Smart Mobs and the Power of the Mobile Many

On January 20th, 2001, President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines became the first head of state in history to lose power to a smart mob. More than one million Manila residents, mobilized and coordinated by waves of text messages, assembled at the site of the 1986 "People Power" peaceful demonstrations that had toppled the Marcos regime. Tens of thousands of Filipinos converged on Epifanio de los Santas Avenue, known as "Edsa," within an hour of the first text message volleys. Over four days, more than a million citizens showed up.

Bringing down a government without firing a shot was a momentous early eruption of smart mob behavior. It wasn't the only one.

On November 30, 1999, autonomous but internetworked squads of demonstrators protesting the meeting of the World Trade Organization used "swarming" tactics, mobile phones, websites, laptops, and PDAs to win "The Battle of Seattle."

In September 2000, thousands of citizens in Britain, outraged by a sudden rise in gasoline prices, used mobile phones, SMS, email from laptop PCs, and CB radios in taxicabs, to coordinate dispersed groups that blocked fuel delivery at selected service stations in a wildcat political protest.

A violent political demonstration in Toronto in the Spring of 2000 was chronicled by a group of roving journalist-researchers who webcast digital video of everything they saw.

Since 1992, thousands of bicycle activists have assembled monthly for "Critical Mass" moving demonstrations, weaving through San Francisco streets en masse. Critical Mass operates through loosely linked networks, alerted by mobile phone and email trees, and breaks up into smaller, tele-coordinated groups when appropriate.

In light of the military and terrorist potential of netwar tactics it would be foolish to presume that only benign outcomes should be expected from smart mobs. But any observer who focuses exclusively on the potential for violence would miss evidence of perhaps even more profoundly disruptive potential - for beneficial as well as malign purposes - of smart mob technologies and techniques. Could cooperation epidemics break out if smart mob media spread beyond warriors - to citizens, journalists, scientists, people looking for fun, friends, mates, customers, or trading partners?

Consider a few experiments on the fringes of mobile communications that might point toward a wide variety of nonviolent smart-mobbing in the future:

"Interpersonal awareness devices" have been evolving for several years. Since 1998, hundreds of thousands Japanese have used Lovegety keychain devices that signal when another Lovegety owner of the opposite sex and compatible profile is within fifteen feet.

ImaHima ("are you free now?") enables hundreds of thousands of Tokyo i-mode users to alert buddies who are in their vicinity at the moment.

Upoc ("universal point of contact") in Manhattan sponsors mobile communities of interest: any member of "manhattan celebrity watch", "nyc terrorism alert", "prayer of the day" or "The Resistance," for example, can broadcast text messages to and receive messages from all the other members.

Phones that make it easy to send digital video directly to the web make it possible for "peer to peer journalism" networks to emerge; Steve Mann's students in Toronto have chronicled at newsworthy events by webcasting everything their wearable cameras and microphones capture.

Researchers in Oregon have constructed "social middleware" that enables wearable computer users to form ad hoc communities, using distributed reputation systems, privacy and knowledge-sharing agents, and wireless networks.