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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Pointless German Fad Driven by Technology

BERLIN -- All at once at 6:01 on Friday evening, about 40 people in the middle of a crowded street pulled out their cellphones and started shouting "Yes, yes!"

Margarethe M?ller, emerging from a nearby department store, sensed that something was happening. She just wasn't sure what.

"Someone told me Jan Ullrich is here," the retiree said, straining to see if the Tour de France runner-up was on the scene. She spotted a man on a bicycle, decked out in the spandex peacock garb of serious cyclists, his cellphone in hand, and holding forth into a television camera.

"That's not Jan Ullrich," she said, disappointed. "Can you please tell me what is going on?"

Many people were asking the same question. The telephone-wielding crowd was the latest incarnation of something called flash mobs. Called into being on short notice by web sites and e-mail distribution lists, flash mobs meet at an appointed time, engage in some organized spontaneity for a few minutes, then rapidly disperse. The activities are innocent, if mysterious, and tend to bring together surprisingly conventional-looking young adults.

Brimming with such a lack of purpose, the fad has found a home across Germany. On Monday at 5:05 p.m., mobbers were called to gather at the washing machine display in a department store in the German city of Dortmund, eat a banana, and leave. But events have also been organized in Rome, Vienna and Zurich.

As might be suspected, New York is the acknowledged place where people first used the latest technology to gather and delight in pointlessness. In June, more than 100 people gathered in the rug department of Macy's, claiming to a bewildered clerk that they were looking for a "love rug" for their suburban commune. The concept quickly took on a life of its own, propelled by e-mail, cellphones and the Internet.

The idea of using the Internet and mobile phones to organize groups quickly is not new. But until recently, it has been used for greater goals, or at least more practical ones. In Seattle, protesters used the Internet and cellphone messaging to help organize anti-globalization protests. In Britain, teenage girls alert each other to Prince William sightings.

Some see proof of society's decay in flash mobs' appeal. "Do none of these people believe in anything that might be worth gathering for?" someone using the name YllabianBitPipe asked on Slashdot.org.

On Saturday, a flash mob collected near the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, and far from deriding Iraqi policies or some other momentous topic, they wore silly hats, waved flags and popped champagne. "Here's to Natasha!" they toasted, before vanishing.

Tobias von Schvnebeck, a tour guide, shook his head when he heard about how the phenomenon was traced back to Macy's. "This is just the sort of thing that happens when you forbid New York to smoke."