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Flash mobs hit L.A., but will they stay long?

Web-savvy crowds gather in public places for moments of absurdity, then vanish.

September 05, 2003|Mark Ehrman | Special to The Times

On the balcony outside the Sunset 5 theater in a shopping complex in West Hollywood, many people are quietly milling about, but few of them are waiting to see "The Secret Lives of Dentists." At exactly 9:10 p.m., a soft hiss fills the air. Sounding vaguely machine-like at first -- something having to do with a ventilation system, perhaps -- it grows louder and more distinctly human. Fifty to 100 people, for no apparent reason, have started shhshing. A minute later, they break into a cacophony of theatrical dialogue, some reciting from Shakespeare -- "Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon!" someone howls -- others, like the person shouting "Don't cry for me, Argentina," quoting from less highbrow sources. At 9:15, the shhshers glide down the escalator and disappear.

Oddly, in a jittery post-Sept. 11 world, this outbreak of public chaos produces no panic and a fair bit of joy among bystanders and security guards, though few of them know what it is they have just witnessed. In fact, it was a "flash mob," a global phenomenon that has finally hit L.A.

By making use of the Internet, cellphones and online community-building resources such as Yahoo! groups and Friendster, masses of people have been forming inexplicable public gatherings to say or do something as senseless as it is harmless and then, within a few minutes, disperse. The reason they do it is that there is no reason.

"I'm built on absurdity," says 31-year-old Christian Meoli, a writer-actor-producer who organized the Sunset 5 flash mob as well as an earlier, more modestly successful effort at the ArcLight Cinemas. "To hear that this kind of absurdity is happening on a spontaneous level, I totally loved it."

After learning about flash mobs on the Internet, Meoli began e-mailing people and eventually set up a Yahoo! group, lashhhmob (his signature, if you will, is to begin his actions with a minute of shhshing). Maintaining secrecy until the last moment, he instructs mobbers to meet near the flash point, where he gives them further instructions and puts the plan into action. In this case, participants gathered a block away in a Rite-Aid parking lot, received a slip of paper with their instructions and another with their snippet of dialogue, then synchronized their watches and executed their tasks. Of the multitude, only a handful knew Meoli personally. Most were pretty exhilarated.

"A quick, cheap thrill," said 23-year-old Jayna Alcisto, part of a posse of 10 who learned about the mob via e-mail. "It's absurd, it's peaceful, it's out of the norm, but it's entertaining."

The phenomenon originated in New York City in June when more than 100 people invaded a Macy's and overwhelmed the sales clerks by asking to buy a "love rug" for a "suburban commune." And thanks to the same global wiring that made this feat feasible, the concept quickly zipped around the world.

A stylish display of technological integration occurred in London in August when mobbers converged on a furniture store, then received cellphone calls that prompted them to exclaim, "Wow, what a sofa!" Business as usual was interrupted at the Cape Town International Convention Center when a crowd of 150 or so began quacking like ducks. Germany, France and Korea have seen flash mobs of their own, and on this continent, Toronto, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Seattle have all joined in the craze.

While this out-of-nowhere summer madness recalls fads such as streaking or flagpole-sitting, it also has roots in some of the 20th century's most influential art movements. "The Dadaists were doing this in Zurich in 1916," says Meoli, who stages a weekly Dadaist cabaret in a Los Feliz theater. Others point to the Situationists of late '50s-early '60s France, who called for art that would defy commodification, thus spawning events known as Happenings.

Technology's influence

On the socio-cultural front, many active flash mobbers take inspiration from the Howard Rheingold book "Smart Mobs: The Coming Social Revolution" (Perseus, 2002), which maps the way technology has, does and will change the way social networks form. The author, a cyberspace guru, cites examples such as the "swarming" practiced by protesters at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in 1999 and the text messaging that brought a million Filipinos into the streets in 2001, toppling President Joseph Estrada.

But while at least one Web log, why-war.com, predicts the application of flash mobs toward political ends, many more are against it. "Flash mobs are fun, and they should stay that way," writes the author of a manifesto on the site flashmob.com. "Attempts to yoke the flash mob model to political activism will fail."

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