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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flash Mob: Art, Smart or Just Absurd

MTA flash mob of about 200 reading newspapers Saturday outside the Bolshoi Theater.
At exactly 5 p.m. Saturday, around 200 young people stood side by side on the steps of the Bolshoi Theater, read newspapers for five minutes, then left, leaving bystanders scratching their heads.

"I think they're filming a commercial," one tourist said to her friend, shushing her so she would not disturb the half-dozen cameramen filming the still, silent group.

But the television cameras were actually filming a flash mob: strangers who meet in a public place, do something inexplicable and leave.

Russia is just catching on to the fad -- Saturday's event was only the third known flash mob in Moscow -- but it may be just a flash in the pan, since flash mobs are already facing a backlash in the United States, where they started.

The point of a flash mob is not to meet people or make a statement: The point is, there is no point. Instructions are distributed by e-mail, web site postings and text messages to create an almost-spontaneous event.

"It's impossible to understand, it's only possible to feel," wrote Andrei, who answered an e-mail sent to Flashmob.ru, the web site where the three Moscow flash mobs have been organized.

"I don't want to talk about myself,bebecause a flash mob is no one's property," Andrei wrote. "It is not a product or a service, it is the energy of the crowd, which many people feel and they get a positive spiritual feeling from it."

He denied that he was an organizer of the flash mobs, saying that there "are no organizers and there never can be."

Hailed by some as performance art for the Internet age and reviled by others as inane displays of herd mentality, flash mobs can be relatively mundane, like Saturday's event. Or they can stretch to the bizarre, such as an Odessa flash mob that dressed in black and laid flowers at the feet of a Ronald McDonald statue, convincing one elderly woman that the fast-food chain's clown had died.

Flash mobs have perplexed innocent bystanders worldwide since May, when "Bill," the supposed creator of flash mobs, instructed about 100 people in New York through an e-mail list to crowd a Macy's department store and ask for a "love rug" for their commune. Since then, random acts of pointlessness have been perpetrated as far away as London, Sydney, Berlin and Rostov-on-Don.

Moscow's first flash mob was on Aug. 17, when people gathered at Leningradsky Station with signs reading "Vladimir Vladimirovich From St. Petersburg," while simultaneously, St. Petersburgers met at Moskovsky Station to wait for "Tatyana Lavrukhina From Alcoholics Anonymous."

The handful of Muscovite flash mobbers had their absurdist performance crashed by a phalanx of journalists and menacing OMON. But instead of arresting anyone, the troops left merely shaking their heads, Izvestia reported.

The OMON may have ignored subsequent flash mobs, but the press did not. On Sept. 6, people aimed remote controls at a giant screen showing advertisements on Pushkin Square and tried to change the channel.

On Saturday, participants said they like the trend because it is new and absurd, or that they just like to read interesting newspapers. Alexei, 21, said he participated in Saturday's mob after reading about flash mobs in the press.

That same kind of media attention is starting to kill the U.S. appetite for flash mobs and change their focus, if web sites devoted to the fad are to be believed.

"Bill" announced with great fanfare what he called the "last" flash mob on Sept. 10, after telling Agence France Presse that he would stop the phenomenon before it got out of hand.

But Andrei of Flashmob.ru said, "The 'last' does not mean 'final.' I didn't say this."

Other detractors say the movement has lost its focus. "The flash has gone out of flash mobs. They've become organized demonstrations," Mark Federman wrote on Marginwalker.org.

Despite Andrei's anarchic definition of flash mobs, Flashmob.ru held polls asking how often people wanted to hold flash mobs, and what days and times would be most convenient -- more like VTsIOM than a production from Eugene Ionesco's theater of the absurd.

Others criticize the mobs for their very pointlessness. Instead, they advocate using the concept for political or social ends, turning a flash mob into a "smart mob."

Smart mobs happen when "communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation," author Howard Rheingold wrote on Smartmobs.com, summarizing his book: "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution."

He pointed to the 1999 protests in Seattle that disrupted a World Trade Organization summit, which were organized by cell phone and the Internet, as an example. AFP reported that a group of Detroit gays and lesbians uses flash-mob techniques to descend en masse on straight bars, while a Boston software developer organizes "friendly takeovers" of white bars by middle-class blacks.

The flash mob on Pushkin Square may have teetered into smart-mob territory when some participants yelled, "Yet another ad?" and "To hell with advertising," prompting an Izvestia reporter to surmise that they wanted to make people think about the ubiquitous nature of advertising.

But Andrei insisted that the flash mob had no point whatsoever. "The political and social goals of a flash mob are the same as of a game in krestiki-noliki [tic-tac-toe] or going to the opera: There are none. And no goals of a flash mob can ever be pursued."