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Samantha Sharf
Elements of Style

Armed with a fluffy white pillow, I took to the streets of New York on March 22, 2008. As strangers turned a corner or ascended from subway stations I instantly knew who shared my destination. My compatriots were holding pillows and wearing enormous grins (sometimes in addition to ridiculous costumes). We were heading to a giant pillow fight.

Brought together through Facebook, thousands of young New Yorkers packed Union Square to pelt one another with pillows. The gathering was a part of the first annual International Pillow Fight Day, commonly considered the most widely attended flash mob since they became popular in 2003. Innocent and silly, early flash mobs highlighted how technology could bring people together, even while tearing them away from a screen for a few happy hours.

In recent years, however, the term “flash mob” has acquired a new meaning. This summer, Philadelphia made international headlines after numerous groups of young, violent rioters organized via social media to take over the streets, prompting Mayor Michael Nutter to tighten the youth curfew. Concerned citizens, politicians and the media — The Daily Pennsylvanian included — have been calling these violent crowds “flash mobs.”

These recent mobs, which — according to The Philadelphia Inquirer — have resulted in crushed skulls and stolen briefcases, share little resemblance to the goofy antics that remain a popular way to unwind during finals.

The term flash mob was coined in summer 2003 and the fad of groups gathering to perform pointless acts quickly swept the nation. An August 2003 New York Times article described the packs as the “geek-chic game of the summer.”

According to a 2003 DP article, the first event dubbed a flash mob in Philadelphia occurred on Sept. 5 of that year. Swarms of people appeared simultaneously at the Penn Bookstore and a since-closed Borders bookstore on Market and Broad Streets. The article describes an event including “purposefully suspicious wandering,” “chanting the name ‘Erin Beige’ or ‘Aaron Beige’” and “a massive orgy of hugs.” It also quotes an email sent to participants laying out basic ground rules. The message said, “A flash mob is meant to appear out of nowhere, surprise/shock people and then disappear as quickly as it formed … The mob is meant to be a fun event. Leave the locations as you found them. Don’t litter, steal, touch books or in any other way change the place to which you came.”

Sadly, in just a few short years, handcuffs have replaced hugs. Words usually have multiple meanings, and good tools are often used to do bad things (both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler used the radio to address their nations during World War II). But right now an innocent activity is at risk and threatens to take social media down with it. There is still time to save the flash mob before takes “entertaining” out of its definition.

Nutter has set out to save his city. In addition to the curfew, police are enforcing a fine on negligent parents, who have been told to live up to their responsibilities. City-sponsored youth events have also been planned.

The steps the city has taken to curb this violence are admirable and important. For these shifts in policy and parenting to take root, however, Philadelphia’s non-violent high-school and college-aged residents need to reclaim the flash mob.

As the younger end of the early flash mob generation, Penn students have a duty to move the party beyond College Green and Van Pelt. Hold a dance party on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Play tag in the courtyards of City Hall. Let’s take our city by storm to show the world that most Philly kids know how to have good, safe and no-curfew-required fun.

Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.

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