As Lauren Butler started dancing by herself outside Northrop Auditorium on Tuesday, she received some odd looks. When about 150 students and faculty members joined her everyone around stopped to stare. And cheer.
In recent years, both large cities and college campuses have been attacked by it. YouTube videos and Facebook event lists have been invaded by it. Students and average citizens have stared in awe at it. It is the flash mob.
A flash mob is a large group of people gathering with apparent spontaneity in a public place to do something unusual for less than 10 minutes. At the event’s conclusion, the mob disperses.
These “mobs” rely on e-mail, text messaging and social networking to organize their “hits” on unsuspecting civilians.
Usually done for fun, a hit could be a group of hundreds freezing in place for several minutes while stunned crowds stare and walk around the living statues.
They can also be more serious. Active Minds’ display of more than 1,000 backpacks in front of Coffman Union last year demonstrated the number of college students who commit suicide annually.
Butler, a mechanical engineering and dance major, led the College of Science and Engineering’s first flash mob Tuesday in front of Northrop. She began dancing at 12:10 p.m.
Butler, approximately 150 students, 10 faculty members and Goldy Gopher performed a choreographed routine for almost three minutes while passersby made their way between classes.
The music ended, they led the Minnesota Rouser and dispersed. Butler had class at 12:20 p.m.
CSE contacted Butler over the summer with the idea of arranging a flash mob in honor of the college’s 75th anniversary, she said. The real work, mixing the music and choreographing the routine, didn’t begin until fall.
But the event wasn’t as spontaneous as it looked. Each CSE student involved in the flash mob had to attend at least two practices the week before the event, one to learn the individual parts and one group rehearsal.
This flash mob was modeled after a similar dance number Ohio State University put on last year.
Various members of flash mobs around college campuses credit two sources with starting the flash mob phenomenon. One possible origin is Bill Wasik, the current senior editor for Harper’s Magazine.
Improv Everywhere is the second organization credited with creating the flash mob by groups such as Plan B – a group of local flash mob organizers.
Created in 2001, Improv Everywhere has executed more than 100 events based out of New York City and has become a YouTube sensation.
After the influence from these two sources, the flash mob phenomenon has only escalated. Improv Everywhere inspired Plan B, led by Chris Kliewer, to organize a five-minute freeze at the Mall of America in 2008. It duplicated Improv Everywhere’s flash mob in New York, where more than 200 people froze in place for five minutes in Grand Central Station.
The group of about 40 students was actually stopped by mall security, forcing them to rely on a second option – moving the event to Ikea. The spontaneous move to a back up location is where the group got its name, Kliewer said.
Other college campuses have attempted similar technologically arranged flash mobs, but many have not experienced the success flash mobs have had as a whole.
Kim Weiss, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Flash Mob-ers administrator, said the group has only had one successful flash mob. That success only involved seven students. The group’s most recent failed attempt was last summer, when there were too few people to carry out the event.
Students who witnessed the CSE flash mob were impressed by the performance. Math senior Samantha Wettstein said it was pretty gutsy for the teachers to be involved, though she also said the performance looked staged.
“They kind of came out of nowhere,” said Angela Bidinger, another math major who knew the performance would take place but not when. “I liked it.”
Aerospace engineering junior Nick Welander was one of the first students to “spontaneously” join Butler in the dance Tuesday, after responding to the mass e-mail CSE sent out to its students before the event.
“We just want to show that engineering students can have fun too,” Welander said, “and that we know how to dance.