Oct. 22 2003 12:00 AM

Supermarket strike puts damper on a scheduled ‘Flashmob'


    By 8:37 last Saturday morning, the sun had broken through the fog around Horton Plaza. Strolling tourists, scurrying weekend workers and the homeless warmed up to the day as they passed in front of the darkly tinted panes of the NBC building's glass-walled newsroom on Broadway.

    No one seemed aware they'd all just narrowly missed being flashmobbed that morning.

    Flashmobbing, a quirky Internet offspring, first hit New York City in June 2003, when fad pioneers planned, entirely online, an episode of absurd urban theater, with specific rules of conduct and a strict time limit. At an appointed time and place, the cyberspace community physically converged on a Manhattan department store, confounded employees and shoppers for several minutes by asking about love rugs for suburban communes, and then abruptly dispersed. The trend took off, manifesting in cities worldwide, where flashmob groups, often numbering in the hundreds, attracted public and media attention with short interludes of meaningless, light-hearted antics.

    Flashmobbing ultimately arrived in San Diego on Sept. 13, when a local group held a five-minute event involving less than 30 (mostly young) flashmobbers, an escalator, some sailor costumes and a high-volume rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" at Fashion Valley Mall.

    Moderator "Flash Dan" started the online sdflashmob group in August. "I have definitely decided that [San Diego] is not full of the kind of people who act weird in public," he said. "Hence the FlashMob."

    The concept for a second event developed organically through messages posted on the group site. One idea tossed around was to flashmob a crowded store, where mobbers would hum for short, intermittent periods and disperse after several minutes. ("The best part is you could totally deny doing it to security guards," one member posted.)

    Other ideas: acting crazy or like babies, or making animal sounds in a crowded area like Balboa Park; going to Mission Beach on a Saturday and walking backwards.

    "Whatever we do, I would like to know that we won't look silly as hell doing it," read another post. "Let's keep it a tad bit on the obscure."

    By the end of September, with no scheduled flashmob in sight, yet another implored, "Lets do something for god sake!!!"

    Choices for the next event's activity were put to a vote: a pillow fight (not involving non-mobbers); a protest with blank signs by the NBC 7/39 building; ballroom dance; or skipping.

    Flash Dan commented on group discussions about whether a flashmob's nature should be "inherently anti-media/establishment/whatever." The final consensus: It should be "just doing things you weren't supposed to be doing, especially if for no reason. We want more people to join, so we wanted media attention. Does a FlashMob falling on the ground in the woods, alone, crack up innocent bystanders? Probably not."

    In the end, only a small percentage of the group voted. With 12 votes, the blank-sign "protest" won by a whopping margin, causing one message board regular to announce, "I'm out of this mob" and warn the others to be careful about "doing stupid things."

    Declaring the second flashmob a "protest of everything and nothing" Flash Dan advised participants to prepare signs, "at least 24" x 36" so that the lack of wording is readable." On Oct. 18, by 8:30 a.m., flashmobbers would arrive within two blocks of the news studio and at 8:37 a.m., get as near as possible to the newsroom windows (behind which anchors would presumably be taping a live broadcast). Participants would then march the sidewalk and wave their signs, taking care to stay within the windows' line of view.

    "If you are questioned by police or reporters, begin moving your mouth as if talking excitedly, without making any noise," Flash Dan instructed. At 8:50 a.m., the crowd would randomly disperse. "If none of us are arrested (not likely) we'll saunter up to a cafe to debrief," he added cryptically.

    But concerns, ranging from the minor (parking) to the more disconcerting (they'd never really get on television) arose.

    The final blow came when a real strike flared up and 70,000 supermarket workers from San Luis Obispo to San Diego took to the picket lines.

    One flashmobber pondered "the potential negative perception of the mock protest relative to the current grocery workers strike," and whether the flashmob might be viewed "as a slam on the strike or making a mockery of it."

    Flash Dan ultimately realized he'd have no flashmobbers to mob with and cancelled the event hours before it was to occur. "People on the group site mentioned that there wouldn't be very many crowds, and the news people would probably close the shades and ignore us," he explained. "Once the folks in the group figured that out, it was doomed. We may have been trying to get too big for our britches."

    Promising that a future, "very silly" flashmob was in the works, he chalked up the scrubbed mob to "figuring out how to do something well when few people have ever done it at all."

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