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Synchronized, collective, and so far pointless

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They've burst into applause on the mezzanine of New York's Grand Hyatt, whirled like dervishes on San Francisco streets, and jerked robotically in the Mall of America. Now they're milling through the aisles of the Harvard Coop bookstore in Cambridge. "Oh my God, they're doing that thing in our store," says a cashier, "that swarming thing."

The "flash mob" phenomenon is part sanctioned insanity, part Seinfeld on the loose, part nonsensical wanderings through city streets en masse.

As Harvard Coop employees watched and security guards scrambled, a few hundred people crowded into the greeting-card section, holding detailed instructions on what to say and how to act, and raising cameras high above their heads to capture the scene. They were looking for a card for their friend Bill, they told anyone brave enough to ask. He lives in New York.

Ten minutes later, the mob broke into applause, then dispersed. Mobbers, pleased to have joined the fad, went home. Bewildered shoppers moved on. "I think it's nuts," said Reggie De Leon. "What's going on here? I don't watch TV.... I'm here for a pen."

"Bill from New York" is credited with starting flash mobs, which formed just this summer. The gatherings are coordinated through websites and chain e-mails, with the point of being, well, pointless.

Maybe. But the mobs, with their abbreviated, nonsensical performances, are also a mix of fun, rebellion, collective action, and art. Experts say they're a symptom of an increasingly alienated, increasingly wired, society. And although today's mobs strive to stay silly, some say they're a glimpse of future crowds - which could be more purposeful, and more powerful.

"If the pattern [of mobs] catches on, it's plainly going to be adopted by both pranksters and political activists," says Clay Shirky, adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University.

Overcoming anonymity - kind of
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