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Mobs: The Good, the Bad, and the Just-Plain Silly

The term "mob" is almost always used in a negative sense: Mobs lynch, mobs riot, mobs loot and pillage and burn. This usage jibes with the Random House's main definition of mob as "a disorderly or riotous crowd of people ... bent on or engaged in lawless violence."

Random House offers, however, a secondary definition of mob as "the common people; the masses; populace or multitude," a meaning that is actually much closer to the original latin root, mobile vulgus, "the movable (i.e., changeable, inconstant) common people."

Mob as "riotous crowd" or mob as "common people" ... which is it? Historically, the first, pejorative meaning of mob has clearly dominated. But the recent emergence of smart mobs and their kooky cousins, flash mobs, has blurred the picture somewhat. Mobs -- i.e., groups of people governed by herd, rather than individual, logic bent on performing specific public actions -- are now being regarded as potential forces for positive change.

The Good

Smart mobs seem to be on the tip of every cultural pundit's tongue since the appearance of Howard Rheingold's book, "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution." Rheingold coined the term "smart mob" to describe a group of people who use current communications technology -- primarily cell phones and mobile internet-enabled devices -- to organize mob actions.

These actions range from relatively peaceful street demonstrations, such as the 1999 "Battle of Seattle" anti-WTO protests, to hard-core paramilitary maneuvers designed to effect decisive political change, such as the Filipino smart-mob toppling of President Estrada.

In each case, the driving force behind smart mobs is the technology that enables mob members to communicate with one another quickly and reliably. Organized mob action was certainly possible in the days before cell-phone and internet ubiquity, but the ability to change plans on a dime and keep everyone in the loop was not.

The Bad

You don't have to look far to find the destructive side of mob mentality. In fact, your head would have to buried in the sand to miss it. Ku Klux Klan lynchings. Soccer-stadium tramplings. Woodstock II. The L.A. riots. Clearly, mobs have great potential for doing harm.

Smart mobs can also be destructive. The same technology that is used to create a smart mob working for positive sociopolitical change like the Seattle protesters can also be used to create smart mobs seeking to commit acts of violence, such as the recent smart-mob-driven Miss World riots in Nigeria. Well-organized terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda rely heavily on cutting-edge communications devices to keep their members organized and poised for action.

And The Just Plain Silly

Flash mobs are smart mobs that "just wanna have fun." They have no lofty social or political ambitions. Their goal is to meet in a public place and perform a random and obscure and generally absurd act ... just for the sheer experiential heck of it.

One recent flash mob gathered at a Manhattan Macy's around a large oriental rug, claiming that they all lived together and wanted to buy the $10,000 "Love Rug." Another mob strolled back and forth through a busy downtown San Francisco intersection, waving their arms and spinning in circles. Yet another in my home town of Rochester swarmed before a cafe, opened their umbrellas for 90 seconds, and then quietly dispersed.

At their best, flash mobs can perform dada-esque acts of public lunacy that can delight, entertain, and, yes, inspire us to question the nature of our stodgy day-to-day reality. At their worst, flash mobs are empty and rather sad gestures that all too clearly reveal how isolated and lost and starved for meaning -- and public recognition -- we 21st centurians feel.

Lynch mobs, smart mobs, flash mobs ... all apparently so different, but all linked by one overarching force: mob mentality. An alchemical change occurs when a group of people join forces to perform some action in the world. Individual moral codes and compunctions give way to those of the group, whose personality is usually determined by a charismatic leader flanked by a select cadre of seconds-in-command.

This type of situation, in which a very few people incite and guide the actions of many people, is always potentially dangerous. The people at the top have a great deal of power and, as we all know, power has the ability to corrupt those who wield it.

It's easy to see this corruption in a lynch mob. But what about smart mobs and flash mobs? Who's to say that the organizers of a smart mob action don't have a secret, self-serving, perhaps even destructive agenda in mind? Flash mobs are so lite and airy that it's hard to imagine them being at all dangerous. But what about the potential danger of blithely abandoning one's individuality to perform an action dictated by an outside agency? Isn't that what cults are all about?

To paraphrase an old, but still-sharp saw: The price of participating in a mob is eternal vigilance. This goes for any type of mob -- no matter how smart or how silly -- or any type of situation in which one allows one's individuality to be subsumed by a group.

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