Flash mob crackdown in Philly focuses on teens, not technology

Texting, Twitter bringing groups together quickly, but that's not causing the violence

In Philadelphia, the mayor and police have cracked down on mobs of teenagers that turned violent and that police believe learned about the gatherings through "flash mob" wireless communications, including texting and Twitter .

The police and mayor don't blame the technology for the violence directly, but recognize that fast-paced texting and other wireless communications can bring large groups together quickly, the same way that protesters in Iran and other countries learned about a demonstration when other communications weren't viable.

The difference between the crowds in Philadelphia and protests abroad is perspective. U.S. wireless companies and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone praised wireless technology for promoting citizen involvement as recently as last week at the CTIA conference.

Representatives of the CTIA, an association that represents wireless carriers, and Twitter didn't respond to requests for comment on the situation in Philadelphia, where police say "flash mobs" gathered at least four times in the last year, and things turned ugly.

On March 20, police told the Associated Press that witnesses estimated as many as 2,000 teenagers thronged narrow sidewalks, blocked traffic, jumped on cars and roughed-up bystanders in a 10-block strip near South Street that led to three arrests. Other accounts have mentioned broken store displays and other damaged property. Some experts have attributed the violence to cuts in state programs for youth as well as a lack of parental supervision.

To curb the trouble, Mayor Michael Nutter organized a walk through the South Street area last Saturday night, a week after a mob turned violent, an effort that is believed to have helped bring calm to the area. Nutter said the earlier violence was the result of youthful "stupidity" and not the technology that helped bring the teenagers together.

Richard Ross, deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department was quoted by CNN as saying some violent participants took advantage of the large group generated through quick communications, resulting in "all kinds of mayhem."

Bloggers also said the "flash mobs" in Philadelphia weren't incited by the technology. Gawker.com blamed the ugly outcome indirectly on a breakdancing crew that frequents the South Street blocks.

Ben Waxman, a columnist at philly.com, said the city has been riled with some " flash-mob hysteria ," saying "it's true that there have been multiple instances of flash mobs in recent months, but that doesn't excuse the hype."

Waxman was criticized by commenters for his opinion, many of whom want the city to do more about mobs. Some suggested that the police or the FBI should monitor social networks , although some analysts said it is impossible to follow every text real-time or react in a meaningful way.

The mayor said he might stiffen an existing curfew, which could help blunt the ability of a large group to gather quickly late at night.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said of the whole Philly affair, "you can't blame technology for anything, only the people." It is no different than the way "electricity does many wonderful things, but can electrocute you."

Similarly, the Internet, for all the good things it has achieved, has also helped hate groups organize, even Al Qaeda, Gold noted.

The irony is how technology promoters, including wireless carriers and innovators, extol the virtues of wireless technology when the outcomes seems positive. "Look at how crowds could get together quickly in Iran with texting," Gold said. "Certainly we'd find that positive, but the government there would not."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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