instructions. The mission: At the sound of a horn, flash mobbers would freeze for five minutes in the middle of the mall then disperse. Sound familiar? That's because Schmeckpeper lifted the idea from IE's Grand Central Freeze.

"While I'm a creative guy, I'm not above stealing ideas from people that have done things before," explained Schmeckpeper.

The mall freeze went generally well. Around 40 participants showed up and froze in a variety of poses, thoroughly confusing passersby. Freeze attendee Seth Ogilvie remembers the awkward seconds before mobbers assumed their positions.

"The funniest thing was the moments right before, when everyone's clocks weren't completely set right and people started to freeze, but they weren't sure," said Ogilvie. "Some people had their really cool positions but then lost it because the timing wasn't quite right."

While most observers hurried by with perplexed looks on their faces, some stopped to inspect the situation.

"I think this happens with a lot of Idaho events where people don't know completely what's going on, most people just kind of walked by--like snuck a peek but didn't really engage in all of what was going on," remembered Ogilvie. "There were only one or two people that walked through it and actually started looking, and they seemed to love it. But most people tried to ignore it."

But there was one group of people who couldn't ignore what was happening--the mall's cops. Though it took them a good three minutes to arrive at the scene, they immediately began hassling people with video cameras.

"The mall's an interesting place because, while they do have a policy against videotaping in the mall, they don't have a policy against standing still," said Schmeckpeper. "So [mall security] could chase the photographers around, but they couldn't do anything with the people that weren't moving."

When Boise State student Caley Christian organized her own mall freeze in early October with members of her church youth group, she called mall security ahead of time to make sure they were aware of the plan. At the same time, she also made sure that the event would be clandestinely documented.

"Everybody knows that at a flash mob, you bring a camera, so everybody has their cell phones," explained Christian. "Usually there are a few people that don't want to participate, so they're like the camera crew and then they basically film people's reactions."

Documentation, it seems, is one of the inherent requirements of a flash mob. If there's no YouTube video or Flickr album, did it happen? While most mobbers agree that part of the fun is creating spontaneous, you-won't-guess-what-happened-to-me-today moments for complete strangers, they also acknowledge that having physical evidence of their stunt is paramount. But this excessive documentation can also have drawbacks. In a number of local flash mob situations, there have been a disproportionate number of people lurking on the sidelines, viewing the action through a camera lens instead of actively engaging.

"The pillow fight we had at the beginning of summer was very successful ... we had about 100-120 people there," said Schmeckpeper. "But around them, we had probably 30 people taking pictures."

One of those people was first-time flash mob attendee Greg Harley, who snapped action-blurred photos of folks smacking each other upside the head with their soft sacks. Though Harley had been notified of other flash mob events, he wasn't able to go for one reason or another.

"They were at locations that I didn't want to attend because it was too far away, or whatever," explained Harley. "I'm a little outside of that [age] demographic in general ... I'm about twice as old as most of the people that would be there. It did seem to be predominately younger folks; there were some older folks there but not a lot."

Even though Harley has only attended one flash mob event and didn't technically participate in it, he's now part of an elite community, according to Schmeckpeper.

"Of the people that respond and say they're going to show up to an event, I can depend on 10 percent of them," said Schmeckpeper. "So it's a difficult thing because a lot of people want to play, but when it comes down to it, there's a lot of hemming and hawing."

Whether it's age, location or fear of looking stupid in front of strangers, it's easy to make excuses for shrugging off an event that has no real meaning. I recently took a completely unscientific survey of my pals who are members of BFM on Facebook--out of 17 people I know in the group, only one has ever attended a mob. Though many people like to think they're crazy, what-the-hell types who'd participate in a flash mob, when it comes down to it, they're not.

"A part of it is social media, people want to feel like they belong to anything and everything," said Schmeckpeper. "Part of it is they don't want to look like idiots, but they sure as heck want to be in a place to watch other people look like idiots."

And while it's easy to criticize those who don't participate, heading to a random place--at times dressed like a zombie--and letting loose with a bunch of strangers is much harder than it seems. Ask Schmeckpeper. He's never actually participated in a BFM event.

"I'm a voyeur, man. I'm the organizer," he explained. "There's got to be somebody watching the machine. I'm usually watching to see if there are people reacting in a negative manner; there's always concern about police, security guards."

But for the small percentage of people who show up to these mobs and actually participate, their rationale for attending is highly varied. Some, like Goodlad, really enjoy the social aspect of the experience: "Since the [zombie walks], I've actually gone and done other things with people that I met ... I work from home, so things like this are another way to get out and meet people because I don't go to an office every day."

Others, like Christian, who organized the second mall freeze, are in it to get a rise out of people: "The funniest part is watching it and getting a good laugh at the fact that people have no idea what's going on."

Others still, like Dufurrena, last year's zombie walk organizer, see flash mobs as a vehicle for artistic expression: "I view flash mobs as performance graffiti. Street art. Living amusement."

And then there are some, like Fox, who approach it from an ego-deflating, inner-growth perspective: "Part of this is encouraging people to take small risks, to break out of their normal lives in a very safe way. I think anytime you take on a separate persona and play in a space in time, it really helps your self-grandeur come down a little bit. It kind of keeps your ego in check."

Still, there are others, like Schmeckpeper, who get involved for surprising and entirely different reasons altogether: "I had ulterior motives, and I still do. I do film stuff and ... one of the hardest things we have to do is get a large crowd of extras at any given place at any given time. I wanted to see if Facebook would allow me to develop a large group that I could have access to that might be interested in doing something for half-an-hour on any given day."

And this is where the more sinister aspects of this seemingly innocuous trend can come into play. Be they flashy or not, flash mobs, at their core, are still mobs. As Wasik penned in his Harper's piece "My Crowd," flash mobs are "all about the herd instinct ... about the desire not to be left out of the latest fad." It follows, then, that both those who control these herds and those who populate them, have a considerable amount of power that they can choose to use in a variety of ways.

"It's one of those things that could be used in a detrimental way," explained Fox. "Like anything, anytime there's mob mentality, you get people into a situation which is hyper-real and they can do a lot of wacky things. You get soccer game mobs."

While many are uncomfortable with the fact that flash mobs are now being used to sell products--like Ford and Sony's Fusion Flash Concert series or recent flash mobs promoting the movie Fame--others are uncomfortable with the idea that they could become pawns in someone else's chess game. Referring to the initial BFM mall freeze event, Ogilvie explained: "I guess I had an apprehension about it because of the pre-planning of it. There's an element where, for me, when it's planned that much, it seems like I'm kind of being put into a situation for someone else's amusement. It doesn't seem spontaneous and fun."

Panting, I arrived in front of the downtown post office just in time to hear the crack of a gun. I rustled through my bag, slid my headphones over my ears and pressed play on my iPod. But I was too late. The voice telling me to turn and face toward the north seemed to be telling everyone else to jump in place. The friend who had accompanied me was also in a bad spot--as about 30 people pulled inflated, multi-colored balloons out of their bags and began to wage a fierce battle, she frantically scrolled through her music trying to find the MP3. Unable to catch up and join the mob, we retreated to the sidelines with the photographers and watched in silent amusement.

A few minutes later, after the crowd had collapsed to the ground, stood up again, popped open umbrellas, given each other high fives and shaken their respective rumps, they dispersed, each leaving a can of food to be donated to the Idaho Foodbank. Though first-time flash attendee Gary Winterholler also had problems getting his MP3 to play, and, like others, was thrown off by the faulty signal horn, he chalked it all up to experience.

"The beauty of doing things live is all of the flubs and mistakes, I think. The reality of it, the life in it," said Winterholler.

In the end, it seems, no matter how planned out a flash mob might be, it will never go off completely as intended. A number of unforeseen variables ensure that the mob will never be totally uniform or completely in tandem. The discipline of the flash mob is unpredictable. But in that planned spontaneity and playful group think, a lovely experience may emerge. A mall cop may have a story to tell his buddies. Or a deskbound mouse jockey may just find inner peace.

"There's always what you start out with intending, and then what happens," said Fox. "Really, anything can happen, and sometimes it does."

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