A group of dancers the held a demonstration described as a “flash mob” in Times Square on Sunday, calling attention to gun violence by falling artistically to the ground, where other participants drew chalk outlines around them and then wrote the names of children killed in Newtown inside the figures. It left a spread of chalk outlines on the pavement reminiscent of a Keith Haring work. It caused passersby to stop and take video. “It silenced everybody outside,” choreographer Lorin Latarro told CBS. But was it a flash mob? Based on the rap that term has been getting lately, let’s hope not.
The nuanced definition of a term that describes a seemingly spontaneous (but really not) public get-together wouldn’t really matter, except that the same media outlets that are calling Sunday’s piece of artistic expression a “flash mob” also use the phrase to describe groups of teenagers who rob stores by overpowering workers. CBS New York, which used the phrase to describe both scenarios, referred to it in the robbery story earlier this month as a “once-benign term.” That suggests that the word itself has changed meaning to imply some kind of thuggish behavior.
Headlines over the last few years, such as CNN’s “Police scramble to fight flash-mob mayhem” and the Christian Science Monitor’s “Flash Robs” support the notion that the term increasingly refers to something criminal. So do other unfriendly institutional uses of the phrase, such as Cleveland’s flash mob law and the student suspended for organizing what the New York Post described as a “Harlem Shake flash mob.”
Redefining “flash mob” is just fine. Language evolves, and the term will probably carry some wildly and unexpectedly different baggage ten years from now. But if news outlets want to start explicitly redefining it, then that new definition ought to be consistent. If “flash mob” is no longer benign, then using it in a headline suggests you don’t think whatever you’re writing about is benign either.