Spreading the Love: The Flash Mob Effect

Photo by Ieuan Jenkins - http://flic.kr/p/62snjU

You’re going about your daily business and suddenly some music starts and a man or woman next to you begins singing along; other people join in, and before you know it, you’re witnessing what seems to be a random group of people coming together to perform a kind of miracle — a shared experience of sheer delight.

There’s an advert running on British television at the moment which features airline passengers walking into the arrivals hall at Heathrow Airport and being serenaded by various small groups of what initially appear to be other passengers. The action is captured by several cameras dotted around the large hall, and the film cuts quickly between wide shots of the crowd and close-ups of individual faces, expressions ranging from delighted to bemused, startled to embarrassed. The songs the groups sing are about journeys and travelling and welcoming loved ones home, and there are shots of people embracing and wiping tears from their eyes as they are reunited. I know it’s only an ad, but the first few times I saw it, it brought a lump to my throat.

I saw another of these advertisements, which cleverly leverage the ‘flash mob’ phenomenon, over Christmas: Christmas Food Court. The scene is a large food hall area in a retail centre, where crowds of shoppers are taking a break, seated at tables, while others mill about on the periphery. Suddenly, the loud buzz of conversation is pierced by a woman’s powerful operatic voice, singing the first few bars of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Heads turn as her soaring soprano is joined by the deep baritone of a man in a blue hoodie who climbs onto a chair. By turns, other singers join in — old and young, smartly-dressed and casual, the singers appear representative of our diverse and multi-cultural society. Around them, the faces of the shoppers are lit up with surprise and wonder, while dozens of hands hold up mobile phones to record the event. I love this piece of music anyway, but the whole film — lasting about 4 minutes — is a joy to watch; uplifting and moving on so many levels.

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There are several aspects to the quasi flash mob films that I find interesting. (‘Quasi’ because many would say that ‘real’ flash mobs don’t involve staging by advertising agencies or PR firms and legions of professional performers.) One is the sheer guts of the performers who take part in them — particularly the ones who initiate the song or dance before the other performers join in, because they naturally become the focus of attention for all these observers who must be wondering what’s going on. These flash mob performances, by definition, are taking place in the midst of everyday life — airports, train stations, food halls, etc. Not places to which you go expecting to see someone performing like this (with the possible exception of a busker or two). I think it must take a great deal of confidence and courage to step out of the random flow of individuals going about their business and into the sudden limelight; what if you’d got your cue wrong and no-one else joined in? What if no-one paid the slightest bit of attention and the whole thing fizzled out like a damp squib? How embarrassing would that be?

I also love the idea that I could be one of those going about my everyday business when all of a sudden I’m caught up in one of these performances, witness to a special moment — something surprising and unexpected and all the more powerful for that. A small cynical part of me wonders whether the film-makers ever have to edit out any scowling frustrated faces of people who resent their day being interrupted, but I suspect they’d be in a very small minority. I think being open to the possibility of being surprised by life (and by others) is profoundly important, because it offers fresh experiences and an unexpected break in routine. And watching the crowds in these films, I can see such joy and pleasure in people’s faces, and I imagine that being part of these events will stay with them for a very long time.

More even than that, what is quite remarkable about the flash mob phenomenon is the way they break down the barriers between the people who happen to be there at the time. Everyday life is characterised by not speaking to other people whom we may pass every day on the same street at the same time, recognising each others’ features but not making that leap across the communication gap and saying hello. Another flash mob film features New York’s Grand Central Terminal, where more than 200 people ‘freeze on cue’ for 5 minutes while bemused travellers (and one workman) walk around them and peer into their faces, before — amazingly — talking to other complete strangers about what they think might be going on.

It reminds me of the experiments that animal behaviour scientists sometimes do — placing some unfamiliar object in their research subject’s cage and observing the creature’s response. In this case, the individuals in the crowd at the station overcome the social norm that says “Don’t talk to strangers” because their curiosity and desire to find out what’s going on is more powerful; they want to share the experience.

Much of the time, we each exist as solitary individuals even in a crowd, lost in our own thoughts and not really taking much notice of what’s going on ‘out there’. The flash mob effect can take us somewhere almost magical — a place in which out of the random movement of individuals in a crowd, something beautiful and co-ordinated and ordered emerges; a place where we can share something with total strangers, without cost or harm to ourselves or to anyone else for a few short minutes before the song is over and the performers disperse. And yes, alright, some of these flash mobs are advertisers’ tools designed to encourage us to buy some product or other, but you can see from the expressions on the faces of the performers and the crowd that that’s not what they are experiencing; they’re feeling delight and pleasure and a sense of being a part of something. And I think there’s a gift for us all in that.

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