Thursday, September 04, 2003

The First Hungarian Flash Mob

Other languages:
македонски, српски

Flash mobs are sudden gatherings of people at a predetermined location at a predetermined time. People in flash mobs usually perform according to a written script, then disperse quickly. Flash mobs can be for many purposes but most groups stick to having fun.
- definition from the site

The term flash mob comes from the words "mob", meaning crowd or mafia, and "flash," relating to sudden and short occurrences, such as the flash of the photo-camera, or public exhibitionism ('flashing' by raising the skirt or showing breast).

When on August 26 a congenial local student approached our group during a session of the ICT Training Programme, taking place at CEU in Budapest, offering to take part in the first Hungarian flash mob, I got the same fuzzy feeling I got after reading the's July 24 flash mob article.

Distraction - a classic story about the crazy and the confusedThis also involved an interesting coincidence: few days before, I finished reading the science fiction novel by Bruce Sterling Distraction (first published in 1998), describing an intelligent mob which extremely efficiently destroys a bank. The book proceeds to use that event as a symptom of creating of new world order, instigated by digitally conscious (and enabled) marginalized layers, who redefine the concepts of intellectual property, the structure of government and the society as a whole.

Even if the global phenomena of flesh mobs remains "just" an another form of l'art pour l'art public performance, I reckon it's worthy of attention (and participation), at least due to the contagious feeling of joy which accompanies the baby steps of a new kind of human communication.

(It must be noted that the Hungarians make good organizers of public spectacles. In the preceding week they provided the people in Budapest with several splendid examples, such as the St. Ishtvan Day fireworks (Hungarian National Day - the unification of the kingdom), the lusty Budapest Love Parade and the Formula 1 Grand Prix.)

The plan for the flash mob called for gathering of the participants at Deak Ter (ter = square), at 7 pm the next day, and listen to church bells under open umbrellas. Except by word of mouth, the spontaneous coordination (pleonasm?!) took place via web sites and SMSs.

Deak Ferenz Ter is an area in the centre of Budapest, which contains a key metro (subway) station, several little squares, crossroads, and churches.

The following (hot summer) day, lead by our cordial host Henrik, we passed through the biggest DFT square (consisting of a park and a fountain) where only several persons played with their respective dogs, and we avoided the (umbrella less) crowd standing on the traffic light next to it. Using the principle of elimination, we found the right spot - a circular open space next to a smaller church (if you compare it with the big cathedral nearby).

Braving the "innate" non-Western relaxed perception of time, our little team got where it should several minutes before the deadline. Many dozens (up to a hundred or more, even) people were already there, some of them carrying umbrellas. Standing in groups of apparent acquaintances, everybody waited, acting aloof, trying not to glance around.

When the church bells started tolling, the people started opening their umbrellas with great gladness, assuming dignified and attentive positions. The sole bigger exception were the considerably numerous representatives of the local media (and us), who tried to take as many pictures as possible. In the meantime, the faces of the participants radiated pleasure, while the passersby and the resident beggars tried to realize what's going on.

But, a moment after, a surprising aberration from the usual flash mob scheme occurred. Several young men suddenly burst from the edge of the square, spraying water with plastic pistols. They moved through the crowd from one end to the other, leaving behind them wet and smiling people. This amusement also got side wing support, and resulted in burst of good sentiment.

Soon after the bells went silent, and the crowd closed the umbrellas and cleared the square. Several small groups remained, delayed by the reporters' inquires, or in order to waste some time. Most of the just inaugurated flash mob veterans, such as Eman & Resu, stated that they found out about the even through a certain blog, or one of the two leading Hungarian forum sites, and that there's no special reason for their involvement.

Talking to these people I got the deja vu feeling, reminding me of the time of the early modem-meetings1 in Skopje. These happenings also had an implicit goal of connecting the cyberspace and the tactile reality2. It turned out that all the interviewed groups, such as the one on the photo bellow (Bori, Màtè, Zsòfi and Miki) consisted of local computer-people who invited their (analog) friends or romantic partners to join them (in an effort to bridge the digital divide?). As a rule, the later claimed that they do not speak English (nor Macedonian), which is not unusual in Hungary3

All who were asked about it said that they have no idea who are the organizers of the event, even those who were interviewed by the local TV stations as alleged organizers.

Fingering the presence of the media, the lad in a suit who uses the nick Hackler2 said that it all got "a little bad," because of the lack of the element of surprise.

In conclusion, even with the nonstandard elements, the general impression about the creation of the first Hungarian flash mob is favorable. Considerable number of diverse people used the digital media to organize, and do something together, in spite of the atomization forced upon all of us by the modern society. Their success had no political or economic background: they did it simply because they could.

The moral of the story? Use self-service for that one.



  1. Modem-meetings took place every Saturday, gathering the members of the first Macedonian BBSs, such as Dzunica, Izvor, InForma, and SunLine. The BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) were a form of decentralized digital communication used up to the late nineties, at the time when Internet access in Macedonia was hampered by infrastructural, institutional and economic barriers. A BBS member would use his/her modem to connect directly to the modem of the server, leaving messages (written mainly off line) and collecting what the other users left in between calls. Some of those systems were home based. Adding additional phone lines to the bigger BBSs (such as InForma EIS), which provided for direct online chat of several persons created sensations. Besides opportunity for friendly socializing and courtship, the modem-meetings provided creative energy for positive developments in various areas, from ICT, via boza appreciation, to development of the Macedonian electronic music, grounded in tracker-parties.
  2. Tactile reality - analogous, and complementary to virtual reality. Term designating the world outside cyberspace, which some people call quite inappropriately "the real life." For example, IRC users use the acronym IRL (In Real Life) for meetings face to face. The need to create this term comes from the fact that the world of digital communications remains an integral part of the real life. The basic meaning of the word "tactile" concerns the sense of touch.
  3. According to László Drajkó, the CEO of the Hungarian ISP Axelero, only 10% of the population speaks a foreign language. That's why his company invests a lot in creation of content in the local language. Axelero is a counterpart of the Macedonian ISP, and is part of the Mátav group, owner of the Macedonian Telecom.

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