Flash Mobs and the Importance of Silliness

January 14, 2014
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On Jan 12, 2013, many people all over the world witnessed a truly remarkable event. Folks in subway cars across the globe threw off their pants (trousers to you UK folks) in a demonstration of true silliness that hopefully left many a dude and lady a little perplexed and a lot happy. If the testimonials from my friends in Barcelona who participated are accurate, I can safely assume that a lot of people will remember this day with a wacky smile and forethought to do it next year.

The No Pants Subway Ride, now an annual awesome event in heaps of cities, began in New York City in 2002 as an Improv Everywhere prank, and since then, this display of public theatrics has spawned many other types of flash mobs organized by just as many groups. Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, is credited with some of the first flash mobs in New York City in 2003, his plans aimed at lampooning fads and social norms. These flash mobs, along with social experiments initiated by Improv Everywhere, have inspired fleets of silly behavior, but controversy has arisen.

Over the course of the evolution of flash mobs and social experiments, robberies and violent acts have occurred. In Philadelphia, for instance, a few flash mobs ran into police trouble, and some theorize that crime may happen in these situations because of the difficulty of finding any and all perpetrators. The sad truth is that large groups of people may inspire not so healthy or peaceful behavior, this probably incited by flash mobs turning ideological.

Recently. I sat in on a meeting with a group that does flash mobs and large-scale improv games in Barcelona. During a brainstorming session, I suggested a Humans versus Zombie style flash mob, which was shot down because of its competitive nature. At the time, I was miffed, but now I fully back their decision to diplomatically rule out my idea. The group in question was founded on the idea that a flash mob should spread positive feelings and inspire people to treat one another better and with humor. Each one of their flash mobs has something to offer; for example, they’ve set up shop in the center of the city a couple times and offered free hugs (a colleague of mine who helps run the group revolutionized hugging with a rad game) or treats to folks if they danced or displayed a talent. Their work is creative and only asks that their participants inspire peace, love, fun, and most of all, silliness,

One criticism I’ve heard (and have been guilty of myself on occasion) about this sort of thing is that a certain level of positivity is unrealistic and said reality is not about sunshine and rainbows. While I maintain that sometimes things are simply terrible, flash mobs are extremely noble in their mission to inspire absolute silliness, many of the activities in question being completely meaningless but fun as all hell. What better to happen on a crappy day than encounter a flash mob doing some sort of dance? Positive theatricality doesn’t have to have a political significance or social goal. Trying to make a flash mob competitive or more significant than it has to be puts a damper on the fact that sometimes life needs a bit of awesome nonsense.

To those who participate in or organize flash mobs, please never mire them in societal messages. The world is already awash in demonstrations and efforts to squelch those demonstrations. Flash mobs are unique in their attempt to lighten the hearts and minds of those who bear witness to them without compromising in their allegiance to silliness. It’s vital to have a sense of humor, and flash mobs achieve collective, public humor in all sorts of creative ways. Anyone who rides the subway and sees a bunch of people sans pants gets an immediate chuckle and a days worth of levity. That’s a cause worth being silly for.

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