Flash mob in the pan


Intrigued – if a little mystified – by the world of flash mobbing, Natalie Voorheis does some research to try and clear the air, and chats to Lyza O’Halloran, the founder of UCD’s very own flash mob community

When my mum inquired over dinner last week as to what this fortnight’s article for The University Observer was going to involve, I responded through a mouthful of her delicious mashed potatoes that I would be researching flash mobs. Mum’s head swivelled towards me, her brow furrowed, and (cue the culchie accent that so many of us students use to express the meandering sentiments of the old pair) said dismissively, “Oh! That’s that violent teenage thing, they give out ASBOs for that stuff nowadays! Don’t be getting yourself mixed up in that kind of thing.” The next thing I know, splat – another spoonful of mash lands on my plate. Case closed – well, for her peace of mind maybe; for my own, not so much.

I won’t try and bluff my way through this article; you UCD readers are worth more than that. I admit that when I was given this assignment, for all I knew I was going to end up with an ASBO, as my mum had put it. However, research into the world of flash mobbing has blown my prejudices out of the water and opened my mind to an underground cult – and one, surprisingly, that constitutes an exciting side of UCD student life.

A flash mob is defined as a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and pointless act for a matter of moments, and then quickly disperse back into a crowd. Usually flash mobs are organised by text, social media sites such as Facebook, or by email. The stunts involved vary from simply standing still or lying on the ground, to enormously complicated and intricately choreographed versions of popular songs such as Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ or Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. A pleasant hour or so can easily be wasted next time you’re having a procrastination session, by typing ‘flash mob’ into the search bar on YouTube: a wealth of hilarious videos are thrown up, each one more riveting than the next.

The first flash mob was organised by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, in Manhattan during May of 2003 – but the attempt ultimately failed, as city officials were tipped off about the organized mass event. Wasik’s second attempt in June of the same year, however, was a huge success. This gathering saw over one hundred people converge upon the ninth floor rug department of Macy’s department store in Manhattan. Anyone approached by a sales assistant was instructed to say that the large group present lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York, were out shopping for the day with the purpose of buying a “love rug”, and that they made all their purchase decisions as a group. Wasik didn’t explain the purpose of the organisation of such a flash mob to the press until 2006 when he published an article in Harper’s claiming that the whole thing had been a social experiment with the aim of ridiculing a hipster community always so intent on being part of the next big thing, and to thus challenge a culture of conformity.

On Monday of last week, amidst the hustle and bustle of the L&H electoral campaign and the general mêlée of students walking from lecture to lecture in the Arts block, a group of 23 students outside Theatre L – no different from you or I – simultaneously froze on the spot as their synchronised watches rang for two o’clock. There wasn’t a blink or twitch from the twenty-three participants until, as one, they moved at the sound of their individual alarms each sounding 2:02pm – and then on with their day, off in their separate directions, and back to the worries of that two-weeks-late essay (maybe that was just me). All to the sight of incredulous onlookers whose boring Monday lunchtime had just handed a major shot of variety.

Later, I caught up with Lyza O’Halloran, a second year Arts student studying History and Information Studies – and who is responsible for the formation of the first ever flash mob community in UCD – and grilled her about this strange pastime.

O’Halloran explains: “I came across flash mobbing in my course and I though it might be cool to try it out. I did a presentation on flash mobbing as part of a module, and I decided to set one up to see how hard or how easy it would be to do.”

And how, I ask, does one go about organising something like this? Surely it must take a ridiculous amount of effort to get right? O’Halloran set me straight, explaining: “I set up a group on Facebook and sent an invite to everyone I know in UCD so that’s about fifty people, and then my friend sent it to another fifty people. We had about 55 of those accept it. Within about three weeks we had 164 members – which was fantastic, we couldn’t believe it. So I set up the event for last Monday. We had about 23 people show up, which wasn’t realistically too bad. Only seven of them were actually friends of mine; the rest came because of the online event we had set up.”

O’Halloran later adds, “We’re thinking of doing another one soon – maybe trying it some different way.” O’Halloran is currently inviting anyone who is interested to join her group on Facebook and comment with any ideas they might have on what the UCD Flash mob Society’s next event should constitute, and is careful to express that “We are open to anyone who wants to come.”

But what is the purpose of her flash mob events, I ask, a question to which O’Halloran offers only this succinct and concise answer: “It’s a really harmless thing. We are not going to cause any hassle or anything… There’s no reason for it, it’s just a bit of a laugh.”

Feeling excited and inspired by the events of the week and after resolving to keep my eyes wide open for signs of any other underground activity going on under my very nose, I noticed some handwritten posters along the concourse outside the James Joyce Library. They immediately caught my eye as being very out of the ordinary. Entitled ‘Job interview’, they listed the job’s position as “unspecified” and the salary as “hope”. What followed were instructions to any interested party to meet in the Arts Block’s green couches at one o’clock on Friday.

Friday rolled around, and despite the lecture I should have been dutifully taking notes in going on just metres away, I decided to sit where instructed and see what would happen. The moments ticked by – but the most exciting thing that happened in that time was a guy sitting down next to me and eating a chicken fillet roll. After twenty minutes of boredom, I got up and walked off with a sense of disgruntlement at the waste of time and at the chicken fillet crumbs now stuck to my coat.

Later, however, I reflected that considering the strange nature of the posters, maybe what had just happened actually was my interview, and I simply had been rejected. Maybe something crazy would have happened if the anonymous and silent interviewers had liked the cut of me and decided to approach. It’s nice to believe anyway.

Next time you walk through this concrete jungle, take a second to actually look around you. Look past the grey slabs and the 70s architecture… you’d never guess what you might catch a glimpse of.