'Flash Mobs' Use Tech to Gather for Fun

In this week's Cybershake, we note how technology is helping to create "flash mobs" — spontaneous gatherings where participants perform silly tasks and then move on. Plus, we take a look at a new TV that keeps an eye out for important news.

Mobs Make Mild-Mannered Merriment

They weren't chanting or protesting, and Godzilla was nowhere in sight.

So why did a mob of more than 200 New Yorkers converge on an upscale SoHo shoe store Wednesday evening?

One member's rationale: "Humor. Pure humor."

The "flash mob" was the fourth in Manhattan in the past several weeks, and was organized through e-mail and the Internet. The objective is to have a large mass of people converge on a location for as little as 15 seconds or as long as 15 minutes. Participants then perform a task or act out a scenario, and quickly withdraw into obscurity.

The detailed instructions participants received electronically prior to this event told them to meet at local bars and wait for further directions on exactly where to be, at what time.

"You synchronize your watch [with the U.S. Atomic Clock], and I'm like half a second off, and then you go for it," one woman explained. "You come here at 7:00, depart at 7:18, and you're there by 7:23. It's so silly!"

Most of the crowd seemed to be young, hip, middle-class New Yorkers. But during the short five minutes the mob was in the shoe store, the instruction sheet told them: "You are on a bus tour from Maryland. You are excited but also bewildered. It is as if the shoes were made in outer space.

"If you have a cell phone, dial a friend. Say, 'Guess where I am.' After a pause, say, 'In a SoHo shoe store.' Or, 'In one of those New York City Mobs.' "

This particular trend started in New York, but excited Internet-users around the country are organizing their own mobs.

A Web site (www.cheesebikini.com) that documents flash mobs reported that two hours after the event in Manhattan, San Franciscans converged on a busy Market Street intersection, and spun in circles while walking back and forth across the street. Ten minutes later, the participants had melted back into the crowd.

Flash mobs are also planned for Minneapolis and upstate New York. One has already taken place in Austin, Texas.

Bill, who prefers to be identified by his first name only, came up with the idea for the "inexplicable flash mob." He's not directly involved in any mobs other than the one in Manhattan, but he's excited that people around the country are adapting his idea.

"It's such a simple idea, and I hope that if people think it's fun to do in their own city, then yeah, do it," he says. "I'm really surprised but pleased that it's spread so far and wide."

While large, coordinated crowds have historically been used to send political messages, Bill says he has no such goal.

"The idea is to work out different possibilities about the way New York and a mob can interact and have a good time together," he says.

Still, "There is something inherently political about the idea of everyone coming together in a place at the same time, because we're so accustomed to acting on our own lives individually," says Bill. "Just the idea of disrupting — that has a certain political aspect to it."

— Adam Riff, ABCNEWS

Watchful Television Sets

For most people, the television is still the primary source for important local news alerts, such as storm warnings and missing child or so-called "Amber Alerts." But consumer electronics maker Thomson RCA has devised a new way to keep folks on top of emergency alert broadcasts — even if the TV isn't on a local news station.

This summer, the company will introduce a new line of TVs with a system called Alert Guard. The setup includes a separate radio tuner that locks onto the broadcast frequencies of the National Weather Radio network.

The NWR service, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, traditionally broadcast only weather alerts such as impending hurricanes or tornadoes. But the broadcast system, which covers about 97 percent of the United States, has been expanded to include vital bulletins provided by other federal, state and local authorities.

"We've turned from what started out to be a weather system to now really an all-hazards system that is able to alert people," says Bruce Schaffer of Thomson RCA.

And the Alert Guard TV works automatically. Once buyers have installed the TV in their homes, the TV will seek out and continuously monitor the closest NWR station.

Users can then set the TV to notify them of an alert with an audible alarm or with on-screen text. Additionally, tiny lights — green for no news, yellow for "advisories," orange for "watches," and red for immediate "warnings" — on the front of the set keep the users aware of breaking news, even if the TV is off.

"If you're watching cable, if you're watching satellite, if you're watching a DVD or playing a video game, this device will still alert you," says Schaffer.

The cost is about $50 extra than you would pay for a regular TV.

— Michael Barr, ABCNEWS

Cybershake is produced for ABCNEWS Radio by Andrea J. Smith.