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Howard Rheingold to Korean Protestors: “A Smart Mob Is Not Necessarily a Wise Mob”


The Korean citizen journalism site OhmyNews, has a video and transcript of Smart Mobs author Howard Rheingold reflecting on recent Korean protests over US beef. According to Rheingold, we need to make sure that smart mobs become smarter, and less mob-like. (You can read our earlier post for more background on the protests.)

In the video, Rheingold argues that he has been tracking events around the world where he sees the convergence of politics, political discontent and technology. He says:

…my investigation revealed what I believe to be an important stage in human development in that every time there’s a technology that enables people to communicate in new ways, whether it’s speech, the alphabet, or printing or the Internet or the mobile phones, people develop literacies. They develop ways of using those technologies in communication media to do things together.

Science, technology, democracy, knowledge. Many of the aspects of the modern world really have been enabled by the literacies and collective action from the technologies that made print and the Internet possible.

Rheingold also sees an important role for citizen journalism, including OhmyNews and its impact on the 2002 Korean Presidential election, which was one of the first Internet and Democracy case studies. Rheingold believes that with OhmyNews, its citizen reporters, editors and activist, all the pieces are in place to move from spontaneous demonstrations to movements that can actually impact policy. He believes that for protesters to have impact, there needs to be more than just mass demonstrations and protests; this is where he argues that smart mobs need to become smarter. In Rheingold’s own words:

How do you build movements? There needs to be rational, critical debate among citizens. Citizens need to use the Internet and other media to talk about issues, to use the news media — OhmyNews citizen journalism and mainstream media — and what kind of research can they do on the Internet to find out what’s true and what’s not true, and to debate policies.

Until citizen are able to do that in an informed way, and in a rational way, their demonstrations may be doomed ultimately to the kind of failure that demonstrations were doomed to in the USA [in the 1960s].

You need to be able to influence the political apparatus in a democracy, in order to have a long-term influence.

For Smart Mobs to really become smart, they may need to adapt many of the traditional, successful organizing techniques that Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz teaches. Although others like Lance Bennett argue that the Internet and online organization may be creating new types of citizenship and totally new ways of organizing for impact, I think the jury is still out on this question. It’s more likely that some mix of ‘old school’ organizing techniques with new communication and social networking technologies will have the greatest impact. I also think we are still waiting for an example of a movement, campaign or protest that truly combines the two well enough to have long-term political impact.

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