The Power of Facebook to Mobilize a Mob

Howard Rheingold has been writing about the impact of computer-mediated
communication on interaction for the last three decades. I am currently
reading his 1993 book, "The Virtual Community,"
on the rise of web-based communities and namely the influence of the
WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) on the way people interact online.

However, one of Rheingold’s more recent books, "Smart Mobs,"
holds special relevance in light of recent global events. Smart mobs
refers to the emergence of a cooperative group as a direct result of
"new" technologies. These mobs can cause both positive and negative
ends, from young people organizing a march on the government to
terrorists coordinating an attack. The rise of smart mobs has been
significantly aided by the popularity and ubiquitous quality of cell
phones in modern society. In many nations where internet access is
limited, such as in several parts of Asia, a significant portion of the
population owns a cell phone and communicates within their social
network via text message.

When he spoke at Georgetown in the fall, Rheingold offered the audience
several examples of the power of technology in mobilizing the masses to
a cause. In 2001, for example, Filipinos used text messaging
to organize more than one million protesters against then-president
Joseph Estrada. Students in the highly connected South Korea used cell
phones to organize a protest of educational standards
in 2005. More recently, both protesters and journalists used text
messaging to organize and communicate with the outside world about the
protests and ensuing violence occurring in Burma.

So it only makes sense that an evolution of smart mobs will mirror the
evolution of communication technology. This was recently proven true in
Colombia, as youth used the power of Facebook to mobilize hundreds of
thousands of protesters around the world for their cause. A Facebook
group started by a group of angry Colombians exploded into a global
phenomenon calling for an end to violence in the country with more than
230,000 members and protests planned in 185 cities on Feb. 4.

As a brief historical backgrounder on the situation, Colombia is the
kidnapping capital of the world, with approximately 3000 people
currently being held captive for any number of reasons. The
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest rebel group
in the nation, is behind many of these kidnappings and subsequent
violence. Most younger Colombians have lived their entire lives in the
shadow of the FARC, and want to put an end to the rebel group. The
situation intensified last June when 11 lawmakers taken captive by the
FARC were shot and killed; at that point, Colombian President Uribe
withdrew his support of Venezuela’s President Chavez’s plea to mediate
the situation and not consider the group as "terrorists."

I believe we will see more use of social networking sites as mob
mobilizers in 2008, as these sites make the transmission of information
from one-to-many even easier than text messaging, especially when a
user has a large number of friends. Group pages on the site also have
an obvious strength: a great example of this is a group page set up
after a recently graduated college student disappeared
one night from a bar in North Carolina. The college he graduated from,
my alma mater, has a student population of about 4500. The Facebook
group page has more than 66,000 members, and thanks in part to the
massive response online, coverage of his disappearance garnered
national news coverage.

This is a tremendous power we hold in
our hands as a technologically connected world. Will we continue to
mobilize it primarily for good or will this technology, like Anakin
Skywalker, instead turn to the dark side?

Jessica Vitak, a 2008 graduate from CCT, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Media & information Studies. She spent six years in Washington, D.C. working as an editor for PR Newswire, the global leader in news distribution and monitoring services, and later as a research intern at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Pew, she coauthored two major reports on online privacy and teens' gaming habits. Her master's thesis at Georgetown looked at relationship formation and maintenance on the social networking site Facebook, as well as the potential relationship between online activities and offline consequences. She is continuing her focus on online communication technology at MSU.