What are smart mobs?

Author Howard Rheingold in Japan
Courtesy Justin Hall/Howard Rheingold

In 1999, the secretive paramilitary organization, Delta Force, was deployed to Seattle, Wash. to quell protest at the World Trade Organization's summit. The police and the National Guard had their hands full with protestors who displayed the uncanny ability to work as a group. The dissenters, in what came to be known as the "Battle for Seattle," were linked together via wireless devices like cell phones and text messaging that allowed the group to work as a whole -- and to respond to warnings that the authorities were advancing. The Seattle protestors in 1999 were among the world's first smart mobs, so named because each person in the group uses technology to receive information on where to go and what to do. This ability to stay on top of current events makes smart mobs extremely effective.

Modern protests like this one inspired author and futurist Howard Rheingold to coin the term smart mob. Rheingold traveled around the world studying this behavior and realized that what he witnessed was the emergence of a new kind of civil disobedience, one in which mobs use the very technology used against them to their advantage. This is called sousveillance -- watching from below [source: Steffen]. This type of observation uses readily available technology like handheld camcorders to turn the lens on those who normally are the ones watching. The bystander filming the beating of motorist Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991 is an example of sousveillance.


In Rheingold's book, "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution," the author concluded that the survival of protest in the 21st century depended on shrewdly employed technology. Fortunately for protestors, the 21st century has affordable consumer electronics in aces. Applications like Twitter, weblogs and the social structure that's given rise to Web 2.0 all aid in the quick disbursal of information from one source to many. Thanks to things like open source coding, net neutrality and hackers, technology has become "democratized" -- the public constantly finds and shares new ways to use technology.

It is this democratization of technology that set the stage for the development of smart mobs. Find out more about these groups on the next page.


Smart Mob Communication

In Belarus in 2004, members of a smart mob met to protest a referendum allowing President Alexander Lukashenko to run for a third term.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

"As it stands now, no city on Earth can't be shut down by 10,000 serious swarming protesters," writes author Alex Steffen. "Well trained in civil disobedience, linked by cell phones, e-mail, and online maps … protesters can flow across an urban landscape with a speed and coherence that leaves security forces scratching their heads" [source: Steffen].

Swarming is the operative word in Steffen's description; it is this characteristic that makes a mob a smart one. By being linked together via technology, members of smart mobs can receive word the police are on their way to a protest site, and leave quickly -- only to regroup in another area. As long as the police aren't privy to the communications the mob receives, the group should be able to remain one step ahead.


A throng of people protesting together in a set area is an easy target for containment. But if all of the protesters receive a simultaneous message to quickly disperse, the collective organism that is a protest can dissolve into its individual parts. The protest becomes just some people who may or may not know one another casually strolling downtown.

Smart mobs are beginning to have an impact on global politics. In 2001, Filipino President Joseph Estrada was ousted from power due in part to smart mobs linked by text messages and forming public protests against him [The New York Times].

While the smart mob that unseated Estrada sought to remove a corrupt official from power, there is also the potential for a dark side to smart mobs. They can pose as much danger to humankind as they do an advantage. Rheingold writes "I deliberately used the word 'mob' because of its dark resonances" [source: Edge]. While smart mobs can organize peaceful protests and create helpful networks for gathering and disseminating information for public consumption, they can also stage terrorist attacks and bloody coups.

Does this justify the transition that Rheingold fears the public will be forced into -- from using emerging technology for novel applications -- to being forced to use devices in the manner for which they've been created by a core group that controls technology? In other words, does the potential for the abuse of emerging technology for evil outweigh the potential benefits of the enlightenment it can also impart?

One of the many quotes for which Benjamin Franklin is famous may provide some insight into this dilemma: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety" [source: Ashcroft].

But by Howard Rheingold's definition, smart mobs needn't have any kind of agenda -- subversive, dark or otherwise. They can simply be groups of people outside of industry or corporations who are linked together via technology to achieve a common goal, or even just to have fun. Read about some variations on the smart mob theme on the next page.


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.
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.

For more information on technology and other related topics, visit the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • Butler, Howard. "Katrina Imagery Warehouse: The inside story." Directions Magazine. November 1, 2005. http://www.directionsmag.com/article.php?article_id=2008&trv=1
  • Fleishman, Glenn. "We're all tuned in now, but we're not dropping out." The Seattle Times. November 1, 2002. http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?slug=smartmobs01&date=20021101&query=book+review
  • Steffen, Alex, ed."World changing: A user's guide to the 21st century." New York: HNA Books. 2006.
  • Thompson, Clive. "The year in ideas; smart mobs." The New York Times. December 15, 2002. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9406E7DD153AF936A25751C1A9649C8B63
  • "Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Meeting in Belgium." Department of Justice. September 16, 2002. http://www.usdoj.gov/archive/ag/speeches/2002/091602agremarksbelgium.htm
  • "Smart mobs." Edge. 2002. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/rheingold/rheingold_print.html
  • "Smart mobs storm London." BBC. August 3, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3134559.stm