Patt Morrison for August 10, 2011

What explains the flash mobs of 2011 and is LA prepared for the next?

Mercer 20135

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Smoke continues to drift across the London skyline.

Patt spoke with Stanford professor and technology theorist Howard Rheingold, and Michel Moore, the Los Angeles assistant police chief of the Office of Special Operations about the growing trend of the flash mob. She asked them what the trend means for Angelenos and the world.

Professor Howard Rheingold calls the flash mob a hybrid of the personal computer, Internet, and mobile phone, and says, “it's a vast dissemination of the power that used to be held by only a few." He's talking about a time before smart phones, Twitter, Facebook, and email, when instantaneous communication was reserved for the privileged or wealthy.

Despite recent violent mobs, like last month's incident in Hollywood, Rheingold and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Michel Moore say social media's power can be used to better society, but as with anything, great power comes with great responsibility.

Flash mobs got their start in 2003 as a seemingly silly and harmless combination of pillow fights and coordinated dance moves. People spontaneously started hula-hooping on airplanes 38,000 feet in the air and danced their way through New York's Central Station.

Now flash mobs are making hard news as violent uprisings and rebellions, organized almost completely on social networking sites and cell phones, sweep communities in London, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago. “Now we're seeing spectacular destruction,” says Rheingold.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter this week imposed street patrols and is even enforcing a 9 p.m. weekend curfew for juveniles on Friday and Saturdays. He hopes this will keep this type of behavior at bay.

Despite recent headlines, Rheingold stresses that flash mobs don't have to be all bad, and pointed to social media use employed in recent rebellions and presidential races in Lybia, Spain, and Korea. “People are using the same tools peacefully and democratically,” he says. The professor then likened social media to gasoline and said if you can harness it by putting it in your car's engine that's a good thing, throwing it on a building is not. What he wants is social responsibility.

Moore agrees, and said the LAPD encourages the use of social media to keep communities safe. The department also monitors social media sites and has informants that forward on information about flash mobs and civil unrest brewing in online communities. What's worrisome, says Moore, is the ability for flash mobs to change direction or location at a moments notice making it harder for police to contain the situation.

Moore says the word mob has been applied to this kind of event because of the association with violence. He says the criminal aspect of these mobs is perverting their original purpose.

Violence aside, Rheingold says flash mobs and social media organizing are here to stay, “I think this is going to be part of the how the world works," he says. "We've got 5 billion mobile phones, close to 7 billion people, and a lot of those are going to be smart phones.”

Guests:

Howard Rheingold, technology theorist and professor in Stanford University's Department of Communication; he’s the author of the book “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution,” which explores the potential for technology to augment collective intelligence

Michel Moore, assistant police chief, Office of Special Operations, Los Angeles Police Department


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