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Mobs R Us

Technically speaking

3 min read

Last week, not far from where I live, a few dozen people gathered at a mall, invaded a nearby Toys "R" Us, and started leaping like frogs from one aisle to another. Within a few minutes, the crowd dispersed and the "event," such as it was, ended. The store, it turns out, had been visited by a flash mob, a large group of people who gather in some predetermined location, perform some brief action, and then quickly disperse.

Flash mobbers have done similarly silly stunts in New York City, San Francisco, Berlin, Rome, and, by the time you read this, many other cities as well, this being the faddish feat of 2003. They've become so popular, in fact, that Sean Savage of cheesebikini.com, who coined the phrase "flash mob," has suggested that the large numbers of press and police who now witness these events should have their own monikers: press mobs and cop mobs.

The coinage of "flash mob" was inspired by two related phrases. The first is flash crowd, which is a sharp increase in the number of users attempting to access a Web site simultaneously, usually in response to some event or announcement. This could be caused, for example, by the Slashdot effect, a rapid and often overwhelming increase in a Web site's traffic after the site is featured or mentioned on Slashdot.org. Being Slashdotted is similar to being Farked, which means getting lots of traffic after your site appears on Fark.com.

The second phrase behind flash mob is smart mob, a leaderless group of like-minded people who organize using technologies such as cellphones, e-mail, and the Web. This phrase was popularized by the writer Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Flash mobs—also called inexplicable mobs or flocks—use the same technologies to organize their gatherings.

A related idea is social swarming, the rapid gathering of friends, family, or colleagues using technologies such as cellphones, pagers, and instant messaging. As The Washington Post noted recently, social swarming "involves sharing your life with others in real time. It means pulsing to the rhythm of life with one's posse." This idea of gathering one's "posse" together (I assume one has to be of a certain age to actually have a posse) has led to a synonym for social swarming: posse-pinging.

Social swarming is a special case of the larger idea of swarming, the gathering and moving of people accomplished, once again, using technologies such as cellphones, pagers, and even walkie-talkies. For example, swarming is the modus operandi of the Critical Mass (CM) movement, which describes itself as an "unorganized coincidence." CM events consist of large swarms on bicycles that quickly gather in a location to block or slow traffic as a way of protesting our automobile culture and to highlight CM's pro-bicycling agenda.

Baby Boomer babies
Most participants in a flash mob, smart mob, or swarm are members of what the demographics profession calls the Baby Boom Echo: the children of the Baby Boom generation. However, increasingly often these days they're lumped under the rubric Generation Y. Why? Because they came after Generation X, the postboomers born between 1964 and 1977. Demographers, marketers, and headline writers have come up with lots of other names for this cohort over the years, including the Millennial Generation, Generation D (for digital), Generation 9/11 (usually defined as those who were enrolled in high school or college on September 11, 2001), and Generation Next.

Inspired by the last of these, another name has appeared in the past couple of years, one that threatens to make the others obsolete because it has a "just so" quality that seems to capture this generation's worldview: Generation Text. The name comes, of course, from the facility that today's teenagers and twenty-somethings have with text-based messaging systems, particularly wireless device messaging and instant messaging, the latter supplying us with another generational moniker: Generation IM.

This demographic label seems right not only because this generation turned the words "text" and "message" into verbs, but also because this generation incorporated this technology into their lifestyles: it's as natural to them as the telephone was to teenagers a generation ago. No wonder that a few months ago Wired magazine—that arbiter of modern technological taste—pronounced Free Agent Nation "expired," described Open-Source Nation as "tired," and crowned a new "wired" phenomenon: IM Nation.

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