The only warning came from a student in the center of the courtyard dangling a large green pillow as he paced, waiting for the battle to begin. The courtyard of Tech was calm; a few oblivious students ambled across the plaza, books in hand, thinking about their classes. But at precisely 11:55 a.m., there was a shout of “PILLOW FIGHT!” and about 20 students rushed at each other brandishing their feather-filled weapons. The battle raged for 30 seconds, students swinging their pillows manically in every direction, when suddenly it all stopped. The group quickly dispersed and the battered participants went back to their routines.
The modern world is a dangerous place. Within seconds, innocents could get caught in the brutal crossfire of a mass pillow fight.
Surprise attacks like this, commonly called flash mobs, are orchestrated online. Urban Dictionary defines a flash mob as “a group of people who are organised via various mass communications to come together at a specified place and time, perform some (typically whimsical) action, then disperse.” This might mean showing up at the Woodfield Mall at 3:45 p.m. and starting a giant conga line, or getting people to show up at the Art Institute of Chicago wearing fake mustaches.
The Cold Side of the Pillow, a Northwestern literary magazines, hosted the pillow fight flash mob event in the front courtyard of Tech on Feb. 3.
“I have been previously involved in flash mobs at Berkeley and in London, and have been thinking about bringing one to Northwestern for quite some time now,” said Communication sophomore Gabriel Cooper, editor of the magazine. “We were at a Cold Side meeting thinking of ways to get our name out there for the soon approaching submission season when I realized that a flash mob would be a pretty genius marketing tactic”
Students were invited to the event through Facebook, and more than 100 students confirmed attendance. Most did not come, probably deterred by the -5 degree wind chill, but the event still garnered attention for the magazine, and Cooper was content with the smaller flash mob.
“In the end, the size turned out to be just right, with all the crazy people who really wanted to do it showing up to participate in their 30 seconds of flash-mob glory,” he said.
Participants were also pleased.
“Hitting pillows at each other relieved stress, especially when people were looking at you weird,” said Norma Loza, a Weinberg junior that participated in the flash mob. “Everyone looked like they were having fun.”
Events that are meant to seem impromptu actually require a lot of planning, and organizing: It takes work to get a mass of people in the same place at the same time to freeze in place for five minutes or worship the Bean in Grant Park. Vast networks are devoted to coming up with and pulling off these pranks, spreading the word and attracting complete strangers to ridiculous goals.
One of the most widespread is the Urban Prankster Network. Its participants across the world use the site to communicate in more localized groups. There are Urban Prankster Groups as distant as Barcelona, and as close as Chicago, and getting involved is as easy as showing up to one of the planned events. People use message boards to brainstorm ideas, such as recreating a Subway ad where people rush in and sing the $5 foot-long jingle. Technology and the ability to communicate quickly with hundreds of people via the Internet have helped to popularize flash mobs.
Most flash mob events are not cause-oriented, but they are a cheap and effective way to get people’s attention. T-Mobile recently came out with a commercial in Britain that mimicked the flash mob phenomenon. The ad features a London tube station full of dancers performing a choreographed routine together, the synchronized group growing in size as the dance goes on, and then suddenly dissipating.
“[Flash mob advertising] can be effective or ineffective depending on how it’s received,” said Derek D. Rucker, assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg. “What is hard with them is how to quantify the ROI [return on investment] because you don’t know who is seeing them, and how they respond to them.”
Why are so many people suddenly drawn to flash mobs? For participants it may be about the fervor that comes with being part of a mob, except with flash mobs, that passion is channeled to better uses than the traditional mob activities of wielding pitchforks and destroying property. Mob time is better spent taking part in a a pie fight or a dance party. For observers, the reaction is usually either confusion and disapproval or joyful surprise. Mostly surprise.
“I have no idea why people would do it other than it’s fun and it’s not illegal,” said Al Hunter, professor of urban sociology at Northwestern. “It is nice to see some fun back in the world. The idea of spontaneous street theater, it’s good to see.”
Flash mobs are about having fun, pulling pranks and causing scenes. They are meant to entertain, and break up the tedious drudge of everyday life for both the participants and observers. So the next time you are out, be more wary of flash mobs. Anything can happen out there on the mean streets of Chicago. Be prepared. And definitely be ready to get hit with a pillow.