Why are ‘Smart Mobs’ also very fickle? Looking for an antidote to fleeting activism

Smart but fleeting mobs?

‘Smart mobs’ is an interesting term for like-minded groups that behave intelligently (or just efficiently) because of their exponentially increasing network links.

The idea was first proposed by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. It deals with the social, economic and political changes implicated by developing information and communications technology. The topics range from text-messaging culture and wireless internet to the impact of the web on the marketplace.

In the eight years since the book first appeared, we’ve seen a proliferation and evolution of smart mobs, fuelled by the growth web 2.0 tools and, more recently, the many and varied social media. In fact, author Rheingold is credited with inventing the term virtual communities.

But the reality is that smart mobs can also be very fickle — their attention can be easily distracted. A smart mob can disperse just as fast as it forms, even while its original provocation remains.

This was demonstrated in dramatic terms in June 2009. Following a hotly disputed presidential election in Iran, there was a surge of online support for pro-democracy activists there who launched a massive protest. A main point of convergence for online reporting and agitation was micro-blogging platform Twitter. Within a few days, mainstream media like TIME and Washington Post were all talking about this phenomenon in gushing terms.

'Rescued' by Michael Jackson?

Then something totally unexpected happened. On June 25, Michael Jackson’s sudden death in Los Angeles shocked the world. As the news spread around the world at the speed of light, it crashed some social networking sites and slowed down even the mighty Google. Online interest on Iran dipped — and never regained its former levels.

As I wrote at the time: “I have no idea if the Ayatollahs are closet fans of Michael Jackson. But they must surely have thanked the King of Pop for creating a much-needed diversion in cyberspace precisely when the theocracy in Tehran needed it most.”

Other recent experiences have demonstrated how online interest can both build up and dissipate very fast. Staying with a single issue or cause seems hard in a world where news is breaking 24/7.

Here’s a current example. Following the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that started on 20 April 2010, local communities and environmental activists deployed various social media tools to track the unfolding disaster. BP, the giant oil company implicated in the disaster, has also tried to use social media to communicate its positions, but not too successfully. On Twitter, it was not BP’s official account but the satirical @BPGlobalPR that was dominating the online conversation. As one commentator wrote: “It is an object lesson in how social media can shape and control a company’s message during a crisis.”

Beyond PR?

By early July 2010, however, there were already signs that online interest on the issue was already waning — even as the oil continued to leak from this largest offshore oil spill in US history. In a detailed analysis of main social media platforms’ coverage of the issue, Mashable noted last week: “An estimated 100 million gallons or more of oil have surged into the Gulf of Mexico…Yet on Twitter, Google, blogs and even YouTube, we’re already wrapping up our collective discussion of the oil spill and how to repair its damage.”

Riding the wave can be fun, but waves form and break quickly. Those who want to use social media tools for social activism still need to learn how to hitch a ride with the ocean current beneath the fickle waves.

How I wish I could get some practical advice on this from a certain ancient mariner named Sinbad.

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