‘Smart mob’ technology spurs student activism

When tens of thousands of protesters converged on tiny Jena, La., on Sept. 20, they also ushered in a major milestone in technology-spawned activism.

Spurred online to real-life action by a popular hip-hop artist and black music bloggers, the Jena Six protesters gathered without a set time, leader, or program.

They also became the first highly visible “smart mob” formed by black youth, primarily college and university students.

Coined in 2001 by futurist Howard Rheingold, the term “smart mob” refers to a group demonstration or collective action fueled by information and communication technologies.

Like Seattle’s anti-world-trade activists or the more frivolous Tokyo “thumb tribes” that swarm shopping malls and subways at a moment’s notice, smart mobs use text messaging, blogs, cell phones, and wireless computing to mobilize thousands of people in just minutes.

Miniature versions of the smart-mob phenomenon are creeping into middle and high schools, as cell phones become more commonplace (or at least more visible) on campus.

Students are text messaging each other about everything from parties to protests, spreading rumors along the way–often from campus to campus.

The situation is especially acute during lockdowns and other emergencies, when teens’ frantic and often ill-informed texts and calls trigger a barrage of parent phone calls and a mad rush to the school to make sure students are safe.

Following the Virginia Tech tragedy last April, for example, principals nationwide spent days chasing down rumors about copycat threats that flew from student to student and school to school in record time, thanks to mobile technologies.

Once contained to a single campus, or a handful of students, these rumors now spread virally, quickly contaminating an entire community, often with inaccurate information.

School leaders are fighting back with communication blitzes of their own, using web-enabled mass notification systems that can reach parents by landline telephone, cell phone, text message, eMail, or pager.

A handful of school leaders are also using blogs and podcasts, combined with RSS feeds for distribution, to feed their own viral information campaigns.

Such proactive measures are still rare, however, even though blogs and podcasts typically take less time to produce than most electronic newsletters.

When it comes to informing parents and the public, it seems that the “CAVEs” (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and students have the upper hand, probably because they have more time and high-tech skills.

As Rheingold points out on his web site, smart mobs can be used for the greater good or to wreak havoc. The same tools that fuel the overthrow of tyrannical governments and pro-democracy demonstrations can also incite acts of terror.

Many experts see the advent of citizen, or “we,” journalism as more positive than negative, however.

“There are signs that after more than a decade of political insignificance, the democratic potential of the internet is being realized by more people every day,” writes Rheingold.

Current events like the Jena Six protest represent a powerful learning opportunity for students who might question whether their voices count. It’s an important discussion, one that technology can help facilitate.

For example, high school journalists could analyze how smart-mob technologies are changing who breaks news, when, and why, and whether the “democratization” of the media is positive or negative.

Students also could read and compare various news accounts, blogs, and the legal record in the case to see how the “facts” shared might change, depending on the perspective of the author or the host organization, and why they might want to make sure they get information from multiple sources before making a decision or forming an opinion.

Social-studies classes could talk about the intersection of race, class, and justice in America, while communication students could dissect how smart-mob technologies are changing advocacy and political campaigns in the United States and globally.

A student leadership group might want to discuss the Jena Six as part of an after-school activity; the student newspaper might want to write about how students feel about the situation in Louisiana and how it might–or might not–relate to issues in their own communities.

While most school leaders undoubtedly applaud anything that gets young people involved in civic affairs, most also would agree there’s an appropriate time and place for such actions–and that’s typically after school or on the weekends, and not on school grounds.

Because most school board policies were developed before the advent of text messaging and mobile computing, and before “swarming,” “smart mobs,” and “mob blogging” entered students’ lexicon, school leaders might need to make sure their student and employee codes of conduct cover these new possibilities.

Typically, anything that disrupts instruction is going to be out-of-bounds, and few things would be more disruptive than having hundreds of students “swarming” a local high school.

Consistency also is important. The same rules have to apply to everyone, so schools that provided excused absences for students and staff participating in the Jena Six protest or waived dress codes for uniforms will need to give other groups the same consideration.

While perspectives on the Jena Six protest vary, one thing is certain: Getting young people engaged in civic action and discussion–many for the first time–represents a key step in maintaining a free and democratic society.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is chief communications officer for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.


Howard”>Howard Rheingold’s site

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