3:34pm

Mon December 20, 2010
Digital Life

Planning A Flash Mob? Better Keep It Quiet

Jason McCool's idea was simple: Gather a group of people, give them a set list of Christmas carols and have them spread out on the platforms of Washington D.C.'s Metro system during rush hour.

They were told to blend in -- no Santa hats or ugly sweaters -- just look like any other hurried commuter until they heard the cue.

And then, flash mob.

Flash mobs are sudden gatherings of people who briefly perform an unusual act, and then disperse like nothing had happened. They are supposed to seem spontaneous and surprise the public. Flash mobs have taken on many different forms likeĀ a human freeze in the aisles of a grocery store or riding the subway without pants.

International Fads Coordinated With Social Media

Flash mobs have become an international fad with a Michael Jackson tribute in Stockholm, Sweden, and a choreographed dance to the Sound of Music's "Do Re Mi" in an Antwerp, Belgium, train station.

And they are usually coordinated using social media like Facebook or Twitter.

But in the age of Twitter-savvy, technology-obsessed news media, that can be problematic.

McCool, 35, is an actor and music teacher. He says he came up with the idea of flash mob caroling on the D.C. Metro system because he noticed commuters' demeanor: "[They] looked so depressed, like they were going to prison or something."

He thought: "What would it be like if just 10 or 15 people started singing on the Metro right now?"

It would be the perfect way to show that "art can happen anywhere," McCool says. "You can be doing your Sudoku in the subway and people will start singing for you." More important, it might just make people smile.

From Facebook To Media Coverage

He posted the idea on Facebook and got a bevy of responses. He made a Facebook invite and a hashtag on Twitter, #MetroCarols. Within days he had 260 people signed up.

But the flurry of online attention also included local media. The Washington Examiner, a small daily newspaper in D.C., interviewed McCool and wrote an article that gave a vague outline of the mob's plan.

Other media outlets caught on. Soon McCool was getting interview requests from radio and television stations, blogs and other newspapers.

The night before the event, at a rehearsal with a core group of singers, he said he couldn't believe the amount of attention it was getting.

And on the day of the event, the lid blew off. A local online news outlet, TBD, published the carolers' full schedule -- complete with when, where, why and how.

"We were pretty much like, forget it," when that happened, says Melanie Spring, a fellow organizer for the event. With their plan gone public, they lost the element of surprise -- key to any successful flash mob.

They scrapped their original plan, which had a set list of 10 carols that they were going to sing at six different Metro stops, and scaled back.

Instead, they met with a couple dozen people, and caroled at a handful of places including two Metro stations. No flash, just caroling.

Another Twitter hashtag started floating around, saying "how TBD ruined Christmas."

The Inventor Of The Flash Mob

But the media attention shouldn't have come as a surprise, says Bill Wasik, an editor at Wired magazine and author of the book And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.

"Flash mob in the D.C. subway had so many elements going for it," Wasik says. "It was a technology story. It was a story about holiday cheer. It promised to be surprising and fun, but also a little rebellious. The same instincts that made the organizers think about it are the same instincts that made the media cover it."

And that makes it hard to plan -- and keep secret -- something as spontaneous as a flash mob, especially with social media.

Wasik anonymously invented the flash mob in 2003 as a "social experiment," he says. "Within just a couple of months the flash mobs had spread to every continent except Antarctica."

He used e-mail to coordinate the planning for the first flash mob.

"When flash mobs spread through e-mail and text messaging there was a really big element of surprise," Wasik says. "You would only know about the flash mob if you knew somebody who knew about it. It wasn't exactly public."

The Impact Of Social Media

But things are different now -- transformed by the all-invasive, hyperconnectivity of social media.

"With Twitter and Facebook, immediately those things spread to everybody," Wasik says, as was the case with the caroling flash mob that wasn't. It was a lesson on the pros and cons of social media and viral culture that was not lost on the D.C. carolers.

"From now on we're only getting our friends together to do flash mobs," Spring says. "We will never tweet or e-mail or anything about anything again."

Still, she and McCool were satisfied with the results even though the event was scaled back. Later that night she tweeted: "Turned out to be exactly what I hoped in the beginning. A small group of singers spreading holiday cheer. #Happy." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.