The Changing Definition of "Flash Mob"


When most of us think of a flash mob, it's a big impromptu dance party, a spontaneous pillow fight or hundreds of people freezing in Grand Central Station. But lately, the media has been using the term to describe some much less enjoyable activities.

Consider this headline from USA Today: "'Flash mobs' pose challenge to police tactics." Or this one from the Philadelphia Inquirer last week: "Flash-mob violence raises weighty questions."

It's a big change for a term that was defined in the Oxford Concise Dictionary as an "unusual and pointless act," separate from the "smart mobs" that generally had more of a purpose. Gawker was among the blogs that seized on the use of the term, calling out the media for misusing a phrase that actually means "when several dozen aspiring standup comics use the internet to meet in a certain place to do a funky collaborative dance."

Lately, the term has been used to describe escalating violence in cities, especially Philadelphia.

After a series of violent attacks -- including some numbering in the hundreds -- Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter had to impose a 9 p.m. weekend curfew for the city's youth. In cities such as Washington, D.C., Cleveland and Chicago, groups organized online have flooded convenience stores and robbed them en masse. The term is even being used in London, where social media and texting played a large role in this summer's riots.

In an interview on Southern California's KPCC, author Howard Rheingold, who has written about smart mobs and other collective action, spoke to the changing nature of the flash mob. He pointed to collective action in Iran or Korea as a positive use of social media, while also acknowledging that it could be misused in some cases. But he stopped short of saying that the social media was at fault for the violence.

I think it's important to keep in mind that this new tool is kind of an accelerant, the way gasoline is an accelerant. if you can harness that ... and put your gasoline in an auto's engine then it can be beneficial. If you're going to splash it on a building and light a match, it's a problem. But it's not the fire itself, it's an accelerant.

Of course, the larger question for law enforcement officials is actually linking the violence to social media flash mobs. There is evidence that some of the so-called flash mobs were arranged over text or on a city bus, rather than being coordinated through the Internet. Regardless, Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey said in a chat with that he's most concerned with stopping the violence. As to the use of "flash mob," he said succinctly, "I prefer the term 'rampaging thugs.'"