The evolution of flash mobs from pranks to crime and revolution

They had instructions to carry masks, wear black and converge en masse to foment chaos at specific times and places. They were divided into green, yellow and red risk categories. They were compartmentalized into cells to avoid compromising the secret master plan.

They weren’t terrorists, but a so-called flash mob that BART spokesman Linton Johnson said was hell-bent on disrupting train service on Aug. 11.

Such flash mobs — seemingly spontaneous gatherings of people organized by mobile phones and social networks — can range from cute forums for creative expression to a powerful tool in the anarchist playbook. From the protests of BART and the so-called Arab Spring to recent U.S. flash mob robberies and the organized looting in London, 2011 is shaping up as the year of the flash mob.

It’s also the year that officials from Cairo to San Francisco took steps to clamp down on the phenomenon. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated the power of wireless networks for protest. But they also highlighted the desire of governments to crack down on such communications, as when former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak cut off cellphone service to the protesters in Tahrir Square. Yet the tactic didn’t work, and just sent more people into the streets to learn what was happening.

Meanwhile in London, this month’s massive riots were amplified by groups using social networks and phones to coordinate looting and arson. British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament the government should restrict the use of such systems to organize mayhem.

“When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them,” he said.

In the Bay Area, BART security is encountering crowd behavior it’s never seen before, Johnson said.

“The difference between 10 years ago and now is massive,” he said. “Technology has just made it easier to organize faster.”

It was in response to the threat of such organizing that BART turned off its underground fiber optic network on Aug. 11 — disabling cellphones and Wi-Fi service. It drew widespread condemnation from civil libertarians, politicians and some members of the public.

Johnson said riders’ First Amendment rights need to be balanced with other riders’ right to safety, which the planned flash mob threatened.

Some observers see civil liberties being eroded in the process. Staff attorney Michael Risher of the American Civil Liberties Union says shutting down communications networks will not prevent such behaviors, which existed long before cellular technology.

“Yes, there have been riots in London and crimes in Philadelphia — that’s certainly not the first time there’s been riots in London nor the first time there’s been crime in Philadelphia,” Risher said. “The notion that we can deal with this sort of thing by shutting down people’s ability to communicate with one another is unrealistic. The notion that we should shut down the entire network because a few people might be misusing it is anathema to the First Amendment.”

Pam Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, said people will surrender their civil liberties if they feel scared enough. With rampant fears of social unrest, a sour economy and loss of faith in the government, she worries about the government overreacting to the way people use new technologies.

Social networks and mobile phones aren’t inherently good or bad, Rutledge said. It’s people who make these choices, she said, and trying to block their use of the technology is futile.

“Think back to the ’60s — people got together just fine,” Rutledge said. “There were no cellphones.”

Going from flash mobs to ‘flash robs’

When Senior Editor Bill Wasik of Harper’s Magazine coined the term “flash mob” for the whimsical social experiments he was orchestrating in 2003, he couldn’t possibly have foreseen where the events were headed.

Groups coordinated actions, costumes, locations and meeting times and then acted, seeming to appear and then disappear in the blink of an eye. In one of Wasik’s early gatherings, approximately 200 people stormed the lobby of a New York City hotel and applauded for 15 seconds.

Subsequent events often involved dancing in public places or pillow fights. The concept was later mainstreamed by TV shows and PR stunts.

But over the years, flash mobs have developed a darker side. In 2009, a seemingly nonviolent flash mob at Old Dominion University led to crowd surfing in a tightly packed library, prompting police to subdue students with pepper spray as the party spiraled out of control.

In 2010, The New York Times documented a string of flash mob violence and vandalism in Philadelphia, with reports also coming from Boston; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and South Orange, N.J. The newspaper said the FBI was helping Philadelphia police monitor social networks.

And just this summer, “flash robs” in Maryland, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere took the joyous spirit of flash mobbery and turned it toward dark ends.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter ordered 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday curfews for minors after a string of flash mob attacks by young people who used email and social media to organize violence, police said. Cleveland, Chicago and Washington, D.C., all have seen similar incidents, leading to the arrests of dozens of teens and beefed-up police patrols.

On Aug. 17, CNN reported on a flash mob in Maryland that suddenly assembled to rob a 7-Eleven. Surveillance footage from the store shows several dozen teens pouring into the store and cleaning it out like locusts in a field. The police went to the media with the footage in the hopes of identifying the perpetrators.

In San Francisco during the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival two weeks ago, security officials reported four fence intrusions, one of which may have been the work of a flash mob. During a Saturday performance by the Old 97’s, about 500 people appeared out of nowhere and crashed the gate of the sold-out festival.

“Sorry, Outside Lands staff, the revolution still lives in San Francisco,” quipped singer Rhett Miller.

A flash mob glossary

Flash crowd: A term invented in a 1973 novella by science fiction author Larry Niven about the consequences of cheap ubiquitous teleportation technology which leads to massive crowds at newsworthy events.

Smart mob: A term popularized by author Howard Rheingold for a group of people who assemble, move, or act collectively by using cellular phones or other wireless devices to communicate.

Flash mob: A large group of people who suddenly gather in a public place, do something for a short time, and quickly go away again.

Flash rob: When the concept of the flash mob is applied to petty larceny.

A brief timeline of flash mobbery

May 2003: Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, popularizes the term “flash mob” in Manhattan.
July 8, 2004: The Concise Oxford English Dictionary adds flash mob.
April 2006: Flash mobbers create silent discos in the London subway that draw upward of 4,000 people.
March 22, 2008: Worldwide Pillow Fight Day happens in 25 cities around the globe, arguably the first international flash mob; 5,000 people participate in New York City.
Feb. 9, 2009: Facebook flash mob shuts down London train station.
July 28, 2009: Planned flash mob prevented by officials in German town Braunschweig.
March 2010: The FBI helps Philadelphia law enforcement monitor social networks after flash mobs of local youths brawl and vandalize. Reports made of similar mobs in Boston; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and South Orange, N.J.
December 2010-February 2011: Hundreds of thousands of citizens use cellular technology to coordinate their protests against repressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere across the Middle East.
Summer 2011: Philadelphia extends juvenile curfews to 9 p.m. to halt flash robs. Flash thefts reported in Maryland; Cleveland; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; and Ottawa, Ontario.
Aug. 6, 10, 2011: London rioters use social media and mobile phones to organize looting and arson. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron considers blocking access to social media.
Aug. 11, 2011: BART officials shut down cellphone service to underground locations to prevent a flash mob from communicating during a protest.
Aug. 13, 2011: Flash mob robs Maryland 7-Eleven.

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