Hundreds Flock to Coop for Local 'Flash Mob'

Internet-organized stunt in Square brings hot trend to New England for the first time

Fancy Meeting You Here
David E. Stein

Hundreds of locals converged for eight minutes in the card section of the Harvard Coop yesterday evening in the first-ever Internet-organized "flash mob" to be held in New England.

News cameras weaved among a densely packed crowd and photographic flashes flickered over a sea of DaVincian smiles on the second floor of the Harvard Coop yesterday evening as local media turned out to watch hundreds of Boston-area residents pick out greeting cards for their friend Bill.

The first “flash mob” in New England gathered in Harvard Square yesterday, bringing one of the newest and quirkiest Internet fads—and the portent of a new sort of sociological phenomenon, some say—to Cambridge.

The first flash mob, a spontaneous and momentary convergence of people at a predetermined location, was held in June in New York City. Since that time, similar events have been organized throughout the United States and western Europe.

Yesterday’s flash mob, like each of its national precedents, was organized over the Internet—in this case, through an anonymously moderated Yahoo group called “bostoncitymob,” which boasted over 600 subscribers as of last evening.

Most of the participants in yesterday’s mob said they had heard about the organization list from a friend, or heard about the coming event through the media.

“I read about it in the newspaper and it seemed like an interesting thing to do and good, harmless fun,” said Matt Fonts, a public accountant from Somerville, as he and a friend wended their way toward the Palmer Street Coop in preparation for the public stunt.

“It doesn’t really have a goal. It’s just something unusual and whimsical,” said Claudia Mastroianni ’91-’94, a computer technician at the University who helped with low-level organization for the event.

The Harvard Square mob somewhat lacked the element of surprise that its precedents sought. Most flash mobs spurn media attention, aiming toward the semblance of inexplicable spontanaeity. A small entourage of news reporters attended yesterday’s crowd.

But the stunt stayed true to its principles of surprise and whimsy. No one but the organizers—not even participants—knew what it would entail until exactly 12 minutes before it began.

A series of dispatches from “Bubb Rubb & Lil’ Sis,” the mob’s anonymous masterminds, sent over the mailing list beginning mid-July outlined the parameters for participation.

After synchronizing their watches to the government time zone website, participants converged at one of five satellite locations throughout the Square, depending on their birthdays, between 6:43 and 6:57 p.m.

Participants born in May or October, for instance, met at the bar of the Border Cafe. Those born in January or July crowded around the table nearest the bathrooms of Au Bon Pain. They had no further instructions.

At 6:51 p.m. the growing crowd murmuring uneasily in the right wing of the Au Bon Pain dining area stirred into motion. Mastroianni was dispersing half sheets bearing final instructions for the mob.

She said she had responded the previous week to an invitation to help distribute instructions that the “bostoncitymob” administrators had sent over to the group.

Trying at once to be inconspicuous and to squeeze past the conflux of bodies pushing toward the tiny table where Mastroianni sat, participants clutching the seven-step instructions stumbled out of the eatery and into the Holyoke plaza.

As the last of the January- and July-born mob members wandered into the early-evening sunlight, two of the restaurant’s employees clutched their heads and paced in frustration. Au Bon Pain policy stipulates no filming for public broadcast—a consideration blatantly transgressed by the long news lenses that caught the scene a moment before.

Outside, the aspiring mob members read and commit their instructions to memory. They are to head toward the greeting-card section of the Coop along a route of their choosing. Whatever their path, however, they must arrive at exactly 7:13 p.m.

Some dawdle in the Square, stopping to listen to the rhythmic clatter of the Funk and Junk players in the Pit. Others pause to chat with friends or to browse the Coop’s bookshelves. The influx of mob makers blends seemlessly with the traffic of tourists and eccentrics that fills the Square each day.

The Coop keeps its greeting cards in three brief aisles on the second floor of its Palmer Street annex. Until ten minutes after seven, the area is virtually empty. A few customers finger through the rows of greeting cards and wander among the software racks.

Then suddenly, a line of people enters through the fire stairway. A line of customers ascending the escalator spills out among the card racks. Within a minute, half of the third floor is filled with the mob makers, who pack themselves shoulder to shoulder in every space available.

Cameras flash. The band of customers smiles. Each participant is to explain, to any confused bystander, that he or she is looking for a card for a friend named Bill. Bill is in New York.

“This last sentence should be spoken as if this explains everything,” the instructions read.

Most of the congregated customers—most of whom represented a relatively young demographic—took their roles very seriously.

Asked whether she had ever participated in a similar stunt before, Alexis Z. Tumolo ’06 shrugged. “Yeah, I buy cards for Bill sometimes,” she said.

The mob was stirring.

“Did you get a card for Bill?” someone shouted.

“They’re out of cards?” another customer cried.

“That’s what I heard.”

Then, at 7:14 p.m., a group of people made hushing noises and suddenly the retail space was eerily quiet.

One mob maker’s cell phone rang. Another phone sounded off. Its owner answered.

A chorus of whistling—completely unplanned—rose from one corner of the mob and spread across the room. Tens of lips forced out the strains to “Happy Birthday.”

When the song concluded, applause resounded. And then they left.

At 7:21 p.m., as their instructions dictated, the mob makers filed out of the Coop as briskly as possible, heading into countless different directions. Within minutes, the greeting card section was as it had been before.

Howard Rheingold, who has made a career of writing about the implications of technology, last year published Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution—a book positing that technological innovation was redefining age-old patterns of collective action.

The recent flash mob craze, he said, reflects trends that govern his theory.

“The combination of Internet and mobile communication has lowered the threshold for collective action of all kinds,” he said.

Rheingold says that the same patterns of communication that have given rise to flash mobs are responsible for a variety of recent worldwide phenomena—a list that includes Estrada demonstrations in the Philippines, globally coordinated protests against war in Iraq and the shocking last-minute victory in a recent Korean election.

The use of new communication technology to effect social movement—whether it be a spontaneous mob or a change in the outcome of an election—is consistent with the role technological innovation has always held in society, he said.

“In a lot of ways, new generations embrace new technology as the emblem of their zeitgeist, just as the television was for the baby-boom generation,” he said.

Use of communication technology as a powerful organizational tool, he said has so far been resigned mainly to the younger generations.

“The young people who use the mobile phones, who access the Internet over their phones, are used to using this technology for their empowerment,” he said. “I think is going to have a very significant impact as they enter the workforce and become citizens and voters.”

But for most of yesterday’s mob makers, the event was nothing more than a simple diversion—or, for Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04, an errand.

“I was just there to get a card,” he said.

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.