Living

Searching for social connection: The flash mob's appeal

We keep being told how isolating technology is — yet across the globe it’s bringing perfect strangers together to dance in the streets

Flash mob

Photo credit: arin Sang-urai

The 7:57 commuter train from London’s Euston station to Watford Junction is not exactly a hotbed of romance. But all that changed for Lucy Rogers when her boyfriend, Adam King, proposed in the middle of a flash mob singing Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” When the crowd burst into song, Lucy was amazed. “I thought, ‘We’re in one of those flash-mob things!’” she later recalled in an interview. “And then I thought, ‘This is my favourite song!’”

Her transformation from bewilderment to delight to tearful comprehension (all on YouTube) should strike fear into the hearts of jewellers everywhere. This is one proposal in which the ring is utterly beside the point. Instead, the magic of the flash mob manages to evoke more unalloyed joy than all the bling in Beverly Hills. And why is that? Simply put: It’s a group thing.

Websites like meetup.com, flashmob.co.uk and Toronto Mob Project bring people together in a virtual space to plan live one-off events whose sole aim is to entertain. Whether it’s Oprah Winfrey being moved to near hysterics by the line dancing crowd at a Black Eyed Peas concert or shoppers bursting into Handel’s Messiah in the food court of a mall in London, Ont., flash mobs have worked their way deep into the popular consciousness.

In one of his bestsellers The Social Animal, David Brooks writes that human beings are driven by an “urge to merge.” The human psyche, he explains, is one that is both necessarily isolated (in what he terms “the loneliness loop”) and yet constantly searching for deeper social connection — whether through work, friendship, family or romance.

Brooks’ book explains both the flash mob’s enduring appeal and its magic. In a flash mob, the collision of insiders (those in the know) and outsiders (the unwitting audience) creates an unexpected social connection in the most incongruous of settings: the crowded subway car, a bustling public square or a station at rush hour. Apart from the sheer silliness of the exercise, flash mobs are a way of acknowledging our shared human experience in real time and space — a point of cosmic connection in an increasingly fragmented world. And hallelujah to that.