Mob Mentality

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Bill Wasik ’96 invented the flash mob.

For years he was “Bill”—no last name—who cryptically told reporters he worked “in the culture industry.”

In May 2003, Bill Wasik ’96 wrote an anonymous email inviting people to “take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less.” He forwarded it to friends and acquaintances and asked them to send it to others.

  Flash mob pillow fight in 2011 in Rome

A flash mob pillow fight in 2011 in Rome

The email said to gather at Claire’s Accessories near Astor Place at a precise time, but police blocked the entrance. His second mob, two weeks later, was a success: 200 people came to a Macy’s rug department and told salespeople they all lived together in a converted warehouse and were looking for a “love rug.”   

A trend was born. Blogger Sean Savage coined the term “flash mob,” and as CNN reported in August 2003, “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.” A New York Times headline announced, “Guess Some People Don’t Have Anything Better to Do.”

Today there are 6.9 million flash mob videos on YouTube. People propose marriage by flash mob. They perform flash mob concerts. In 2014 the Huffington Post reported on “The First Ever Polygamist Flash Mob!”

Wasik organized eight mobs, all in 2003. In 2006 he shed his anonymity in an 11-page article for Harper’s, where he was an editor. (He is now deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine.)
“Not only was the flash mob a vacuous fad,” he wrote; “it was, in its very form (pointless aggregation and then dispersal), intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it.”

IStock photo