A meaningless trend loses its meaning

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Flash mobs, a movement meant to be pointless, acquires a sense of purpose

Flash mobs gathered thousands of students to celebrate the Hanoi's 1,000th birthday anniversary

It was meant to be a prank that poked fun at conformity and follow-the-herd mentality, an exercise that, as its creator noted, "started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could."

Instead flash mob has become a growing social movement with devoted adherents in many countries.

In Vietnam, however, this movement could be turned on its head.

The Wikipedia entry describes a flash mob 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."

Examples include a crowd gathering and making bird noises, rushing into a shop and asking to buy non-existent things and making people jump out of their skin by all shouting at the same time.

In Vietnam, the flash mob phenomenon got to a somewhat sedate start with students of the Hanoi Amsterdam school putting in an appearance at their school festival last June, but the one that got attention (via YouTube) was a corporate initiation, with a group of youth gathering outside the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City and yelling "Oishi" (a potato chip brand meaning tasty in Japanese) before dispersing immediately.

Other notable flash mob gatherings included a thousand students dancing in the rain at a blood donation camp in Hanoi, a similar number welcoming the 1,000th anniversary celebration of the capital city, and a group of Backstreet Boys fans who surprised movie-goers at Megastar Cineplex with a collective dance in uniforms.

Against the grain

So far, most flash mob actions in Vietnam have not been inane or very spontaneous. In fact, Vu Ngoc Mai, head of the Flash Mobs Hanoi (FMH) club, said it is not an easy job, referring to efforts made to get a 1,000 people to mark the capital city's 1,000th anniversary.

In fact, if you want to catch the FMH flash mob practicing, just stop at the Indira Gandhi Park between 2 to 6 p.m. every Sunday. As the club states on their Facebook page, practicing dancing is a chance for youth to express themselves, make friends and get some exercise.

"We have organized the club with some rules and direction. The gatherings will always take place in connection with volunteer social activities. We will not do some odd thing to get attention like kowtowing before a cuddly toy as one club has done recently," said Mai.

But isn't that the point of a flash mob, to do meaningless things spontaneously?

Tran Duc Huy, a "supervisor" at FMH, says local culture has no place for shocking behavior.

"That is why flash mobs in Vietnam are so different from other countries. To kowtow to a cuddly toy is completely strange to the local religion, habits and customs. We need to turn flash mobs into a wholesome trend for local youth" said Huy.

Market intrusion

Once the Oishi brand achieved success in bringing 200 dancers in front of the Ben Thanh Market in HCMC, advertising and public relations firms were rubbing their hands in glee.

Leading entertaining website zing.vn, which served as the public relation forum in organizing a fan club for the Backstreet Boys Vietnam tour on March 24 and 26, also use flash mobs to catch the media.

Vu Huong Giang, a student at the Vietnam National University and member of an online volunteer club (vicongdong.vn) also used a flash mob event to celebrate the club's anniversary.

"Many people from 18 to 22 agreed to take part in my club's flash mob celebration," Giang said. "I think the trend is also a good one for marketers as it can convey the message that a product or service can be enjoyed by large numbers of people."

What is happening in Vietnam is not just a far, far cry from the original intention of its creator; it is going so much in the diametrically opposite direction that the question has to be asked: Are we really talking about the flash mob here?

Probably not, but there may be a saving grace around the corner.

Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based prank collective founded in 2001 to cause "scenes of chaos and joy in public places," inspired a group of more than

20 high school and university students in Hanoi to set up a chapter here last year, although it is not clear if there is any formal link between the two.

They are the ones who performed the kowtowing in front of a cuddly toy stunt that the FMH club was so dismissive of. This "event" also attracted considerable public criticism. The group then come with "Bang" (members made a circle and suddenly "fell dead after being shot"). The group leader, Trang Ly, told a newspaper later that they did not intend to shock but to do fun and funny things.

Ly, 21, also told VTC news that she regretted the unforeseen results of their earlier gig.

"We just want to create funny and weird things that push people to stop doing whatever they are doing and relax, without preparation. We did not expect the criticism."

Ly also said her mother advised her not to give up but to do something else that is more meaningful and well-planned.

According to a Facebook entry, Trang Ly is preparing for "Mask-men" in which members bring their favorite masks to cover their face. One member has mooted the idea of holding a public clothes tearing event. 

But amidst the "insane, crazy and mindless" comments the group has attracted, there have been some netizens who have praised them for "creative" and "impressive" ideas as a worthy affiliate of the mother group in New York.

There may be some hope yet for the flash mob phenomenon to retain its originally intended inanity.

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