Smart Mob

art mob

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A smart mob is a group that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links, enabling people to connect to information and others, allowing a form of social coordination. Parallels are made to, for instance, slime molds.

The concept was introduced by author and cultural critic Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book ‘Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.’ According to Rheingold, smart mobs are an indication of the evolving communication technologies that will empower the people. Smart mobs sometimes are manipulated by the dispatchers who control the ‘mobbing system’ (i.e., those who own the contact list and the means to forward instant messages to a group) and are induced to cause distress and aggravation to individuals who have been targeted or singled out for whatever reason. There is a tendency to keep the dynamics of smart mobbing ‘covert,’ and not to discuss such incidents on the internet.

According to CNN, the first smart mobs were teenage ‘thumb tribes’ in Tokyo and Helsinki who used text messaging on cell phones to organize impromptu raves or to stalk celebrities. For instance, in Tokyo, crowds of teenage fans would assemble seemingly spontaneously at subway stops where a rock musician was rumored to be headed. However, an even earlier example is the ‘Dîner en blanc’ phenomenon, which has taken place annually in Paris since 1988, for one night around the end of June. The invited guests wear only white clothes and gather at a chosen spot, knowledge of which they have only a short time beforehand. They bring along food, drink, chairs and a table and the whole group then gathers to have a meal, after which they disperse. The event has been held each year in different places in the center of Paris. The number of people attending has grown, in 2011, to over 10,000. ‘Dîner en blanc’ would be considered a smart mob rather than a flash mob, because the event lasts for several hours.

In the days after the U.S. presidential election of 2000, online activist Zack Exley anonymously created a website that allowed people to suggest locations for gatherings to protest for a full recount of the votes in Florida. On the first Saturday after the election, more than 100 significant protests took place—many with thousands of participants—without any traditional organizing effort. Exley wrote in December 2000 that the self-organized protests ‘demonstrated that a fundamental change is taking place in our national political life. It’s not the Internet per se, but the emerging potential for any individual to communicate — for free and anonymously if necessary — with any other individual.’

Flash mobs are a specific form of smart mob, originally describing a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, do something unusual and pointless for a brief period of time, then quickly disperse. The term flash mob is claimed to have been inspired by ‘smart mob.’ Since its inception, however, ‘flash mob’ has been used by news media and promoters to refer to nearly any form of smart mob. Essentially, the smart mob is a practical implementation of collective intelligence. According to Rheingold, examples of smart mobs are the street protests organized by the anti-globalization movement. The Free State Project has been described in ‘Foreign Policy’ as an example of potential ‘smart mob rule.’ Other examples of smart mobs include groups of people who arrange the meet up over the internet and show up at a retailer at a specific time and use their number to negotiate a discount with the retailer.

Smart mobs can also be organized to congregate simultaneously at multiple locations. Usually used to attract media attention and spread awareness of a cause, distributed mobs were used effectively in the 2005 civil unrest in France. Distributed mobs were also used in Project Chanology, an ongoing protest against Scientology. On a larger scale, a ‘World Wide Flash Mob’ is being organized around Geocaching and aims to be the largest distributed mob to date.

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