Groups of people materialize out of nowhere on busy streets, engage in an inane activity and then disperse in a heartbeat. Sound strange? Flashmobs are the latest craze in Europe this summer.
A wave of spontaneous group phenomena is sweeping over Germany.
It’s another scorching day in Berlin, and on the Alexanderplatz in the city’s center, people are sitting on the edge of a fountain, hoping to catch some relief from the heat. A few are standing around in curious expectation. An Internet site had said a flashmob would take place at 5:00 p.m. But at 4:59 there was no trace of anything out of the ordinary.
Then at five on the dot, a circle of some 10 people suddenly convened around the fountain from out of nowhere. They were all young men in their 20s. Each took off his left show and passed it to his neighbor. Within about 15 seconds, the shoes had made a full circle and were back with their owners. The men gave themselves a high-five and dispersed without a trace. All that was left after their departure were amused and slightly confused onlookers, wondering what they just say.
Flashmobs, or spontaneous gatherings of people engaged in somewhat pointless activities, are the most recent U.S. import. In June of this year, the first such event took place in a Macy’s department store in New York. Since then, the concept has spread quickly across the United States, and leapfrogged over to Australia, Singapore and, as of the end of July, made its way to Europe.
In Germany, flashmobs have become very popular among a mostly young, computer-savvy group. More than 150 towns and cities have been the sites for the blitz-like gatherings, and in Berlin, at least two or three of the brief nonsensical events are announced every day on various Web sites, e-mail lists and mobile phone messages.
Is it a new form of communication, a network between people, or maybe even a modern type of performance art?
Anna, an organizer of a flashmob at Berlin’s trendy Hackescher Markt, says the point is to have fun. She and two friends had previously posted a notice on an Internet site inviting people to show up at 7:05 p.m. at the hip meeting spot in the city’s East. All participants were told to look for three people in red shirts, the activity, though was kept surprise.
"We want to have fun, Anna says laughing, that’s the first thing and now we are doing this flashmob to connect people."
The connecting takes place with the help of a long rope the three organizers have tied in a circle and placed on the ground. At exactly 7:05, Anna grabs hold of one section of the rope and tells the 20 or so other people to do the same. All the participants take up the rope, start turning towards the circle’s center and wrapping the rope around them at the same time. The result is a knot of people, tangled up and pressed against each other. When they can’t move any more they greet each other with a "hi" and "what are you doing here."
Then in true flashmob fashion, it’s over in a flash and the mobbers move on – refusing to talk to reporters. In fact, several Web sites devoted to the new trend ask participants to avoid the press even while encouraging them to spread the word.
What’s the point?
Jens, a participant in the human knot says he learned about the event only a couple of hours before it happened. "I think it’s interesting to see how something spontaneous like this works. And how many people take part who don’t even know each other," he adds.
Another mobber, Anna Geroter who is visiting Berlin for the first time, just happened to be walking by when the event started up. She decided to join in. "I’ve never experienced anything like it," she says. "I thought it was funny, but honestly, I don’t really know what the point of it was."
Having the point is not the point, at least with most organizers. Politics also don’t play a role in flashmobs. Usually one would expect young people gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to be protesting American foreign policy. But not the flashmobbers, they arrived in baseball caps, applauded for a minute, pulled out champagne glasses and made a group toast "to Natasha" before vanishing again.
A little fun does good
The lack of purpose seems to broaden flashmob’s appeal. Andreas, another organizer, thinks having some silly fun doesn’t hurt anyone and could actually have a beneficial effect. "I think it’s an interesting social phenomenon," he explains. "Usually people are so removed from one another in daily life. But suddenly distance doesn’t matter any more and they get closer for a little while to complete strangers."
It’s hard to say whether flashmobs are a form of performance art, a new social movement, or just this summer’s flash in the pan. Their popularity has skyrocketed at such a velocity, they could disappear just as fast. But right now, flashmobbers are continuing to amuse and bewilder unsuspecting Germans with, as one participant put it, their Dada art happenings for the Internet age.