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Gary Younge
'It's like Fight Club'

My orders were as follows:

1) By seven o'clock, based on the month of your birth, please situate yourself in [one of four designated] bars. Buy a drink and act casual;

2) Soon thereafter, a MOB representative will appear and pass around more instructions;

3) At 7.28 you should disperse. No one should remain at the Mob site after 7.30pm;

4) Return to what you would have been doing.

By 6.45pm, around 100 people born in January, February and March are in the Puck Fair bar. We all buy drinks but few act casually. Instead, we hang around the door, waiting for something to happen while the bar staff wonder why they are suddenly rushed off their feet.

Everyone I speak to has heard about it either through web magazines or by email, and each has their own reason for being there. "My friend emailed me and it sounded like fun," says Jane, 26. "I don't know how she found out about it but she finds out about everything."

"For me the fun is that there isn't any point," says Michael Colton, who knows the organiser. "It's apolitical and acommercial."

"It feels like Fight Club," says Matt Godson, who heard about it through a friend.

Shortly after seven a young woman turns up with further instructions on small slips of paper. We have to leave Puck Fair by 7.16 and go up the road to the fancy shoe shop, Otto Tootsi Plohound, by 7.18, and disperse by 7.23.

As we make our way out of Puck Fair a swarm of several hundred others, born later in the year, flood out of various bars and head for the Otto Tootsi. Suddenly, a small patch of SoHo is swamped.

Our arrival at the shoe shop creates instant confusion. A few minutes earlier there were less than 10 people there; now there are a few hundred. The assistants look utterly confused.

"What do you think is going on?" I ask one.

"I don't know," he shrugs. "Maybe we have just become very popular all of a sudden."

One of the managers is less accepting of the intrusion. He rushes to the door to try and close it but when the mob keeps coming, he gives up.

Meanwhile, the shop fills up with mobsters acting out the role play on their slips.

"YOU ARE: On a bus tour from Maryland," it says. "You are excited but also bewildered. It is as if the shoes were made in outer space. If you have a cellphone, 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.'"

As the clock strikes 7.23, the shop quickly clears. Small groups linger around outside, deciding what to do next, while most go their merry way. By 7.45, the street is back to normal.

Lying somewhere between subversion and street theatre, this virtual, ephemeral community has a lifespan of around 45 minutes. When Seinfeld is self-avowedly a "show where nothing happens", the inexplicable mobs certainly make sense to a swathe of almost exclusively white, media-savvy people aged between 20 and 40.

"I can't quite pinpoint the moment the idea came to me," the event's organiser, Bill (he will not be identified beyond his first name), tells the Chicago Tribune. "The idea is that purely through word of mouth a huge group of people can gather for no reason whatsoever."

This was the fourth such event, each bigger than the last, and therein lies the political element to the mob's apparently apolitical intentions. For to bring a large group of people together in New York now is almost by definition a political act. With the nation on terrorist alert, unsettling the wrong people is no joke.

Moreover, according to internet specialist and political theorist, Howard Rheingold, the methods the mobs use - email and text messaging - have had great effect elsewhere, with activists organising anti-globalisation protests and demonstrations that toppled Joseph Estrada in the Philippines.

No such great claims are being made for New York's inexplicable mobs yet, although by sheer force of numbers they are clearly poised to go beyond the point where they are simply an inside joke to something more serious in terms of crowd control. Who takes it seriously among the mobsters and the authorities, and what effect that will have, awaits to be seen.

As the final command on my email informs me: "Await instructions for MOB number 5."

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