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'Flash mob' craze spreads

By CNN's Sandra Shmueli

A "flash mob" in the rugs department at Macy's, New York.

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Would you take part in a Flash Mob?

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The craze for "flash mobs" -- where jokers gather en masse at a moment's notice, perform an inane activity and then disperse quickly -- is spreading across Europe.

Arranged via Web sites and e-mails, flash mob members voluntarily and simultaneously converge to the venue mentioned in a general e-mail and then collect detailed instructions for the event. They partake in a silly and harmless activity and then disperse at a given time.

The phenomenon's creator is reported to be someone called "Bill," who began the trend by e-mailing 50 people and asking them to gather at a shop in downtown Manhattan.

In June 2003, after the initial attempt at a flash mob was foiled, over 100 people assembled in the home furnishings department of Macy's department store. As instructed, the participants consulted bemused sales assistants about purchasing a "love rug" for their "suburban commune."

Another Manhattan flash mob involved a crowd in a shoe shop in Soho pretending to be tourists on a bus holiday from Maryland. A later mob saw hundreds of people perched on a stone ledge in Central Park making bird noises.

The concept has spread quickly across the United States and to Europe, Australia and Singapore.

The first European mob took place in Rome on July 24, when 300 people entered a music and bookshop asking for non-existent titles.

The latest flash mob incident occurred at 6:01 p.m. on Friday in Berlin, where about 40 people in the middle of a busy street took out their mobile phones and shouted, "yes, yes!" and then applauded, according to The New York Times.

Flash mobs have been planned in London on August 7, Amsterdam on August 8, and in Dublin, Zurich and Vienna.

The inexplicable nature and lack of apparent agenda seems to widen the appeal of flash mobs. Many Web logs, chat rooms and Web groups are devoted to the craze.

Adam, one of the organizers of the proposed London flash mob, said: "Flash mobs anchor the online world into the real world -- they are a manifestation of your 'cc' list" -- a reference to the electronic "carbon copies" used to distribute e-mails widely.

Bill, the reported creator, told CNN: "I called ours 'inexplicable mobs'. For some people, it is purely funny. For others, it is social -- they like being out with people. For others, it is political -- just getting out in the streets is a political act. I personally like it because it is aesthetic -- I love seeing all the people come together, seemingly out of nowhere."

Fred Hoysted, a mobber in New York, said: "Flash mobs are fun because they are out of the ordinary. They are a shared activity and a silly one at that."

Hoysted, a Briton living in Manhattan, told CNN about his first flash mob experience at Grand Central Station. "I was pretty apprehensive beforehand since all I really knew was what I had read on the Web and thought it sounded fun," he said.

"The mob itself was slightly bizarre. There were about 200 of us standing at the balcony railings on the mezzanine floor of the Hyatt Hotel, next to Grand Central Station.

"At the appointed time, we burst into applause for 15 seconds as instructed. The look of joy on peoples' faces was incredible. And even though I'd felt somewhat detached from the proceedings, I couldn't help but smile and join in. I knew this was something I wanted to do again."

Howard Rheingold, author of a book entitled "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution," warns that these events could become politicized. "So far it is harmless fun -- a harmless way to experiment with a new form of technology-enabled collective action.

"But the same technique of using the Internet and mobile phones to organize collective action was used to bring down the Estrada regime in the Philippines and to tip the Korean election toward the ultimate winner, President Roh," he told CNN. "All mobs have the potential for danger."

Meanwhile, mobbers continue to amuse and bewilder people all over the world, and the debate continues whether the mass of people that stands out from the crowd is a form of performance art or a new social movement.

Hoysted doubts that he will be flash mobbing next year. "There is a chance the numbers could get unmanageable. This would present the 'organizers' with logistical issues," he said.

So the phenomenon might die out just as fast as it was born -- in a flash.

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