Saturday, March 3, 2012

When smart mobs go bad

In his presentation, Howard Rheingold acknowledged that mobile communication technology can create smart mobs that can be used for good or for evil, but he does not go into detail. He said that he chose the word “mobs” to

convey the idea that groups of people who use mobile devices to organize collective action are not always necessarily peaceful and democratic and the future is not going to be all progress and light. There are going to be some catastrophic things happening. (Rheingold, 2002)

He was right. Although Rheingold only skims over the negative aspects of smart mobs, recent news have caused us to take another look at them. In the Metro newspaper (Toronto edition) this week, there was the article, Meet the flash mob’s evil twin. It described a flash mob that swarmed a Hugo Boss store. One person noticed that only one staff member was working at the store, then he sent a message to his cohorts and almost 50 people showed up to ransack the store in less than 3 minutes. Flash robs, as they’ve been called, have been around for a while, but what’s new about this story is police’s response.

In Toronto, 170 officers have received social-media training and it’s now their job “to root out flash robs before they happen”. A Toronto officer said that he had helped to prevent a possible school shooting.

But can we actually police smart mobs or flash robs? I doubt it. One of the most challenging aspects of this behaviour is almost instantaneous. The theft at Hugo Boss took only 33 minutes from start to finish.

Instead, I would encourage stores to try to avoid being a target by adequately staffing the stores and installing cameras rather than relying on the police to monitor social media.


Rheingold, H. (Presenter), (2002), Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution [Video file]. United States: MIT World. Retrieved from:

Braw, E. (2012, March 2-4). Meet the flash mob’s evil twin. Metro World News. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from

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