I had planned to arrive at the secret meet spot a half-hour early. Although 30 years of pedestrian familiarity gave me the lay of the land, I wanted to inconspicuously scope out the rendezvous and get the drop on my co-conspirators.
According to the e-mail instructions people born in April were to meet at John Harvard’s Brewhouse, by the stained glass window, near the entrance. A number of yuppie couples and pony-tailed riff-raff milled around, eyeing each other suspiciously and trying to look inconspicuous.
I sat down on a bench across from the bar, next to a beblazered aging preppy in tasseled loafers who was also intensely checking out the gathering crowd. My worries about appearing to be a middle-aged, short-haired nark evaporated; compared to this guy I looked like the ghost of Timothy Leary.
At the appointed hour I crossed Dunster Street and entered the bar. I don’t think I’ve been in the place since it was called 33 Dunster Street. I won some money playing backgammon there, a long time ago. Inside, in back, by the stained glass window, a non-descript bicycle-messenger was handing out half-sheets which said, in part:
Boston Flash Mob #1: Ode to Bill
Place: Harvard Coop Greeting Card Section
Length: 8 Minutes
Start time: 7:13 end time 7:21
1) Remember that this is a FUN event! Be nice, be polite, do not disturb those around you. We don? want to scare or insult anybody. [speak for yourself]
2) After receiving these instructions you should leave the meet-up site. Proceed to the Harvard Coop. Try to pace your walk so you arrive in the card section of the Coop at exactly 7:13. [good luck. It was then 6:45, so I had 28 minutes to walk 3 blocks, inconspicuously]
3) Don’t Arrive before 7:13. Take your time. Due to media attention we have lost the surprise factor. [Duh! Getting interviewed on the front page of the local section of the Boston Globe will do that to a secret event] But don’t resent that, revel in it! Be enthusiastic!
4) If anyone asks you, you should tell them “I’m looking for a card for my friend ” “His name is Bill ” “He’s in New York.” This last sentence should be spoken like it explains everything. [Oh, not THAT Bill...]
I made my way slowly in the direction of the COOP. One immediately obvious problem was that there were at least two different places in the COOP where greeting cards were sold; in the main building, near the cafe on the second floor, and in the back building, also on the second floor, next to stationary. People were milling around both buildings like blind bumblebees, asking anyone who looked like a store employee or even a local where the damn greeting cards were.
Employing my finely honed detective skills, I followed the flow of cameras and microphones into the rear building. The crowd was all over the escalator; polite but enthusiastic they waited their turns to ascend. Upstairs was a madhouse. Maybe 400 people were crowded around the aisles of the greeting card section. At least 100 of them were armed with microphones or cameras. No police were in evidence.
Hanging around the fringe, I began to get a feel for the crowd. Most of them looked like they had driven in from the suburbs for some big-city cyber sophistication. Many were couples, looking for common interests to share. There was some vague unifying characteristic I was close to putting my finger on…Ah, they were all the kind of people who get their information from Yahoo.
In retrospect this is not surprising, as the homepage for the Boston Flash Mob, where one signed onto the mailing list and got the updates, was at Yahoo groups. But the crowd was not completely homogenous. A tight phalanx of leather and chrome swept by as the Goth contingent made a beeline for the center of the human miasma. The soccer-momish blonde woman in front of me turned and made a face.”Pheeew”, she squeaked, “They need a bath. Real bad.”
She had noticed my taking notes. “Are you a writer?” she asked astutely. “Not really”, I answered, “I write in a blog, and tonight I am going to blog this.”
“What’s a blog?” she asked, and wandered away, not even waiting for an answer.
During the 8 minutes the “Action” lasted, there were two or three points where the attention of the crowd seemed to focus on an area somewhere near its center, but since there was no way to see over the card racks, most of us had no idea what, or indeed whether anything, was going on. Other than that, there was a lot of sheepish smiling and Zen-like questions such as “What am I doing here?” and “Why is this night different than all other nights?” At what I assume was 7:21 there was a brief round of applause and the group began to disperse.
But not quickly. Although the art and power of the Flash Mob, from what I have been able to gather, is in the wraithe-like speed with which it appears, seemingly from nowhere, performs its action, and just as quickly dissipates into the background, like cigar smoke on a foggy night. Unfortunately, it is hard to quickly disappear from a second floor retail store when the only egress is a single file escalator. It took the crowd a full 15 minutes to assemble, and an equal time to clear the area. So much for the element of surprise.
On the way down the escalator, after silently waiting my turn in line, reporters and flashers had paired off, doing interviews on the fly. I notice that the biggest bee of all, right on the main aisle with a crew of cameramen and gaffs was the belabored hack nark I had last seen skulking on the bench outside the brew house. Turns out he was skulking for WBZ.
My overall impression? Booooorring.It didn’t really make it as either performance art or street theater. It did have a slight odor of the Da Da existential art, but beyond the basic concept, which has been developed before and better elsewhere, there was not enough substance to justify the time and effort involved.
I know that the basic philosophy behind this current outbreak of the Flash-Mob phenomena is decidedly non-political, but it seems to me that some sort of absurdist, or at least slightly unsettling action might provoke a few unrutted thoughts, rather than the general aimless bemusement this one appeared to inspire in participants and onlookers alike.
Apart from the upscale indulgence of this particular manifestation, I am intrigued by the implications and potential of the flash-mob phenomena itself. The idea of hundreds or thousands of people, electronically mobilized, secretly and silently, appearing out of nowhere with no warning or appearant organization, is both powerful and frightening.
For me, the historical birth of the Flash Mob phenomena is not the proto-Mob in NYC organized by a mischievous underground group called the Mob Project, usually credited with igniting the wave currently sweeping the planet, but rather the morning of April 25, 1999 in Beijing, China. Shortly after the Chinese legislature reclassified the Falun Gong from a martial art to a dangerous religious cult, the government leadership awoke to find their legislative hall surrounded by over 10,000 gongistas who had silently assembled in the misty dawn.
This fantastic apparition scared the shit out of the Communist leadership, and set off a ten-year jihad against the organization which has led to thousands of arrests, hundreds of deportations, and, depending on who you believe, dozens of cases of torture and even murder on the part of the authorities.
Of course, the current American mobs are apolitical and so immune from that kind of repressive reaction, right? Perhaps. However, considering how powerful, intimidating and inexpensively organized these flash-mobs are, it is only a matter of time before they are turned to political end, by an organization, or more likely a charismatic individual, in this country as well.
For me these flash-blogs are among the first incipient nervous twitches of the emerging CNS of the wired body politic. It is inevitable that this new Central Nervous System will grow more coordinated and capable, and hopefully, in time, develop a consciousness. Whether that couscousness will be allowed to grow free and unencumbered will go a long way toward determining how and to what end it use the simultaneously emerging body at its command.