In the last year, public spaces have transformed. The hustle and bustle of train stations and malls came to a screeching halt as people all over the world were confined to their homes and pivoted to online shopping. Now, the world is slowly returning to normalcy, and public spaces have changed once more. But this time, they’re a venue for the return of flash mobs.
Much of this revival is owed to “Like Yhop,” the insanely catchy song by Milwaukee rappers Esco and Shawn P that adds a gritty production over Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” Add TikToker Rony Boyy’s choreography and you have a match made in viral heaven. In order to truly appreciate how much of a full-circle moment these new flash mobs are, you have to understand their original purpose. Former Harper’s Baazar editor Bill Wasik said he created flash mobs in 2003 as a “demonstration of social networks,” and in 2021, there is no social network more powerful than TikTok.
“[Flash mobs] were a social experiment,” said Wasik in a 2012 interview. “They were a demonstration of what the technology of internet chain emails could do.”
The earliest iteration of Wasik’s flash mobs was a lot different than the ones that are making their way onto your timelines now. They were primarily coordinated through text messages or email and the performances lasted no longer than ten minutes. (Imagine watching a TikTok ten times.)
According to Wasik, it was important to establish these small physical moments at the dawn of a new internet age. People were beginning to live their lives online and the concept of a flash mob disrupted that while using the internet as a place to cultivate a crowd. At a time where New York’s youth culture was defining what media valued, Wasik used the flash mob as a way to engineer conversation that countered that. “Part of what I was trying to lampoon with the flash mob is the idea of the next big thing,” he said. “It was like, I’ll tell you what the next big thing is—It’s nothing. Let’s just get together for nothing at all.”
Wasik’s original flash mobs are a little tough to track down because they predate YouTube and social media, but his impact is long-lasting. A CNN article from 2003 cites a string of flash mobs, some of which have nothing to do with dancing, like a group that gathered in Central Park to make bird noises. Then in 2008, over 200 participants gathered in Grand Central and stood frozen for five minutes, years before the Mannequin Challenge. Still, the most intricate flash mobs have been performance pieces, when an entire mall seems to break out in a dance sequence, like this one set to “Party Rock” in 2011. And while many of us can agree that musicals are usually a great watch, it doesn’t mean we’d necessarily want to live in one. It’s almost as if once the phenomenon started appearing in movies, like 2011’s Just Friends, they were edging on the cheesy side. But ten years later, and a new generation is itching to do smaller versions with their close friends.
TikTok is a place where the next big thing is dictated by people who, typically, gather for nothing at all. Rony Boyy’s dance became popular after footage of his choreography done in the middle of malls or at Universal Studios went viral, and it’s inspired hundreds of copycats. For now, these new flash mobs are much more intimate than the ones Wasik once orchestrated—and understandably so, since the pandemic is not exactly over.
This resurgence is poetic when you think about it. Flash mobs were designed to disrupt spaces, and during a time when our daily life has upended, youth culture is leaning in on that concept. And while many of these dancers probably aren’t old enough to have ever received a chain letter, all TikTok needs is 60 seconds to keep a flash mob alive.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.