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What are smart mobs?

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Smart Mobs for Fun (and the Common Good)
Hundreds of people met up as a smart mob in the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in August 2003. The members met up in the lobby, pretended to sleep, then left.
Hundreds of people met up as a smart mob in the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in August 2003. The members met up in the lobby, pretended to sleep, then left.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Early in the 21st century, a smart mob trend cropped up in major cities around Europe, Asia and the United States. Inexplicably, apparently organized groups of people began showing up in seemingly random places and behaving in odd ways.

In Rome, a smart mob converged on a book store; the members insisted that shop employees help them find nonexistent books. In New York, a group formed a smart mob and met up at a toy store, trembling in fear on the floor before a giant robotic dinosaur on display. And in London, a group of smart mobbers showed up at a furniture store and tested out the couches. While relaxing, the members were each instructed to call a friend to describe their experience without using the letter "o" [source: BBC].

Smart mobs like these are sometimes considered a variety of performance art, or at least a harmless prank. Prince William, Prince of Wales has his own experience with this variety of smart mob. During 2002, every move the prince made was text messaged to a mob of more than 100 girls, who swarmed William anytime he stepped outside [source: The New York Times].

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. 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.

An oft-cited example is a group of tech-savvy users familiar with satellite image mapping who created a Web site following Hurricane Katrina. Fleeing New Orleans residents were able to log onto the site to find out, in real time, what was happening to their neighborhood or if it had survived the storm [source: Directions Magazine].

Another example is the @home network movement, which leverages a smart mob -- or rather, the power of their computers -- in a phenomenon known as shared computing. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) offers SETI@Home, a program which allows users to download SETI work units for analysis on home computers when they're not being used for other work. This allows SETI to analyze massive amounts of information gathered by radio telescopes around the world. Stanford University's Folding@Home project is similar. Rather than searching for alien life, however, this program seeks to uncover cures for diseases by developing a better understanding of how proteins work.

By downloading an @home application and allowing the program's creators to utilize the power of your computer, under Rheingold's definition, you too can consider yourself a member of a smart mob. You are connected to a network of people you never met, using technology in a way that achieves a common goal.

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