Flash mobs: Quick start, hard to stop

by | Aug 14, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Andy Warhol once predicted everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. He didn’t say we would all be connected in an instant.

But we are. One touch of a button. One group e-mail. One Facebook post. And boom! Everyone knows everything. Or everyone is in one place. They call it a flash mob. And it recently has shown its dark side, in London, Philadelphia and other places.

Crowds gather. Crowds turn to mobs. Mobs turn to riots. And they were all invited.

“Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!)” read one post prior to the recent London riots, where looting was rampant. Another read: “If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in east London.”

The proliferation of such messages sent across social media sites – especially BlackBerry’s messenger service – had British authorities talking about limiting wireless access to prevent potential violence.

But how? How do you put genies back in bottles – in this case, a million genies in a million cell phones?

“It’s instantaneous and it’s anonymous,” said Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies. “What we’re looking at is the 21st-Century mob.”

The 21st-Century mob. Just press send.

How to stop the trouble?

Anyone remember our protest rallies from the 1960s? We knew about them weeks in advance. There were posters. Phone calls. Bus trips. It took a lot of effort. And, despite the drugs flying around in those days, there was usually a reason to gather.

Today, not only don’t you need a reason, such methodology would be like getting ice from a truck. Why call one person when you can text 1,000? Why tack up posters when you can digitally invite the world?

London is just the most recent example of crowds sprouting from digital seeds. Los Angeles has dealt with flash mob violence. Suburban Cleveland had an incident over the Independence Day holiday. This past week, San Francisco’s rapid transit service shut down cell phone access to avert a suspected flash mob disruption. Philadelphia has been dealing with the problem for a while. Mostly young people gathering, getting violent.

“They’re lawless. They act with ignorance,” the Philly mayor, Michael Nutter, told the media. “We’re not going to tolerate that.”

Understood. But how do you stop it? Some have talked about blocking the signals of digital devices in certain volatile areas – sort of like an instant jamming mechanism. But that supposes: 1) You can identify that area quickly. 2) You have the technology. 3) You’re not also blocking legitimate use of those devices – like an elderly person calling for an ambulance on a cell phone. (Already in San Francisco, civil libertarians are complaining about the rapid transit incident.)

Besides, once you identify a hot spot, hasn’t much of the damage been done?

You can’t keep people from assembling in America. But what happens when the point of the assembly is to disassemble something?

The divide between good and evil

Ironically, the whole idea of flash mobs was originally to have fun. Spontaneous large-scale dancing. A worldwide pillow fight. But somehow that has been turned on its ear. What appealed to adventurous fun now appeals to disenfranchised anger or boredom.

And yet we can’t deny the potential upside of social media. Look at what’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt.

“Free flow of information can be used for good,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament this past week. “But it can also be used for ill.”

And that’s your problem. The only thing that seems certain is that the world is going so much faster now, snap decisions, snap judgments, snap riots, snap coverage. We are teaching a dangerous, subtle message, that we can see everything in an instant, know everything in an instant, have an opinion on everything in an instant.

With that, inevitably, comes desire for everything in an instant – including mayhem, violent thrills or whatever products you don’t have but could loot.

The 21st-Century mob. Assembled in the time it takes to make a sandwich. It is just me, or is the world truly a scary place?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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