Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, by Howard Rheingold, deals with the social, economic, and political changes that have evolved along with technology. In his book, Rheingold coins the term “smart mob,” which he defines as a form of “self-structuring social organization through technology-mediated, intelligent emergent behavior.” According to Rheingold, smart mobs are an indication of the evolving technologies that empower people.

Rheingold remarks that smart mobs can take on all kinds of forms, from benign Thumb Tribes in Tokyo and Helsinki or the meet-ups among teens and young adults at raves or other social gatherings, to more coordinated and organized protests or political movements, such as the World Trade Organization mobs organized in Seattle or the protestors in the Philippines who used text-messages to coordinate demonstrations that were in part responsible for overthrowing President Joseph Estrada.

Smart mobs are indeed incredibly empowering. Rheingold is quick to point out, however, that smart mobs and the technologies that enable them can be used both for good and for bad. Anyone, regardless of motive or intent, can leverage this new capability. As we have seen throughout history, people have used their talents for cooperation to organize atrocities as well as to further science and society.

It is important to remember, however, that technologies that enable such cooperation are not inherently bad. Therefore, a key component of smart mobs should be to make people more aware of the power of collective action – and the consequences of collective action – that they may not consciously participate in. As powerful and empowering as smart mobs are, the opportunity for people to take advantage of or manipulate others via such mobs – whether the manipulators are terrorists or the government – can be significant.

Children and teens are prime among those populations who are at risk of both misusing and being misused by smart mob technologies. The immediacy of the information and the permancy of it is not well understood by youth and so should be taught to them early and often.

When I was in school, as early as the eighth grade, the school curriculum included a unit on how to be savvy media consumers – to read and view the media with a critical eye. We were taught to question what was being broadcast to us and how, to look for subliminal messages within advertising and to identify bias or stereotyping within the news or on television shows.

Then, however, the public were simply media consumers. Now, kids are creators and contributors as well as consumers. It makes it all the more important to incorporate lessons on responsible Internet behavior into the classrooms.

There are already resources available to help parents teach their kids about the dangers of online pornography, but more needs to be done about teaching children and teens about how to use the Internet wisely and to understand the impact they have on others because of the immediacy of the Internet and other technologies and their pervasive natures. And this needs to be more than a one-time school assembly or PTA meeting. Because technology so much a part of childrens’ lives – so much so that it is really almost invisible to them – this type of lesson needs to be a larger part of the school curriculum.

Kids need to understand what happens to the information they post out on their FaceBook or MySpace pages, how permanent that can be, and how text messages to their friends easily can be forwarded through out the school and into the community.

Lessons on how to consume Internet and other online information also should be incorporated into school curricula. Aside from learning how to identify possible online predators and scams, children should be taught how to critically read blogs and news sites, and how to tell the difference between editorial comments made in blogs – even on mainstream media Web sites – and real news. They need to understand how to protect their identities online. Most important, they must be taught how to be savvy consumers and how not to be manipulated by smart, but potentially dangerous, mobs in a new hi-tech era.


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