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Flash Mobs Are Not Crimes

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.  This blog should not be viewed as legal advice.  It is simply my experiences, opinions, and information I looked up on the internet.

It appears the term “flash mob” is being used inappropriately and its meaning is being overly broadened to include any group activity that is coordinated using social media.  This year, there have been several robberies and assaults perpetrated by a group of people that appear (at least on the surface) to have been orchestrated via social media sites.  The media has called them “flash mob crimes.”  They make it sound like someone created a Facebook event that said, “Meet at Broadway and Main at 10pm.  At exactly 10:03, we’re all going to run into the minimart, grab whatever we want, and run out.”  That’s not a flash mob.  That’s solicitation and possibly conspiracy.  If the event actually occurs, it’s larceny and perhaps inciting a riot.

Improv AZ - Where's Waldo Flash Mob Photo by Jeff Moriarty

A flash mob is defined as “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment and/or satire.”  Flash mobs have been occurring at least since the 1970’s.  In recent years, they have been orchestrated via email and social media websites; however, that does not mean that every public group activity that is coordinated via social media is a flash mob.

Flash mobs are generally light-hearted innocuous fun.  People who participate in flash mobs ride public transportation without their pants; they welcome back strangers at the airport; they have fake battles between heroes and villains; and they stand frozen in place for short periods of time.  Some protests and promotional events are referred to as “flash mobs,” but technically they’re not.  And any event that has a criminal intent is definitely not a flash mob.

I give the media some leeway when it comes to coining terms; however, I was deeply disturbed when I saw a legal website refer to flash mobs as including criminal behavior.  It suggests the writer did not do their research on this topic.

I love flash mobs.  I have been participating in them and organizing them since 2009.  When Improv AZ organizes a flash mob, we do thorough research on the potential legal implications of our event.  I have attended an event with pages of statutes in my back pocket to ensure that we’re acting within the confines of the law.  We are diligent to inform our participants in advance of their do’s and don’ts.  We may push the envelope, but we never intend to cross the line.  Most of our encounters with police involve them smiling or laughing at us.  At the 2010 No Pants Ride after party, a Tempe police car stopped near us and an officer yelled out, “We had a briefing about you!”  And then he went about his merry way, knowing we were harmless.  A bit odd and rather goofy, but harmless.

Flash mobs are harmless, playful, and unexpected events.  They are not criminal acts by design.  Flash mobs and crimes are two completely different phenomena.  They do not exist on the same continuum.

In other news, the flash mob community needs to send a big “thank you” to Mayor Jackson and the city of Cleveland.   Mayor Jackson recently vetoed a proposed law that would have made it illegal to use social media to coordinate a flash mob.  Thank you for protecting our First Amendment rights!

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34 Comments

  1. Stu says:

    Call it what you want, but a flash mob is ANY mob organized via social media to appear at any give time or place in a surprising fashion. The term comes from the way it is organized, not the nature of the gathering. The article you chastise does make this distinction. It is short sighted to think that all flash mobs are peaceful and comical gatherings. I’m not condoning illegal activity, but you should think twice before ripping someone apart like that.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Stu. I think your definition of “flash mob” is overly broad and that it’s important not to call every group activity organized via social media a flash mob for many reasons.
      #1 – Flash mob activities began before we had social media. They were orchestrated via word of mouth, pamphlets, telephone, email, etc.
      #2 – Whether something is a flash mob is partly due, if not mostly due to its purpose. Promotional events – like this famous live Sound of Music advertisement in Belgium (http://bit.ly/nZCuIH) are not flash mobs because they have a commercial purpose. Likewise, protests are not flash mobs. Flash mobs are not defined by how they are organized.
      #3 – It’s important to differentiate between the how and the what. Social media is a tool for communication. It is rarely the defining characteristic of what an activity is.

      Your definition opens the door to make too many things a flash mob, such as tweet ups, parades, scavenger hunts, parties, protests, riots, conferences, and meetings.

      1. Stu says:

        Seems like semantics to me. You say potato. I say potahto.

        1. Ruth Carter says:

          What are semantics to you is a First Amendment issue to me. In the words of Jeff Moriarty, co-founder of Improv AZ, “I don’t want “flash mob” showing up with “crime” all over the place. What’s semantic to you causes headaches for me.”

      2. Stu says:

        I think the gist of this is that the word “flash” refers to an impromptu gathering, organized by social media. I’m not sure tweetups, scavenger hunts, conferences and certain other uses would qualify there…

        1. Stephanie says:

          I’d like to weigh in here:

          First, dismissing something as mere semantics does not necessarily solve the issue. The reason we have copyright and trademark laws is because word choice–both the what and the how–is very important. Companies don’t want their brands misappropriated; the very use of the word they’re associated with brings certain connotations. Notice that generic store-brand toaster pastries are called just that…not Pop Tarts.

          The same thing could be said about the term “flash mob”–it is a phrase coined to talk about something specific, in this case, a group of people who come together in a public place to engage in a pointless activity for the purpose of entertainment or satire. For people who engage in true flash mobs, it is understandable that they are bothered by the wanton use of the word where it does not apply.

          Second, the term says nothing about how the event is organized, social media or otherwise. In fact, the first flash mob I was recruited for was in-person. Does that mean that it wasn’t a flash mob?

          Third, there is a very important distinction to be drawn between true flash mobs and other activities–especially criminal activities–based on the purpose of a flash mob.

          An impromptu gathering, such as a pick-up baseball game in the park, has a specific purpose. It might have been organized by social media: creating an event on Facebook for the purpose. It could be an informal, impromptu gathering of friends and friends of friends. But it would not be a flash mob because its purpose would be to play baseball. Ditto something like a scavenger hunt, which could definitely be (and has been) organized via social media. It could be impromptu, but its purpose would take it out of the realm of flash mob.

          That said, there could be a “baseball game” or a “scavenger hunt” flash mob, organized via pamphlets and word of mouth, that would still qualify as a flash mob despite the lack of social media used to organize it.

          As to criminal activity: as Ruth pointed out, the very fact that the activity’s purpose is criminal means that it is not a flash mob.

          Criminal activity is not constitutionally protected. Flash mobs are constitutionally protected activity under the First Amendment. There is nothing inherently or overtly criminal about flash mob participants exercising their right to free speech and assembly.

          The flash mob’s purpose is part of why it is afforded constitutional protections. The purpose of speech can sometimes have very important constitutional implications. For example, we punish people who print libel, and we criminalize obscenity when it reaches a certain point. Commercial speech does not have the same protections as noncommercial speech. Therefore, the Sound of Music advertisement in Belgium could have been subject to certain restrictions that could not have been applied to a true flash mob.

          Focusing on the purpose of a flash mob as defining it, while excluding other impromptu gatherings or events organized by social media, is not mere “semantics”, but a distinction that makes a difference.

          1. Ruth Carter says:

            Thanks Stephanie! I think you’re absolutely right that flash mobs are protected under the First Amendment right of free speech and association. I think that’s why Mayor Jackson vetoed the law that would have outlawed organizing flash mobs in Cleveland via social media. Unlike criminal activity, flash mobs deserve protection.

          2. Luther says:

            Stephanie is very correct…..it is not illegal to be a moron. but the fact remains, against the law or not flash mobs are a nuisance and just plain retarded!
            Nuff said….

          3. Ruth Carter says:

            I’m sure there are plenty of hobbies out there that non-participants consider them to be a “nuisance and just plain retarded.” It doesn’t make those activities wrong. I respect your right to dislike flash mobs and your right not to participate in them.

      3. Mark says:

        I don’t like any kind of mob and Remno111223 was correct in posting the definition of a mob. The only difference I see between them is intention. Your kind of flash mob is thankfully, a passing fad, but the violent kind may not be. Either way, since I don’t know the intention of the mob as it descends around me, I have to make sure I have an “out”.

        Ruth, what may be fun for you is not necessarily fun for the people in the middle of it. A flash mob is akin to a flash flood; you don’t see it coming until it is too late. If I know you and your fellow “mobsters” are going to meet at 10:00 AM on tuesday morning to sing “Hallelujah”, I would have the choice to avoid the area.

        You guys can continue to debate what a flash mob is or isn’t, but the media is going to continue calling the violent type flash mobs too whether you like it or not and the bad guys will get the media coverage over whatever you are doing. Nothing like having your words co-opted!

        1. Ruth Carter says:

          I understand and respect that not everyone likes flash mobs. Lucky for you, it’s easy to walk away from a real flash mob physically unscathed.

  2. Luther says:

    Well thank you Ruth…I just dont think there’s much to go dancing through the streets about these days. Do you?

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I believe that there are always reasons to celebrate and that fun is what you bring with you.

      In my mother’s words, “Life is a celebration, every cork pull a reason to cheer.” My parents actually cheer every time a cork is pulled out of a wine bottle – it’s cute.

      1. Luther says:

        Mmmmmm wine…

  3. Luther says:

    I do think however that your right in distinguishing “flash mobs” from these recent uprisings of violent vandals. I’m with you on that.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thank you. I really appreciate that.

  4. [...] One voice against this hijacking of the term “flash mob” is Arizona lawyer Ruth Carter (whose blog The Undeniable Ruth you really should follow). She examines the history of flash mobs and cautions against rushing to conclusions. [...]

  5. Luther says:

    What’s up ruth? Whatta ya got on your mind today……bath me in you’re wisdom.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I usually post a new blog every Tuesday.

      You can keep up with my day-to-day thoughts by following me on Twitter: http://bit.ly/oDDnPG.

  6. Ruth: I have really liked your comments about “Flash Mobs/Flash Crimes”. I agree that everyone is being too general in categorizing non-criminal acts in the same category with criminal acts.

    Recently in my consulting business I have started getting requests for assisting with writing procedures to assist retailers training and prepare their staff for Flash Crimes.

    Let’s stay in touch.

    Jerry

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks Jerry. I’d like that.
      I’d love to see the end of these riot-type crimes and to be part of brainstorming sessions on what can be done to stop them.

  7. Remno111223 says:

    MOB – A large disorderly crowd or throng. See Synonyms at crowd1. 2. The mass of common people; the populace. 3. Informal. a. An organized gang of criminals;

    Adding the adjective ‘flash’ does not make it benign. A mob is a mob intent on some sort of destructive pursuit. A peaceful gathering it is not. If one should form around me, I will take the appropriate action to defend myself.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      These people seem pretty benign: http://bit.ly/o6lZSN.
      So do these: http://bit.ly/qWiTMc.
      This group is a bit boisterous, but they’re still benign: http://bit.ly/peZ93F.

    2. Ruth Carter says:

      Additionally, following your logic would mean that a “red herring” would have to be some type of fish. Adding an adjective can make a big difference.

      Thank you Evo Terra for the suggestion.

  8. Some Guy says:

    Ruth, I agree with you that the word “mob” in “flash mob” should not be taken to mean that all flash mobs are unruly or violent, by definition. The word was chosen to evoke the concept of numbers, not the concept of violent, illegal, or disorderly conduct.

    That said, I also disagree with your main point in the article, i.e., that the definition of “flash mob” excludes violent, illegal, or disorderly conduct. Wikipedia’s definition isn’t the only one around, and it’s hardly the most unbiased source, either. Collins English Dictionary defines “flash mob” as “a group of people coordinated by email to meet to perform some predetermined action at a particular place and time and then disperse quickly.” The “predetermined action” definition seems a lot more honest to me than insisting that the action must be benign to qualify as a “flash mob.”

    By way of comparison, consider the term “online banking.” Is a person still “online banking” if they are also committing fraud in the process? Of course they are, even though the term “online banking” was never intended to describe illegal conduct. I’m sure there are many similar examples of terms originally intended to describe legal conduct, but which can be applied equally to illegal conduct.

    I think it’s unfortunate that people are apparently using flash mobs to perpetrate crimes and disorder, but that doesn’t mean they’re not flash mobs — and, let’s face it, the word “mob” is far too convenient for the media to let it go. Maybe instead of fighting against a broad definition of the term “flash mob,” you would be better off finding a narrower term to describe benign flash mobs, such as “flash performance,” “flash party,” or something to that effect. Just a thought.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I see where you’re coming from, but as a member of the flash mob community, I think we have an obligation to continue to differentiate what we do from criminal behavior, including correcting people who use the term “flash mob” to describe criminal acts. It’s a battle we may lose, and I don’t expect the media to help the situation. “Flash mob crime” is too sexy of a phrase for them to give up.

  9. Dau Tieng 59 says:

    See the Webster dictionary definition:
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mob

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      The Wikipedia page gives that definition more context and a brief history of flash mobs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob.

      1. Some Guy says:

        I know the Wikipedia entry is very sympathetic to your position, but I think you’re relying on it a tad too heavily. Again, Wikipedia is not an unbiased source. That page was almost certainly written primarily by flash mob organizers and participants, who have the same incentives you have to distance themselves from problematic uses of flash mobs. Moreover, if you read the “Legal incidents” section, it doesn’t go so far as to claim that illegal flash mobs aren’t “flash mobs” at all.” It simply notes that “[o]rganizers of innocuous legal flash mobs consider ‘flash mob crime’ and similar terms inaccurate and damaging to the reputation of flash mobs.”

  10. Js says:

    Oh man this is SOOO annoying. You cynically lead with “Flash Mobs Are Not Crimes” – knowing full well that the popular connotation of the meme “flashmob” at the moment involves hordes of devolved violent teens attacking random passersby – and then go into this quaint “toldjaso” defense of the aforementioned term? to what purpose? do you think with all of these crimes at this point anybody’s going to think “flashmob” and then imagine a scene of harmless dorks dressed like they work in the North Pole?

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      That would be an interesting question to get accurate data for. I suspect that most people know that flash mobs are harmless fun group activities. It’s unfortunate that the media has hijacked the phrase, and hopefully it’s temporary. The only similarities between flash mobs and the recent riots and robberies are the fact that both involve large groups of people and that they may be coordinated using social media.

  11. [...] and organize flash mobs.  Given the rash of recent violent attacks and robberies that have been improperly labeled as “flash mobs,” now more than ever, it’s imperative that real flash mobs and pranks are legally planned and [...]

  12. [...] post was originally published on The Undeniable Ruth in August [...]