There and gone ― in a flashSpace aliens attacked central Seoul’s Myeongdong neighborhood on Sept. 20, capturing more than 20 human beings.
At 7:05 p.m., the victims, who had been strolling along the typically busy Saturday street, pointed at the sky and screamed, “Look at the aliens!” Two minutes later, all of their cell phones rang, and they collapsed to the ground.
A few minutes later, the victims came back to life, springing to their feet. As if possessed, they jumped around, clapping and shouting for joy, for 30 seconds. Then, in the blink of an eye, they evaporated into the crowd as though nothing had happened. A large circle of spectators was left taken aback.
Okay, there weren’t really any aliens. What the baffled onlookers actually witnessed was Seoul’s second “flash mob.”
A flash mob is “a gathering of strangers at an appointed time and place through Internet or cell phones for a brief and prearranged course of coordinated action,” according to the Web site www.wordspy.com, which tracks new terms entering the English language.
The “coordinated action” tends to be rather offbeat ― like sighting aliens in the sky. The first reported sighting of a flash mob was in Manhattan in June, when about 150 New Yorkers showed up at a Macy’s department store, told bewildered salesclerks they were looking for a “love rug” and dispersed after about 10 minutes.
The phenomenon spread fast to Paris, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and even Siberia. Seoul saw its first flash mob on Aug. 30 at Gangnam Station in southern Seoul. About 40 mobbers gathered at a crosswalk, as though waiting for the light to change, and began saying things in unison like “Hello” or “Be happy,” to the bafflement of those around them. The event’s on-scene organizer ― a “moberator” ― timed the greetings by inflating balloons.
Not everyone is charmed by this phenomenon. Gwon Yeong-bae, a police officer in charge of public peace at Myeongdong police stand, was unaware that a flash mob had assembled in his territory, but, when informed about it later, said its members could have been punished for causing a disturbance.
“Any form of mass activity on the street without filing a report in advance to a police station is against the law,” Mr. Gwon said, sounding perturbed.
A middle-aged street vendor who witnessed the Myeongdong space-alien sighting was also annoyed. Clicking her tongue, she said, “Why are they causing such inconvenience in the middle of the street? There is simply no point.”
One of the principles of flash mobs, according to a Korean online club devoted to the concept, is “A flash mob does not have any purpose.” Other principles include “Never cause harm to others,” “No profit-making activity is allowed” and “Never ask a fellow flash mobber for any personal information.”
Why do it? “It’s just fun. There is no ‘why,’” a participant in the Myeongdong mob said, under condition of anonymity. “It’s just cool to have some fun together with strangers and still dissipate as strangers.”
Young passersby in Myeongdong were curious, and even envious. Jeon Ha-na, a 23-year-old college student, watched the whole process and said afterward, “This is just so cool.” She declared to her friends, “I’m in for the next flash mob, by all means.”
All Ms. Jeon has to do is to join the online club at cafe.daum.net/flashmob, organized under the theme “a delightful escape from everyday life.” Established July 31 with just a few enthusiasts, the club had about 400 members by the time of the Myeongdong alien sighting, and has since grown to 5,200.
This online community differentiates the Koreanized flash mob from others around the world, which tend to have no contact whatsoever, other than the flash mobbing and the e-mailed instructions.
Korean online club organizers, who take up duty as “moberators,” set up tentative mobbing dates in advance, which does not make the events particularly impromptu. The next flash mob is scheduled for Oct. 18. (A worldwide flash mob is reportedly under consideration as well, also tentatively set for mid-October.)
But knowing on what date a flash mob will assemble doesn’t constititute advance notice of what’s going to happen. Once a date is fixed, club members are e-mailed further details, such as place and time.
On the day of the Myeongdong flash mob, members received e-mails at 7 a.m. saying the flash mob was cancelled. At 2:40 p.m., however, another e-mail announced that it would take place as planned.
This complication may have reduced the number of flash mobbers, but it did not hinder their progress. Organizers divided members into two groups: those born in odd-numbered months and those born in even-numbered months. The groups were sent to two different locations, at each of which was a distinctively dressed “moberator,” who handed out instruction sheets. Only then did everyone move on to the predetermined site and, on cue, pretend to see aliens in the sky.
After the Myeongdong flash mob, the online club’s bulletin board was covered with postings sharing impressions and opinions, everyone agreeing that it had been fun. Members were also busy coming up with new ideas.
Among the ideas: “Grab any passerby and tell them, ‘Mom, where have you been all these years? I missed you so badly.’” “Pretend to talk to objects on the street, like gum stuck on the ground, a phone booth, you name it.” “Move slowly, just like in a slow-motion film.” “Line up against a wall of a skyscraper and try to pull it down.” (That last idea was met with concerns that the building, having been built in Seoul, might actually fall down.)
A suggestion to organize an anti-war flash mob drew strong opposition, on the grounds that a flash mob must have no purpose.
Kim Yang-eun, the head of the Cyber Culture Research Center, sees flash mobs as a kind of Information Age performance art.
“Information society has a property that dismantles relations between human beings,” Ms. Kim says. “But people still somehow want to confirm that there are homogenous others, without having to build a relationship. Flash mobs fit perfectly into this need of the cybergeneration. To them, it’s one way to express this desire.”
Ms. Kim, however, is doubtful that flash mob culture in Korea will stick to the principle of never asking one another for personal information. “Koreans by nature love to form relationships, which is likely to draw them away from the flash mob’s true character of strict anonymity,” she said.
Indeed, there has been controversy within Korea’s online club over whether to have a post-flash-mob get-together. Online clubs in Korea generally tend to hold offline gatherings, and a few members have made the suggestion ― which was rejected by the club’s organizer.
So far, Korean flash mobbers have remained anonymous. Members use online identifications such as “Doppelganger,” “love me” and “pandemonium,” and refrain from asking about age, gender or name.
The club organizer, reportedly a 15-year-old student, is determined to keep up the flash mob spirit. “This online club is for strangers who look for a brief, meaningless yet fun thing to do,” he says on the Web site. “‘Just for fun’ is what flash mobs are all about. No more, no less.”
A flash mob document
Written instructions handed out to the flash mobbers in Myeongdong on Sept. 20:
1. After receiving the directions, remain close to the moberator and wait until 6:57 p.m. Set your cell phone alarm to 7:07 p.m. at full volume.
2. 6:57 p.m. ― Move on to the predetermined fashion mall on the Myeongdong street. Wait until everyone arrives and makes room enough for you to fall on the ground. Until the moberator gives a signal, act just like any passersby.
3. 7:05 p.m. -― When the moberator points at the sky and shouts “Aliens!” follow the moberator and make a disturbance.
4. 7:07 p.m. ― When cell phones start to ring, collapse on the street and play dead.
5. 7:10 p.m. ― Moberators will stand up and start clapping. Follow them and shout at the top of your lungs for about 30 seconds.
6. Then dissipate into the crowd in all directions as if nothing happened.
Do not mention the words “flash mob,” even if people ask you what’s happening.
by Chun Su-jin