The “No Pants Subway Ride” organized in 2010 by New York-based improv comedy troupe, Improv Everywhere. Photo by Karen Blumberg.
The term “flash mob” sounds fairly sinister when you think about it. A group of people, usually strangers, gather at a specific location and time to spontaneously cause a scene or dramatic display. The whole process is done in secret and the only authority that flash mobbers answer to is an anonymous leader who will tweet, text, or email instructions.
Sinister, that is, until the anonymous plotting and conspiracy culminates in thousands of people riding the subway without any pants on, or a meticulously choreographed dance erupts in the middle of the student center at Ohio State University:
YouTube sensations like flash dance performances and musical numbers are a phenomenon spanning real life scenes caught on camera as well as programs and commercials shown on television. Sprint created an ad campaign that cashed in on the popularity of flash mobs by selling their service as an indispensable tool for flash mob coordination. In the commercial, one unfortunate participant does not have Sprint, he receives a delayed text because he doesn’t have Sprint’s apparently excellent service. He throws off his trench coat and starts dancing too soon, blowing the surprise for everyone as hundreds of other people in the area (also wearing trench coats) look at him disapprovingly. Clearly the ad sends the message: “You don’t want to be ‘that guy’ who ruins the flash mob, so go with Sprint!” But it also reflects the growing phenomenon in our culture.
From what we’ve seen on YouTube and television, the flash mob is essentially a harmless and inherently well-intentioned public disturbance. However, the idea of being able to organize in secret and publicly assemble in large numbers is fraught with peril; plans could go wrong, or worse, someone could have malicious intentions. The anonymity of organizing a flash mob opens up the possibility for someone to use large numbers of people to get away with a crime, which is just what happened in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.
A group of 20 people rushed into a designer clothing store, grabbed over $20,000 worth of denim, and ran out before security could stop them. A string of similar robberies continued throughout the D.C. and Maryland area, consisting of generally young people entering stores in large numbers, taking merchandise, and running out before paying. However, unique to the area was the non-violent attitude from these particular mob-burglars, while other cities have experienced more harmful incidents of flash robbery.
The interesting distinction the website above makes between the violent flash mobs across the U.S. and the non-violent ones in D.C. and Maryland is that it compares the latter to “memes” or popular Internet trends. The same way a mob of people would dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in Grand Central, the participants of the flash robberies just want to take part in the latest craze and garner attention without really hurting anyone.
Is that a fair comparison, though? The desire to be a part of something larger than you are while also disrupting the monotony of a Monday through Friday society is understandable, if not noble. Yet, why up the ante by stealing? Surely there must be more creative ways to participate in the flash mob scene without resorting to breaking the law.
The founder of the improv comedy group known as Improv Everywhere, Charlie Todd, gave a talk in May 2011 (about a month after the first flash robbery) about his mission and why he wanted to start the organization: “… one of the points of Improv Everywhere is to cause a scene in a public place that is a positive experience for other people. It’s a prank, but it’s a prank that gives somebody a great story to tell.”
Improv Everywhere’s mission statement lead to the annual “No Pants Subway Ride”, one man standing in line to give two thousand high-fives to commuters riding up the escalator from a 6 train stop, and 200 people standing in place for five minutes in Grand Central Station. All of these projects were positive, non-violent, and didn’t attempt to break any laws. They did at one point organize to enter a store, a Best Buy in fact, but only to have participants dress in khaki pants and blue polo shirts, enter the store, and stand around.
Trevor Conners, a native of Wolcott, NY, has participated in several Improv Everywhere missions, including the “No Pants Subway Ride”, but never any robberies. Although he is not a spokesperson for the organization, he says that there is a distinction in IE’s “missions” and other organizations like it from the term “flash mob”.
“Improv Everywhere is a comedic performing arts group that was around two years prior to the coining of the term ‘flash mob’, though certain missions may closely resemble one. My first mission was last year during the annual ‘No Pants Subway Ride’. I was aware of Improv Everywhere for several years before that. I think I found them using StumbleUpon, a very useful tool for wasting time on the internet and finding and sharing new content with your friends, but last year was the first time I was in the city and not home on break. Needless to say I was pumped.”
Conners says he constantly tries to up the ante (without resorting to breaking the law) whenever he participates in a mission. Not only that, but he says that the missions are for all types of people, and not just young people following an Internet sensation.
“Of course it’s possible to participate and do the bare minimum, but the people that have the most fun are the ones that go all out. My philosophy is go big or go home. During the ‘No Pants Subway Ride,’ I was the second person in my car to take off their pants, and I didn’t put them back on until 3am the next day, after traipsing around the entire city in below freezing temperatures… Every time I do another mission, flash mob, or con, I feel the need to do something bigger and more ridiculous.”
“You definitely meet a lot of great people, and it’s very easy to connect with strangers because of the shared bond of doing something completely ridiculous,” continues Conners. “A great thing about these events is how universal their appeal is. I’ve met bankers, aspiring actresses, dance instructors, physical trainers, graphic designers, photographers, IT professionals, etc. of every possible age, race, and economic background.”
As for robberies, Conners says, “They go completely against the spirit of the thing, which is to spread joy, laughter, and ridiculousness to an otherwise average day. If the robberies were truly about the thrill, then they could organize a constructive, non-harmful flash mob, instead of causing destruction.”
Flash robberies are an example of how a good idea can be used for the wrong reasons, but dismissing non-violent crime as a “meme gone wrong” may be giving the D.C. mobbers too much credit. If they need ideas for a more creative way to participate in the flash mob scene, Conners is already planning for next year’s “No Pants Subway Ride”, which has now gone national to cities outside of New York.
“The details for this year’s ‘No Pants Subway Ride’ haven’t been posted yet, but you better believe that I’ll be there, and that my pants won’t be. Maybe this year I won’t put my pants back on for a week. Ladies?”