the smart mob

I have just been sitting in the Student HIV/AIDS Resistance Campaign (SHARC) committee meeting, and this got me thinking about some issues surrounding mobile media, and how it really can make a difference to our society. At every SHARC march, or at every event, there are the same people that go to every activism event. There needs to be a new way to reach a broader audience, to inspire people and to get them to act.

Mobile media has a bad name, in terms of being seen to simply circulate junk and useless information, or information that can simply be found on the Internet or in a newspaper. But what about the potential that lies within mobile media to change the way that mass action or protesting is organised? Let’s have a look at the smart mob, a term coined by Howard Rheingold.

The smart mob or the mobile ad hoc social network, describes the:

new social form made possible by the combination of computation, communication, reputation and location awareness (Rheingold 2000).

Smart mobs are behaving intellectually, something which is not generally associated with the ‘mob mentality,’ and are using new technologies and social networking, to further their cause. One of the ways in which smart mobs organise themselves is through mobile devices, and thus we are approaching a new era, one of mobile activism.

Mobile activism refers to the use of mobile devices by different organisations (often non-profit) to organise, mobilise, motivate and inspire people to act accordingly.

One of the first reported use of cell phones in a mass demonstration took place during the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999. Cell phones were used to co-ordinate and mobilise activists, making the process quicker and less controllable by officials.

One example that Rheingold (2001) uses in his book “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution” is the fall of President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines. In 2001 President Joseph Estrada was the first head of state to lose power to a smart mob. More than 1 million residents gathered over the four day protest in a response to a message sent out that simply said: “Go 2EDSA. Wear blck.”

This was not the first incident of mobile activism and the smart mob, and it will not be the last. Mobile activism and smart mobs have influenced a range of protests and mass organisations, ranging from various NGO causes, environmental issues, to politics and rising petrol prices.

Using cell phones to organise mass action bypasses the mass media as a source of information, thus making it less controllable by officials. The process of communication is also made quicker, and faster, as activists can communicate while on the move. Evidence of the protesting can also be told to others, through footage caught on a cell phone, like video, photographs or audio.

The implications for social change are incredible. Organising mass action becomes something easy, something quick, something that guarantees that the message gets out and that the action occurs. Mobile activism can bring about a new type of social change, something that can hopefully change the apathetic nature of the younger generations in South Africa.


3 Responses to “the smart mob”

  1. July 23, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Loudspeaker: “Away with rape away! Away with rape AWAY!! Viva SRC viva! Viva SRC VIVA!” – my memories of Rhodes protests ;o)

  2. 2 ruby
    July 28, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    this post made me think about something I saw on Carte Blanche the other night – about kids/teenagers who are increasingly engaging in self-mutilation. This trend seems to have become more and more popular, and is fuelled by mass media. Cell phones in particular are the most dangerous source because parents do not have much, if any, control over how and when their children use them, or what they are sending and receiving. This information, because it is “less controllable by officials”, can be accessed by anyone, all they need is a phone – or even just a friend to say – “switch on your bluetooth you gotta see this”.

  3. August 7, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Ruby – the new Film and Publications Amendment Act makes allowances for penalties for any person who distributes media which may be harmful, inspires hate speech or violence or war. It is meant to protect children but is completely unenforceable due to the decentralised modes of personal publishing that you point out.

    In the local political space, mobiles have mainly been used to replace the political pamphleteer and to disseminate hoax text messages that turn half baked ideas into widely believed truths. Given the lack of dialogic communication with mass messaging (few people know how or could try to track back the message source to verify claims or respond), the power of mass mobile messaging to influence public perception may be more insiduous than the wired Internet.

    I am less optimistic that South Africa’s middle classes can and would use mobile technologies for real forms of civil activism and change.

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