It is a truism in the study of human technology that any tool that gets the public’s attention will eventually be used for purposes entirely unforeseen by its inventor(s) and probably contrary to the general public interest. This has certainly been the case with information technologies and the Internet. E-mail is great, but spam is not. Online video of the grandkids is wonderful; online pornography accessible to little Johnny, not so much. Despite much breast beating, it is difficult to have the good without the bad—and even differentiating the good from the bad is often a matter of opinion. As Miles’ Law says, “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.”
Recently, we have become so saturated with and dependent upon social media such as Facebook and Twitter that we have not always noticed the potential “dark side”—most specifically, the ability to use these tools not only to connect individuals in cyberspace but also to mobilize groups for action in the real world. One example is the “flash mob”—defined most generally as a group of people voluntarily assembled at a particular place and time for a particular purpose, coordinated through shared access to social media. This is not altogether a new invention—the telephone and, before that, the telegraph or even a good strong voice have been tools for assembling flash mobs in the past. But what has been recently discovered is how easy it is using modern social media, and how effective such mobs can be.
As we said, whether or not you consider this to be a good development or a bad development depends a lot on how you evaluate the purpose of the mob. Public assemblies to install democracy in an authoritarian state sound pretty good; assembling gang members to break windows and burn cars would not strike most of us as all that great. Here is a sampling of different points of view on this general subject:
Tavoulareas, E. (2011, August 22). Social media: The Jekyll & Hyde of media? Changemakers. Retrieved from http://www.changemakers.com/blog/social-media-jekyll-hyde-media
Goodman, J. (2011, August 17). Debate over social media incitement as flash mobs strike. The Lede: Blogging the News. New York Times. Retrieved from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/debate-over-social-media-incitement-as-flash-mobs-strike/
Brennan, E. (2011, August 19). Flash Mobs – The dark side of social media revealed. Retrieved from http://www.i-policy.org/2011/08/flash-mobs-the-dark-side-of-social-media-revealed.html
Lum, R. (2011) Spreading the happiness one flash mob at a time. CreativeGuerillaMarketing. Retrieved from http://www.creativeguerrillamarketing.com/guerrilla-marketing/spreading-happiness-flash-mob-time/
Kelly, L. (2011, March 22). Advertising with flash mobs. JSNCafe. Retrieved from http://www.jsncafe.com/advertising-with-flash-mobs/
Heaney, F. (n.d.) The short life of flash mobs. Stay Free!. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/story/26807/the_short_life_of_flash_mobs
The Economist. (2006, August 29). Shop affronts: Chinese consumers are ganging up on their retailers. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/7121669/print?story_id=7121669
The Brennan article is notable for a comment reaching new levels of cluelessness, to wit:
“This is not what social media was designed to accomplish,” states Ken Wisnefski, who was recently interviewed on FOX News discussing cyber security. “At WebiMax, we build social media campaigns for our clients to increase their brand awareness and develop additional revenue streams. The organizing of ‘flash mobs’ in Philadelphia demonstrates the capabilities of the misuse of one of the most powerful mass-communications tools in the 21st century.”
In other words, “It’s perfectly all right for us to use this tool to sell you stuff, but how dare you think of using it for any other purpose?” Mr. Wisnefski has obviously missed the entire point of Web 2.0—that is, user participation, user generation of content, and interactivity. There is no stuffing that particular genie back in the bottle.
Once you have read the suggested short articles on flash mobs, you will probably want to do some additional Internet research of your own looking into other aspects of this phenomenon and other areas where they have occurred. When you feel you have a good handle on the information, write a 3- to 4-page paper on the topic:
What ought to be done about flash mobs? By whom? Why?
Your paper should be 3–4 pages long. Take a definite stand on the issues, and develop your supporting argument carefully. Using material from the background information and any other sources you can find to support specific points in your argument is highly recommended; try to avoid making assertions for which you can find no support other than your own opinion.