“Smart mobs,” the title of Howard Rheingold’s 2002 tome, is a term that was first used to describe group activity coordinated by real-time communication technologies. In 2002, it was cell phones. Fast forward a decade and now smart mobs have evolved into powerful societal infrastructures that use cell phones, digital images, Twitter and Facebook to overthrow North African governments and occupy city parks. “Flash mobs,” first seen in 2003 in New York City, were localized variants where groups coordinated physical events, like synchronized dancing or pillow fights, for artistic or entertainment value.
Until now, smart mob activity was organized by outlying groups and individuals, like revolutionaries and artists who were leveraging an uncommon call to action. The idea of leading a mob had not reached mainstream consciousness until Occupy Wall Street demonstrated that indeed, anybody can mobilize their community simply by taking initiative. More importantly, mobilization can be done in real time, without the requisite planning that makes physical events hard to produce.
“Cash mobs” are the first evidence of community-coordinated mob activity organized by traditional civic and business groups. In a cash mob, a local store or restaurant is designated as the recipient of a one day promotion where customers spend at least $20, using Twitter and other local media to broadcast the event. The meme has become fodder for local media coverage, and they seem to popping up everywhere.
A Cleveland based cash mob organizer set up a Cash Mob WordPress site with a simple set of production rules. It’s easy to see that community “mob” activity will evolve into Cause Mobs to support good local causes like food banks, Play Date Mobs for coordinating school events, and Catastrophe Mobs to alert the community about wildfires or flooding. It will happen because normal citizens are realizing that they don’t need to be an artist to do something wonderful for their community.
Patrick Kitano is founding Principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is the author of Media Transparent, and contributor to Social Media Today, Daily Deal Media, and The Customer Collective. He is reachable via Twitter @pkitano and email firstname.lastname@example.org.