What are smart mobs?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. Josh Clark, Chuck Bryant here, Josh and Chuck, staff writers for HowStuffWorks.com! What's up Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: The dynamic duo.

Josh Clark: That's exactly right, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Right, that's us.

Josh Clark: Chuck, I was reading the other day, as I do once in a while. I try to keep the brain going.

Chuck Bryant: Always.

Josh Clark: And I came across a really sad article.

Chuck Bryant: What's that?

Josh Clark: It turns out July 1st will forever live as a day of infamy.

Chuck Bryant: How? I mean is it your birthday?

Josh Clark: No, July 15th is my birthday. July 1, 2008 was a day when two great underground pop culture icons were killed in one fell swoop. Have you ever heard of a guy named Ron English?

Chuck Bryant: No, I don't know Ron.

Josh Clark: Now, I think there's a coach out there, a college football coach, defensive coordinator named Ron English. This is not the one I'm talking about.

Chuck Bryant: Different guy.

Josh Clark: Okay. This guy is this dude who is considered the father of AJIT-POP art.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: It's like pop art, like think Warhol, but with a social or political message behind it. This guy created MC Supersize, which is this gangster parody of Ronald McDonald.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I think I've seen that.

Josh Clark: Did you see the one where he merged Obama's face with Abraham Lincoln's beard and hat. It's kind of creepy.

Chuck Bryant: I did see that. That is kind of creepy, but cool.

Josh Clark: So that's Ron English, okay. And he's this real - he's underground. He's really - he kind of hijacks the sides of buildings.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: He's putting these billboards, these works of art up when he's not supposed to.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And he's just kind of creating controversy.

Chuck Bryant: Public protest/pop art.

Josh Clark: Yes. He actually accepted money from the Ray-Ban company to create a building wrap, this work of art. And then Ray-Ban proceeded to pay a smart mob, a group of people to just show up, wearing Ray-Bans and all stare at this building rap for like 15 minutes on that day. So in one fell swoop, Ray-Ban, basically, killed, or at the very least totally co-opted Ron English and smart mobs.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which is really sad because the first smart mob on record had to be dispersed by the Delta Force?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: At the Battle of Seattle, so I love marketing people.

Chuck Bryant: Me too.

Josh Clark: I love them because they're definitely not the apocalyptic horse people of the end of an underground trend ever, are they?

Chuck Bryant: No, and far be it from them to turn a really cool underground thing into commercial advertising. They would do that.

Josh Clark: Yeah, they keep it going, so yeah, money, root of all evil and end of all underground culture. But that Battle of Seattle I mentioned, do you know what I'm talking about?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the protest at the World Trade Organization Summit, in I think 99, in Seattle.

Josh Clark: We should probably tell people what exactly we're talking about when we mention smart mobs.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's not something that - most people don't know about these.

Josh Clark: Well basically what it is is just a group of people, usually protestors. Or originally they were protestors who are also called flash mobs, based on their ability to assemble and disperse really quickly.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's really kind of cool.

Josh Clark: It's very cool. There's this guy names Alex Steffen, I think is his name. He edited User's Guide to the 21st Century. And he wrote of smart mobs that basically any city in the world can be shut down by 10,000 swarming protestors.

Chuck Bryant: Right, block off streets, keep police from taking action.

Josh Clark: And the reason that these mobs are so successful is because they are all linked, using readily available technology, text messages.

Chuck Bryant: Cell phones.

Josh Clark: Cell phones, that kind of thing. So they're getting directions from some central master mind puppet master, somebody.

Chuck Bryant: In his black turtleneck in the dark room, somewhere.

Josh Clark: Exactly, yes, that guy. And he is aware - he's sending them messages, like cops are coming, disperse, reassemble at this park.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So they're always one step ahead of the cops.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I imagine this looks really neat. I don't think we've ever seen a big wide shot of a smart mob, but I think it just goes from what looks like a crowd of people, and all of a sudden, instantly, they're just walking along like they're just minding their own business.

Josh Clark: But they've lost the one common thread, and that was that protest at that moment. They're no longer protesting. They're just people on the street now. And they have nothing in common, and as such, can't be beaten with riot shields and batons.

Chuck Bryant: Right, because -

Josh Clark: They can be, but (inaudible) at that point.

Chuck Bryant: That's one of the problems with the "peaceful protests" of the past is everyone shows up in this one place. Cops usually even know about it beforehand that there's going to be a rally there. And they're all just parked there in some city park or street corner. And the cops can, effectively, just surround them and do whatever they want, teargas, mace, you name it.

Josh Clark: Yeah, they do a lot of that stuff.

Chuck Bryant: But with the smart mobs, it's neat because they just break up and all of a sudden, the cops are like -

Josh Clark: Hey, what happened?

Chuck Bryant: Where'd they go? And then they're two blocks away.

Josh Clark: Exactly. And the way that the mastermind, Mr. black turtleneck is keeping tabs on the cops is through a method called suveillance. It's the opposite of surveillance. It's basically - I think it means looking above from below, something to that effect. And it's basically the public sector keeping an eye on the government sector or the security sector. It's like the Rodney King beating being videotaped, perfect example of suveillance.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And another example is this group called the European Information Society Group. Basically, they run around. They're just a loose assemblage of people who have camera phones, video phones. If there's a state run hospital in Britain or something that has really unacceptably, unsanitary conditions, they'll film this and put it on You Tube. And it's with this quick dissemination of information. All of a sudden, the British government is acting to clean this hospital up or clean its act up, depending on what they were just taken to task for.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's really kind of cool. A lot of good can come out of these, and I don't think they've had a violent flash mob, have they?

Josh Clark: They have, actually.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, they have?

Josh Clark: The guy who came up with this term, his name is Howard Rheingold. And he's this futurist. He's one to definitely keep an eye on. Whatever he's talking about is usually going to come about in the next 5, 10, 15 years. So he coined the term, smart mob, and he said in an interview later on that he deliberately chose the word mob, I think, "because of its dark resonances."

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And there have been instances where flash mobs have broken out for the purpose of violence. I think the - what year was it? There was the Miss World Pageant in 2002, in Nigeria. There was, I guess, a local newspaper wrote an article, praising the pageant. And it was sent around among the Muslim community and through text messaging, violence basically broke out. 200 people died because of it. It's kind of a - that's a loose association with a flash mob, but it can happen. And even if it hasn't fully happened, the potential is there.

Chuck Bryant: Well sure. Any time you get a bunch of people together in protest, they're probably worked up over something. And even if they have peaceful intentions, cops come around and one thing leads to another. Before you know it, violence could be breaking out.

Josh Clark: You know, Rheingold, actually, he went around the world and started noticing these smart mobs or flash mobs were already in existence before he coined the term. And he realized that for protests or civil disobedience to be able to survive, it was vital that smart mobs exist or else it would just be all surveillance, no suveillance, and we would all just be using cell phones, just to call our friends or Mom on Mother's Day or that kind of thing, the way that they were intended to. And out of this inspiration, this hacker mentality of okay, I've got this device. Let's see if I can make it do this. That will keep governments in check, essentially, for the next - for as long as we have this technology readily available.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And as long as we're a consumer driven capitalistic culture in the west, this technology always will be available, which is great.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's not going anywhere.

Josh Clark: It's like an ouroboros. It's like a snake eating its own tail.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But in a really cool way.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I agree.

Josh Clark: So do you know about some of the fun smart mobs?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the fun, those are my favorite.

Josh Clark: I love the fun smart mobs.

Chuck Bryant: Those whacky guys.

Josh Clark: Yeah, give me an example, there.

Chuck Bryant: I know in New York, well it's sort of using the same technology, but they're not in protest of anything. It's just groups of people gathering to do kind of crazy things in front of people. So it's sort of a performance are much more than protest. I know in New York City, a group of people went to a toy store, maybe FAO Schwartz. That's where I would go if I was in New York. And they all jumped on the floor and started trembling at this big, giant, robot dinosaur.

Josh Clark: Bowing before it, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And then they disassemble and they're gone and New Yorkers are probably left standing there or the tourists probably. New Yorkers aren't even watching.

Josh Clark: Yeah, lots of I heart New York T-shirts just looking around like what was that.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So that was a cool one. And I think in London, they did one where all these people showed up at a furniture store and started laying around on all the couches and things, which I don't know. That's a bit lame, if you ask me.

Josh Clark: It was. It was definitely one of the lamer ones I've run across, but it was cool. One of my favorites was one that took place in Rome, where the people were instructed to go to this bookstore. And all these people converged on it and were told to insist that the people who worked at the bookstore help them find books that didn't exist.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And god knows how much time they wasted doing that.

Chuck Bryant: Right and probably didn't sell a single book.

Josh Clark: I wouldn't think so.

Chuck Bryant: Because smart mobbers are notoriously poor.

Josh Clark: You know Steve Martin, actually, technically you could make a case that he started the first smart mobs. Do you know about his early stand up?

Chuck Bryant: Actor, comedian, Steve Martin?

Josh Clark: Yeah, that Steve Martin.

Chuck Bryant: I know about his early stand up, King Tut and the arrow through the head.

Josh Clark: Oh, this is even earlier than that. This is like undiscovered Steve Martin days. Basically, he used to - he'd be at a comedy club or whatever, doing his bit. And all of a sudden, he'd just stop and be like who wants fries. I'd love some McDonald's. He'd get everybody down to McDonald's. Everyone in the club would follow him down. He's doing his bit the whole time. Then he gets to the counter and he's ordering for everybody and ends up with an order of like 60 cheeseburgers and 80 orders of fries and he keeps changing it and asking the crowd what they want. Finally, he ends up just buying an order of small fries and leads everybody back to the club.

Chuck Bryant: Wow, it sounds like the people that suffer -

Josh Clark: You could make the case that Steve Martin was the father.

Chuck Bryant: It sounds like the people that suffer from this are the business owners.

Josh Clark: Exactly, and I think that's part of it. It's kind of nice to say we are the consumers, but we also are more powerful than you'd like to let us believe we are.

Chuck Bryant: Right, demanding a little respect, perhaps.

Josh Clark: Yeah, very much so.

Chuck Bryant: I miss that Steve Martin.

Josh Clark: How could you not?

Chuck Bryant: Instead of the one who does Father of the Bride.

Josh Clark: Father of the Bride, good lord. I'm with you. Well, as it turns out, Steve Martin is in the same echelon these days as Ron English and smart mobs now. They've all maybe, you could make a case, have sold out. So sad to see all three started out great, but it kind of makes you wonder what's next. We'll be keeping an eye out for it.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Maybe we should go start one up right now.

Josh Clark: Okay. So Chuck, what article on the site reminds you of your childhood?

Chuck Bryant: Right, you don't even know this site. I've kept this, even from you.

Josh Clark: I don't, actually. This is a surprise to me, too.

Chuck Bryant: It's actually an article that was featured today, wri tten by freelance writer, Ed Grabianowski, who's been with us for a while.

Josh Clark: Is that how you say Ed's last name?

Chuck Bryant: I threw it out there. That's how it's spelled.

Josh Clark: It sounds right, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: I call him the Grabster. How jet packs work.

Josh Clark: Nice. I saw that on the home page.

Chuck Bryant: That takes me right back to my childhood and the GI Joe jet pack that I had.

Josh Clark: You had a jet pack of your own?

Chuck Bryant: Well, it was for the doll.

Josh Clark: Oh, gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: I'm a little older than you, but the old GI Joes were tall, 12 inch dolls.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I came in right after those. I'm a big fan of the shorter, what, four and a half inchers.

Chuck Bryant: Those don't exist to me. So I had the little jet pack. I had the submarine and you attach the jet pack on the string and it was fun for a five-year-old.

Josh Clark: That's great. So Chuck revealed what article reminds him of his childhood and that he was, apparently, born in 1962. You can learn all about jet packs and all sorts of other whacky childhood adventure stuff on HowStuffWorks.comAnnouncer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.