Mob Rule

Flash mobs: serious social movement or quirky entertainment (or both)?

It's July 16, just 37 minutes until show time, and we are locked into a stiff cocktail at the Gold Dust Lounge. At first glance, it's just another happy hour in the heart of Union Square: Sassy waitresses are serving up discounted margaritas, ESPN is parading across TV screens, and the after-work crowd is easing on in.

But something doesn't jibe. Maybe it's the row of white men who line the bench seats across from the bar; they sit at empty tables, ogle each entering person, and resemble escapees from a Lord of the Rings convention. Maybe it's the cast of characters here today; most of the people look far too hip for the blend of tourists and old-timers who frequent the Gold Dust. Certainly, there are far more drinkers than usual for the midweek grind.

Soon the bar is packed like the N Judah at rush hour, forcing wannabe revelers to overflow onto the sidewalk. Booze pumps out faster than announced candidacies for mayor. The Gold Dust probably hasn't seen this much business since the repeal of Prohibition, and the barkeeps are forced to call in extra waitstaff to deal with the tsunami of thirsty customers. Steve, a Marriott employee and Gold Dust regular, is playing with a pack of cigarettes and watching the attendees' numbers swell. "The owner loves it, the bartenders hate it," he observes. "I'll tell you what though, your friends don't tip so well."

With 15 minutes left, a woman slices through the dense people-stink and distributes half-sheets of paper. The slips instruct us to go to Market Street by 6:27 p.m., and, tickled pink to be liberated from the stifling atmosphere, Dog Bites happily obeys. At 6:27 precisely, hordes of people from the Gold Dust, along with like-minded carousers originating from Red's Corner and Union Street Sports, materialize on the corner, flood into Market, and start twirling clockwise like whirling dervishes. Hundreds of rotating people engage in a brief interlude of dizzying randomness, and quickly flee to the safety of the sidewalk just as the blinking orange hand completes its countdown to zero. As the walk sign lights anew, so do the gyrating pranksters, and, with more and more repetitions, a battle cry of "woo" rises from the throats of the twisters.

At 6:37 the group vanishes as quickly as it assembled, leaving Powell and Market streets awash with just the standard mob of shorts-wearing tourists.


This twirling-in-the-street event marked the first gathering of the San Francisco Mob Project, part of a growing phenomenon known as "flash mobs." San Francisco Mob Project participants were enlisted online through announcements posted on Craigslist and an assortment of e-mail lists, including one sponsored by risqué culture Web site laughingsquid.org. Three days before the event, an e-mail was sent instructing mob-sters to meet at different rallying bars, where the final and precise orders would be distributed.

The recent flash mob movement was born on June 17 in New York City, where an organizer known as "Bill" orchestrated the simultaneous arrival of 100 people in the Macy's carpet department in search of a "love rug." The New York City branch has held several mob gatherings since then, with exploits ranging from posing as a huge group of tourists visiting a shoe store to ducking cops at Grand Central Station. A mob in Minneapolis invaded the Mall of America on July 22, and Internet-based groups dedicated to flash mobbing have formed in Boston, Dallas, Phoenix, Rome, London, Vienna, and the social-movement hotbed of Dutchess County, N.Y.


Like most flash mobs to date, the San Francisco Mob has no particularly noble goals. As "The Governor," one of the four ringleaders of the S.F. movement, says, "We tried to come up with ideas that were fun, didn't take much time, and didn't require a lot of planning. Just something silly to make people feel like they were 5 years old; something irreverent enough to make people stop, but not anything mean-spirited or illegal. We wanted to help people get out of their daily grind."

As for future events, the Governor's campaign promises to "stick with something easy, silly, and quick. Everybody's lives are complicated enough."

"Jane," one of the Gov's cohorts, explains that final mob instructions are kept top-secret "because it's cooler. The mystery of it makes it better; it's supposed to be a secret agent-type thing."

But beyond the occasional bit of cool, quick, secretive fun with large numbers of utter strangers, is there a point? As far as purpose, Jane holds that "there's some meaning in getting strangers together." Scott Beale, Webmaster of laughingsquid.org, agrees. "Most people won't leave the cubicle to do something crazy, but would 100 people do it? Sure."

The S.F. Mob Project organizers have a kindred spirit in Rob Zazueta, a computer programmer from Hayward who runs flocksmart.com, a Web site that enables like-minded mob-sters to organize themselves. "Smart mobs are the next social revolution," he declares. "I'm now more connected than I've ever been, and being interconnected will form the next revolution of getting people together." Citing Howard Rheingold's recent book Smart Mobs, Zazueta recalls the success of technology in coordinating demonstrations that brought down the Philippine government. And, Zazueta says, flash mobs are capable of doing more than bottlenecking crosswalks; he views them as a means to create new political, artistic, and altruistic movements, including social events like "instant concerts and the new rave."

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