I don't like flash mobs. It's not because of their inanity. It's that they are neither done in a flash nor are they a mob. Flash mobs can happen, but they are not orchestrated with the sole intent to become "viral" via YouTube and picked up by traditional media infatuated with the shiny.
A genuine flash mob happens organically and with little pre-planning. If they are heavily organized they are then by definition not a mob, but rather a group. If it takes days of pre-planning, it does not happen in a flash. So for these things, let's call them what they are: group events. The fact that the group is doing something bizarre or incongruous with the setting does not de facto make it a flash mob - we can call these "wacky group events".
All the ones I've seen hyped have been just wacky group events. But flash mobs can happen. Protests organized via Twitter would count in my books as a flash mob. And as we've seen they can powerfully contribute to huge political changes. On a more individual level flash mobs can foster a strong sense of communal bonds and collective emotion. As happens when a local team wins a big game and people run to major urban centres to celebrate. I've been involved in a few of these when Canada won gold in Olympics hockey or way back when the Blue Jays won the World Series.
I've experienced the more wacky and organic sort too. One night after staying out until a night club closed (back in my days of legend) I remarked to my group of friends that we stayed so late it is almost tomorrow. I started singing Tomorrow from Annie and then my friends joined. Others in the crowd joined, and eventually we had about 20-40 people belting out the song on the street. I also saw a mass pillow fight staged at Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto that looked like a lot of fun.
Recently, I was at an event that tried to get a "flash mob" going. People had gathered in a very large conference room to hear a speaker. The organizers wanted the crowd to spontaneously join together in a song. They had a professional choir come in to act as plants for the event, but it didn't catch on. Instead the event felt like a performance at best and like some sort of odd, awkward moment at worst.
Seeing how I can't stop these types of wacky group events from happening - as much as I would like to - I felt I'd share my thoughts on how not to make these things be painful flops.
What not to do
1) Don't make it too difficult to participate.
Have the song, dance, or other desired group action be something that is already known or can be learned quickly.
2) Don't have plants look like plants.
Although I'm not a big fan of deception (not only is it not nice, but if a "flash mob" is so contrived how can it be legit?), nonetheless having people in-the-know on the event planted in the crowd is a good way to get a crowd to notice and join in. But have your plants look and act like the crowd or it will seem like a performance.
3) Don't hold event in a space too big - or at least plan for this.
The failed flash mob I witnessed was in a huge area so much of the crowd could not see what was happening in other parts of the room. If you must do this in a huge space, make sure you position the event so that it is visible to all those who you want to join in.
4) Don't keep all your plants in one area.
If you use plants, do so effectively. Spread them out and diffuse them among the crowd. The failed event had almost all the plants in one core area (invisible to much of the room) and then towards the end they had a couple plants move out towards the crowd. It was too little, too late. It would have been much more powerful if they were all initially positioned equally throughout the space. If these events appear to emerge throughout the entire crowd, they are more powerful than someone walking over and trying to act as a pep leader.
5) Don't seem like a performance.
Don't have your plants be too professional or polished. The idea is not to stage a performance, so the plants should seem average. I'm not so sure hiring professionals to act as plants is a great idea - although it will attract attention, pros seem too good and everyone then watches in wonder rather than joining in. The singers at the failed event were operatic, flawless and were microphoned, so it was a performance - who is going to would want to singalong and "ruin" an amazing show? Same logic applies to dancing. If the group action is kept simple, any one should be able to act as a facilitator.
6) Don't not tell people.
Wacky group events are not organic, so get over the idea that the group action needs to happen
spontaneously and unbidden. Don't be afraid to let people know what is happening. Go ahead and let the crowd know they can join in (and that it is not a performance). Twitter is extremely effective at spreading this news, but even old tech like announcing out loud to the crowd to join in will do the trick.
7) Don't be irrelevant.
Consider your group and do something appropriate for them. It's great to be fun, even wacky. But make it applicable to the crowd gathered and they'll be more likely to care about what is happening and join in.
I think there have been enough wacky group events covered by the media that hopefully the future ones that will be hyped are either more clever, more relevant, or, at the very least, more participatory.