Remembering when 'flash mobs'

What in the name of God has happened to that great American institution....the "flash mob"? I'm so old that I can remember when "flash mobs" were supposed to be nerdy fun, way back in a prehistoric era when Dick Cheney was popular and the Phillies, not so much -- the bygone days of the fall of 2003. In fact, in my guise as an undercover investigative journalist for the Daily News, I attended what was billed as the first-ever Philly flash mob of that golden age.

Here (via Nexis, since's archives policy is also still stuck in 2003) is the top of my exclusive report from Sept. 6, 2003:

IT IS 5:35 P.M., and we are all looking for Erin Beige.

Or maybe it's Aaron Beige.

Either way, we have all come to the new Borders at Broad and Chestnut - the young woman with the fire-truck hair, the backpackers in baseball caps or "Cat in the Hat" headgear, a mother holding her 3-year-old aloft, and a man in a lime-green leisure suit.

Suddenly, there is spontaneous whooping and applause. Flashbulbs pop. And then total strangers hug each other - something that hasn't happened in this town since, oh, 1983.

This was Philadelphia's first-ever flash mob. Like most trends, this national fad of summer 2003 had looped its way slowly through the hip streets of New York and Seattle before finally arriving here - with the shadows of autumn approaching.

You may well be asking, 'What exactly is a flash mob?" A flash mob is like the marriage of an e-mail worm to a reality-TV show, a cousin to performance art. It is created by a group of mostly strangers, known only through e-mail, who make secretive plans to meet at a predetermined site, do something inexplicably bizarre for a couple of minutes, and then scatter quickly back into urban anonymity.

At New York City's Toys 'R' Us store in Times Square, hundreds of people bowed down and cowered before a giant toy dinosaur. In London, more than 200 people met in pubs and marched to a furniture store, where they all called friends on their cell phones and praised the sofas.

Yes, you may not realize it, you terrified suburbanite watching "Action News" and eating Pringles on your couch, but "flash mobs" used to be for hipsters, for geeks -- and they were supposed to be fun. Now, in just seven short years, aided by something like Facebook that did not yet exist in that ancient era of "Yahoo! groups," the flash mob has devolved into this kind of monstrosity.

Have we really sunk this low this fast, America?

(Top photo, shows a rival 2003 "flash mob"at the Penn Bookstore, is by Sandy Smith.)