Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Flash Mobs

September 2009

By Mike Gould

This month's column comes to you from the Cultural Affairs desk of BizMO. A little anthropology is involved as well, as we consider the influence of the Internet upon the evolving artistic experience of the media that is truly mass: the flash mob.

A flash mob is a crowd of performance artists/merry-makers/dancers/just plain Joes and Janes who suddenly appear in a public place, perform some bit of drollery for a short time, and then disperse. If you go to and search, you will find a lot of very funny and moving videos of flash mobs in action. And that is the Internet connection; the crowds are assembled online, via social media or viral email. They are briefed by the organizers, told to assemble at some place for a quick rehearsal (or not, depending on the complexity of the event), and then directed to the venue for the performance itself.

A crew of camera operators record the fun, edit the performance and then move the movie to YouTube or wherever. So the sequence is Digital -> Real World -> Digital.

What got me thinking about this was an interesting dining experience we had last week. We were eating at the Earle Uptown (EU), taking part in a wonderful last meal as the restaurant is shutting down at the end of August. This place has always been a very special occasion destination for us, as it is the only AAA 4-Diamond restaurant in town. Pricey, but excellent food and service, in a quiet, elegant setting. Soon to disappear, alas.

So there we were, enjoying our crab cakes and duck breast, when our attention was suddenly drawn to the front windows, where a shambling group of zombies were staggering down the sidewalk, obviously in search of brains. Some of them beat on the windows, but as the EU doesn't serve brains, they continued on, disappointed. (For the un-initiated: according to most of the zombie movies out there, zombies live - if that is the correct term - on the brains of their victims.)

I found this very entertaining, as did most of the patrons there that night. This is an example of a sort of portable flash mob: performance art as a parade. Takes me back to my days marching in the Ozone Parade in the early 70's. This is why we live in Ann Arbor; we have a town full of creative students who, from time to time, rise from the dead, smear on makeup, and march down South Thayer for no reason at all other than it's fun, silly, and community-building. Hey, zombies need communities too. You can see a video of last year's Zombie Walk at the URL below.

The Science Fiction Connection
I have been reading science fiction all my life, and it is always fun to witness self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1973 Larry Niven wrote a story, "Flash Crowd", about a similar phenomenon where teleportation devices enabled crowds to form suddenly in response to interesting events. Science fiction has a spotty record for predicting things, so it's nice to see it getting something right every once in a while.

Back to YouTube
A lot of the better of these events are organized by ImprovEverywhere (URL below), a New York-based collective headed by Charlie Todd. Charlie and friends organize elaborate pranks based on a 13,000 head email list. They have done over 70 "missions", including having 900 people boarding NY subway trains wearing no pants, 15 pairs of identical twins mirroring each other in subway cars, and 700 people on a rainy night strung across the Brooklyn Bridge firing off flash cameras in coordinated waves.

A very popular recent video is Frozen Grand Central, where 200 people froze in place for five minutes at random places throughout the Main Concourse of the station. Bemused commuters and tourists tried to make sense of it all, and their reactions are what make this movie.

The above is capital A Art; nobody makes any money, just fun, consternation and random joy. Todd has tried to monetize this by pitching events to TV, but hasn't had much luck. He has a book coming out that will feature stories of his events and contain a how-to on making your own excitement.

But business does have a way of creeping into the picture. You knew I would get around to that eventually, right? A prime example is the Bollywood Hero event in Times Square. Bollywood Hero was a 3-part mini-series that appeared on IFC in early August. To promote the show, the organizers had a tour bus with a large billboard ad for the show on its side pull up to a crowded area in the Square. Dancers and drummers appeared and put on a spirited Bollywood dance routine in the street. Others in the audience joined in and a good time was had by all.

The Hills Are Alive
My favorite flash mob movie is the Sound of Music dance sequence performed in the Central Station of Antwerp. An elegant European station with a marble tiled floor is transformed into a music theater with 200 dancers suddenly appearing out of nowhere to perform an elaborate routine to the voice of Julie Andrews singing "Do Re Mi". The reactions of the unsuspecting crowd are incredibly moving, to my eyes.

And yes, this was another promotional event, sponsored by a Belgian television program. This show was accomplished with only 2 rehearsals, and is a wonder. I feel bad for the young children watching this in person: for the rest of their lives they will wonder where all the dancers are every time they go through this station.

I would love to see someone sponsor such an event in Ann Arbor - maybe in the Diag, at the corner of Maynard and E. William during Art Fairs, or on the steps of Hill Auditorium before a show there. Any takers?

2008 Ann Arbor zombie walk


Frozen Grand Central


Sound of Music

Mike Gould, is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of, and welcomes comments addressed to

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