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August 5, 2003

smart mobs

The latest technological phenomenon to get the attention of the New York Times is "mobbing." An announcement spreads around blogs, listservs, and bulletin boards: everyone is supposed to show up at a particular time and place to do some particular, but random, thing, like asking a Macy's sales clerk for a "love rug" or shouting "Yes, Yes!" Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet, the idea spreads and people actually show up.

Are smart mobs "The Next Social Revolution?" as Howard Rheingold is arguing? They certainly fit the current ideal for social organizations: completely decentralized, with
minimal costs of entry and exit, no hierarchy, and no rules. I have absorbed so much conventional social theory that I'm very skeptical about this ideal. I assume that the creation of public goods is difficult and requires a solution to the classic free-rider problem (namely: people won't contribute much of value if the good is enjoyed by everyone else). Destroying stuff is much easier. Therefore, I would guess that the new phenomenon of "smart mobs" will be used much more effectively to destroy than to create. People may show up to shout "yes, yes!" (which is funny and costs nothing), but they won't use "smart mob" methods for real constructive action. I also assume that one of the trickiest parts of social organization is finding ways to make actors appropriately accountable. I don't see how a smart mob can be forced to answer for its behavior. However, all this could be wrong. (I'm very "twentieth century.")

August 5, 2003 12:30 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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