Using mass e-mailing, the organisers bring together what their invitations describe as 'inexplicable mobs' - large crowds that materialise in public places and suddenly dissipate 10 minutes later.
"It's a spectacle for spectacle's sake - which is silly, but is also, as I've discovered somewhat to my surprise, genuinely transgressive, which is part of its appeal, I think," said the mysterious Bill in an e-mail exchange. "People feel like there's nothing but order everywhere, and so they love to be a part of just one thing that nobody was expecting."
San Francisco, Minneapolis and Phoenix have all staged their own events, while the first European mob took place this week in Rome, when 300 people entered a music and bookstore and asked for non-existent titles. The idea has also been adopted and given a more political agenda by other groups.
In Detroit, a group of gays and lesbians organise the 'Detroit Guerrilla Queer Bar', which targets a local straight restaurant or bar for 'swarming' on a designated night. And in Boston, Reggie Cummings, a black software developer, coordinates 'friendly takeovers' by crowds of black yuppies of downtown bars with a traditionally white clientele.
So far, flash mobs have claimed to be apolitical, but that could soon change. What started as a prank could blossom into a social revolution, according to Internet watcher Harold Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution."
Rheingold's book outlined the use of wireless technology in helping people around the world organize. As an example, he cited the use of cell phones and pagers by activists who demonstrated against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
Seems to me that this fits in along with the success of meetup.com in organizing Dean rallies and other events. And of course, the dating sites are doing well. The internet and email, long accused of encouraging antisocial / anonymous / secluded behavior, is now bringing the masses together, face-to-face, for fun and social causes.
It's one thing to find a discussion board for fans of Marlin Fitzwater or some other underground cult hero. Those are far-flung groups that need the internet to organize, because you've only got a few fans per city. These new mobs are different -- there are plenty of people who want to do something silly, they just need a coordinator and one happens to be online.
They could've just joined a frat, though. Or a fight club.