Social anthropologists would be fascinated to see what has unfolded here in Chapel Hill over the last few weeks: a UNC student posted on facebook.com that he was going to break up with his cheatin’ NC State girlfriend in the Pit on Valentine’s Day, and everyone in his extended network was invited to come. If you know what “extended network” means, you know it amounts to “everyone at Carolina,” and sure enough, more than 2,000 people showed up, along with the Loreleis (a cappella singing group, whose theme song I arranged in 1987, thanks) along with a bunch of guys with cameraphones.
The resulting brilliant, profanity-laced freakshow ended up as several clips on YouTube that have been watched, collectively, three-quarters of a million times. People who attended were alternately horrified and transfixed, and pretty soon national newspapers were carrying the story. It has since been calculated as the largest “flash mob” in American history.
By the time it went international, and “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition” started calling the two students, they had to come clean: it had been a scripted performance, concocted by Ryan Burke (the one performing the breakup) and his roommate Andy Jones. Andy knows Peter Kaufman, who directed him to Tessa and me for advice on what to do with his story, and we quickly said “write something great, and write something quick.”
We’ve called some editor friends, and I hope Andy’s excellent piece on the staged breakup – and subsequent psychological fallout – gets picked up by Salon or Slate in the next day or so. If they don’t, they’re missing a good one. Everyone… Forbes, Time, the Chicago Tribune, the Minnesota Chandler News-Dispatch, and even the Independent Online of South Africa have written stories, but the best one will come from the roommates themselves. NY Times Opinion Page, anyone?
Plenty of people have weighed in on the appropriateness of such an event, the apparent misogyny, the ethics of tricking the public, and the sheer nads to have pulled it off, so I’ll leave it to the commenters below for that. However, here’s a few things that struck me:
1) Man, the Pit sure has done its job for forty years. Where else could this have happened? How many times have you fallen in love there? How many Pit Preachers have you argued with? Where else would that suicide SUV driver have gone? How can an inverted ziggurat of boring red bricks be the nerve center of so many thousands of lives since 1967?
2) You’ve got to give Mindy Moorman credit for going along with it. Going to a rival school to get dumped by someone you’re not even dating and joking afterwards that she can’t run for Congress now? She gets an honorary induction into the Carolina family.
3) Forget the colossal news cycle – how amazing is a world where you can get two thousand college kids to show up to anything other than a basketball game? The power of a well-planned flash mob is truly stunning, and completely out of the purview of the Powers That Be. In my day, the Wild West was the Web, and our twentysomething job was to convince people to use it for everything. The next frontier is going to be the harnessing of this amazing social-network power, and they better find the best 22-year-olds they know – like Andy – to do it. Because if big corporations try it themselves, it’ll be obvious as a fart in a car. They’ll look like your Grandma trying to do The Hustle.
Congrats to Ryan, Andy and Mindy on a striking hand well played.