Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)


A writer for The Economist interviewed me earlier in the week for his article entitled “Rioters of the World Unite” sparked by the recent Greek riots. In the article, the author asks whether it is possible to imagine an Anarchist International comparable to the then Communist International, “a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month?”

While I’m not convinced that the word “anarchist” is an appropriate label for the rioters in Athens (more on that later), the author is certainly correct that the kind of “psychological impulse behind the Greek protests […] can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.”

E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.

Leaving aside the need to distinguish between protests and riots, I find the notion of “undemocratic protests” rather interesting although I’m not sure whether the qualifier “undemocratic” necessarily adds clarity. What is undemocratic about Hungarian youths in 2006 using “blogs to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality” and “distributing an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption?”

This brings us to the issue of developing an appropriate taxonomy, as I noted in response to some excellent questions in the comments section of my blog post on the “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS.” (Incidentally, I should have included Second Life where a memorial was erected “giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots”).

I think we need a better taxonomy for today’s new media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic.

First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. The term “civilian journalism” may be more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters.

The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate than describing the rioters as anarchists. Indeed, I think The Economist article gets it particularly wrong on that note:

The shooting and ensuing riots in Greece must be understood in the context of the “disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report” (see previous blog post).

In this context, then, perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on terms like “snapshot” and “snap judgment” which is a better description of the student-led riots in Greece.

As the article in The Economist suggests, what happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. This may eventually drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value.

I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of  a professional class of citizen journalists and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at standards akin to that of the mainstream media today. At the same time, I suspect the mainstream media will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of increasing “snap mob” behavior.

Patrick Philippe Meier

10 responses to “Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)

  1. Pingback: Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS « iRevolution

  2. Agreed on the taxonomy. But who will build it out? Clearly not the Economist …

    Also, I fundamentally agree that citizen journalists who hold themselves to journalistic standards will emerge, but I’m not seeing a vehicle for formally recognizing those people as superior reporters, or unbiased, etc. And the average citizen (who isn’t on twitter) won’t be able to tell the difference, and will revert to the CNNs and ABCs … and won’t get the full picture. Bridging the gap seems to me the greatest challenge that new media users and promoters will have in the coming years.

    • Why don’t you and I start building the taxonomy?

      You’re absolutely right that there doesn’t appear to be a vehicle for formally recognizing “professional citizen journalists” as superior reporters, or unbiased, etc. And the average citizen is unlikely to be able to tell. So why not take digg or star-rating approach (like on Amazon) and crowdsource the “peer review” process, the same way that Wikipedia works?

  3. Very good post, you were able to stand back and bring some order to the chaos of loose terms, many of which I myself use with some unease and yet needing a shorthand that can make me understood.

    But “snap mobs,” that I love, and will probably use with credit to you.

  4. The problem is that the existing concepts carry misleading names. They do not intuitively describe their objects.

    The term citizen-journalist evokes the values of the active citizen of a democracy and the professional ethos of a certified journalist, yet a blogger who happens to write about demonstrations in his neighborhood does not neccessarily share either. His blog post will reflect a personal perspective on the events. If we were to judge his postings by standards of political commentaries or professional journalism they will almost always fall short. Therefor we need terms that do not mislead our intuitive understanding.

    In the naming process we should focus on the actual role the commentators play in the events they cover:

    Journalist: Someone who works for an institutional news-outlet and whose coverage undergoes a formal editing process.

    Participating Chronicler: Someone who participates in the unfolding events and writes about them on a platform that does not demand or ensures professional editing or review.

    Observing Chronicler: Someone who is in the vicinity of the unfolding events and writes about them on a platform that does not demand or ensures professional editing or review.

    Commenting Chronicler: Someone who is not present at the unfolding events but comments on their coverage on a platform that does not demand or ensures professional editing or review.

  5. Pingback: Greece Riots: Smart Mob, Snap Mob, or Networked Anarchy | Gauravonomics Blog

  6. Patrick,

    I particularly like your distinction between “citizen” and “civilian” journalism, as often times, you’re right, they aren’t always in a position of a real citizen.

    Thanks for continually adding clarity to the field!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s