What is a “Smart Mob”?
A Smart Mob is defined as 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. Smart Mobs can be formed for a variety of reasons, allowing these groups to have both social and political implications. A prime example of a smart mob formed for nothing other than social interaction would be flash mobs, an organized routine of a group of performers working together on a large scale to surprise and amuse the general public for a temporary period of time with a spontaneous performance. While smart mobs are often formed simply for random, leisurely purposes they can also have a more deliberate, lasting effect on society.
“Media cartels and government agencies are seeking to reimpose the regime of the broadcast era in which the customers of technology will be deprived of the power to create and left only with the power to consume. That power struggle is what the battles over file-sharing, copy-protection, regulation of the radio spectrum are about. Are the populations of tomorrow going to be users, like the PC owners and website creators who turned technology to widespread innovation? Or will they be consumers, constrained from innovation and locked into the technology and business models of the most powerful entrenched interests?”
Recent unrest in the Middle East seems to suggest the former question that Rheingold poses to his readers. In a region infamous for oppression, censorship and tyrannical government regimes, both mobile technology and the internet have given a voice to those people who have long been silenced through fear of repercussions. In this recent BookForum.com article, author Evgeny Morozov examines the role of social media in the recent spark of revolutions in the Middle East . Morozov proposes that while the organizers of these protests are not revolutionaries in the traditional sense, as they are not publicly identified, they are far from random users doing random things online. These organizers exercised leadership and executed according to strategy. As people in the Middle East gain more confidence in the power and efficiency of these mobs, their effects are slowly trickling out to more countries throughout this portion of the globe. In a recent article for the Washington Post, author Paul Wolfowitz suggests that Libyans are beginning to push for a way to combat the regime-controlled mobile cellular network. The fact that people in a country who have long been scared to oppose anything the government has imposed upon them are now willing to fight back shows the progress these smart mobs are making.
Success in Egypt
Perhaps the best example of recent success in terms of these smart mobs inciting revolutionary actions are those of the Egyptian people. Anne Alexander, of the University of Cambridge, reacts to cynicism towards the phenomenon in her recent article for BBC News, claiming…
“Protests across Egypt co-ordinated by a loose coalition of opposition groups – many of which are very largely organized through Facebook – seemed to prove this cynicism wrong. Certainly, the Egyptian government reacted quickly: blocking social media sites and mobile phone networks before pulling the plug on Egypt’s access to the internet.”
If the Egyptian government is worried enough to first block social media, then mobile phones and finally the internet entirely due to the posts of a few opposing youths on a site such as Facebook, clearly these mobs are an effective form of political activism. Not surprisingly, the attempted act of censorship did not work. The very next day after the Internet was blocked saw millions of Egyptians take to the streets in protest .Before Internet access was restricted, organizers had sent out key meeting spots to begin marches and protests, as well as set up a network of correspondents throughout the country utilizing landlines. The range of media used to organize such protests varies nearly as much as the identities of the protesters themselves. From al-Jazeera TV cameras to mobile devices to leaflets, youths to adults, Muslims to Christians, every citizen came together in demonstration for the first time ever, joined by millions of fellow Egyptians. When one mode of communication was shut down, they resorted to another. The resiliency and sense of nationalistic pride exhibited by these demonstrators is yet another testament to the power of these smart mobs.
Peaceful uprisings sparked through the Internet and mobile devices in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have both inspired other countries throughout the region to act while simultaneously laying the blueprint for how to organize successfully. As the population becomes more informed, aware and connected, they fight more vehemently for change. Technology, whether it be social media or mobile phones or television is playing an increasingly large part in liberating these societies through informing, educating and connecting. Smart Mobs serve to empower the people and take total control away from the oppressive State that governs nearly every country in the region. In a recent article for Time, Fareed Zakaria more or less asserts that with today’s technology, networks exist where everyone is connected but nobody is in control; this is bad news for any regime trying to suppress information. She also poses ways in which the State can fight back, but is quick to point out the flaws in such maneuvers…
“Of course, the state can fight back. The Egyptian government managed to shut down Egyptians’ access to the Internet for five days. The Iranian regime closed down cell-phone service at the height of the green movement’s protests in 2009. But think of the costs of such moves. Can banks run when the Internet is down? Can commerce expand when cell phones are demobilized? Syria has only now opened access to Facebook, but its basic approach remains to keep the world tightly at bay — which is a major obstacle to economic growth and to tackling that vital problem of youth unemployment. For regimes that need or want to respond to the aspirations of their people, openness becomes an economic and political necessity.”
While oppressive regimes fight to keep their strangle hold over the people in the Middle East, citizens are finally beginning to loosen their grip. Although the history of the region is sad and horrifying in many ways, it finally feels as though things are beginning to change. It all starts with the push of a button…