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Categories of Smart Mobs

Smart mobs are a modern day phenomenon that has been made possible due to the interconnectivity provided by the Internet. However, the paramount attribute that divorces a smart mob from a mere mob is organization – it’s what makes a smart mob “smart”. Josh Clark, a writer for How Stuff Works, states:

“The key to smart mobs is their organization. While members may not have ever met before they converge on an area, they are organized via Web sites like Flock Smart, where they can find details on locations and instructions.”

Supporting Clark’s claim, Howard Rheingold, the author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus Publishing, 2002), writes that smart mobs,

“consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible, because they carry devices that possess both communications and computing capabilities.”

Clark and Rheingold’s observations are quite true, for a vast majority of today’s smart mobs are arranged through the Internet, where individuals employ mediums such as forums and social groups, such as twitter, to assemble participants. Once united, individuals within smart mobs collectively perform to achieve a goal; sometimes it is political, and sometimes it is whimsical. But first, when did the contemporary smart mob emerge?

The obsessive, one-sided affair between fanatics and their most revered celebrities have existed for centuries before. It wasn’t until the invention of the cell phone that the more “zealous” fans could collaborate. These collaborators, while they eventually became the first smart mob, were known at the time as “thumb tribes”.

In his Times Magazine article, Day of the Smart Mobs, Chris Taylor writes, “The original smart mobs were teenage “thumb tribes” in Tokyo and Helsinki who punched out short, cheap text messages on primitive cell phones to organize impromptu raves or to stalk their favorite celebrities.

These “thumb tribes” continue to exist today. In 2002, Prince William had been spotted at the University of St. Andrews. Within minutes, a swarm of 100 infatuated young women gave chase to the unsuspecting prince. This mob had been organized through texts, and begun by a single girl relaying a message to all her friends.

Rheingold claims that,

easy and quick connectivity gives rise to the “smart mob,” a mass of people unified — however fleetingly — by a particular message.

Truly, there are a multitude of different types of smart mobs, all with a particular agenda. The mobs can range from being political and reformative to being nonsensical and entertaining.

Examples of smart mobs with a social and political agenda were the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The famed student demonstrations began when Fang Lizhi, a professor returning to China from a tenure at Princeton University, toured China’s universities to speak about separation of powers, liberty, and human rights. Students would record his speeches and circulate them. Then, in December 1986, students staged protests against the government, which had glazed its corrupted state with pretty lies about reform.

While the Tiananmen Square protests are not exactly a modern example of smart mobs, for advanced technology was not used, they were, in spirit, smart mobs because strangers united for a collective purpose.

A more modern example of a social smart mob is called a “Human Flesh Search”. Also arising from China, Human Flesh Searches are what Marius Chitosca, a writer for the Smart Mobs blog, calls,

“collaborative efforts to share and probe personal information online with the goals of romance, kinship, justice, or vindication. They are netizen initiatives to solve cases of injustice and cruelty left unbalanced by a society that is not democratic and has no rule of law, where the government officials show innefficiency, detachment, or even smugness in the face of public tragedies or social injustices.”

Recently, while on vacation, a 15 year-old boy from China vandalized a 3,000 year-old Egyptian relic. Within twenty-four hours the identity of the boy had been found due to hundreds of users using the human flesh search engine. A human flesh search involves a plethora of anonymous individuals pooling their resources together for a common goal. Smart mobs such as these have the ability to unearth rapists, vandalizes, and “that stunning dame with midnight locks, wearing hamburger-print shorts.”

Not all smart mobs have a clear objective; many modern smart mobs are organized purely for the purpose of entertaining the participants and onlookers. These comical smart mobs are known as flash mobs, of which there are many categories as well.

Many flash mobs are organized through the Internet, but then executed in the physical world, thus requiring a participant’s actual presence. A famous example of a flash mob is ImprovEverywhere’s Frozen Grand Central. A large group of pranksters were organized on the Internet, gathered in the physical world, then, after being instructed, carried out a “prank” in an organized fashion. The goal that unified them was to shock and entertain others. Flash mobs like these also come in other forms. In some cases a large group will either collectively dance to a song, or sing to a theme.

There are, however, flash mobs in which participants are not required to physically gather. Like Human Flesh Searches, some flash mobs take place entirely on the Internet. As Josh Clark says, “members of smart mobs in the loosest version of the definition needn’t go anywhere to participate, however. You can participate in a smart mob within the confines of your own home.” Recent phenomenon that demonstrates these “placeless” mobs are video-based sensations the Harlem Shake, and the Knife Song. Individuals upload videos on to Youtube that follow a set of “rules” that encompass aspects from the original piece. These video protocols are collectively understood by “mob” to be an important trait of the “objective”.

There are a variety of smart mobs. While some require an eventual physical presence, others do not – they take place all on the internet! The chief principle of smart mobs is that a collection of individuals are organized together to perform and carry out a common goal. What other smart mobs can you think of? Should Wikipedia or eBay be considered a smart mob?

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