In cities around the country, groups of people -- primarily young people -- are using the tools at their disposal to wreak havoc. Flash mobs are generally organized through technology -- either on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, or through text message, BlackBerry Messenger or e-mail.
To a bystander, flash mobs appear suddenly and without warning. They are often violent, terrifying. Last month in Philadelphia, Penn., about 30 teenagers congregated near City Hall and severely beat two people, leaving one unconscious and the other needing surgery for a broken jaw. In June, some gangs attacked pedestrians and people leaving restaurants, while others robbed train passengers. Still others walked into stores and businesses and walked out with stolen goods.
It's easy to blame technology for the crimes, but social media networks are only a tool and not a cause. While flash mobs, in their current iteration, may not have existed in a pre-texting era, there have always been gangs and there has always been unexplained brutality. If given a opportunity, it seems that some members of society will embrace their violent instincts.
Not all flash mobs are violent, however, and a movement toward the fun and absurd is gaining momentum along side its chaotic counterpart. Different kinds of flash mobs are popping up around the globe, with groups of people breaking into dance or staging pillow fights in city squares.
In Chile earlier this summer, students amassed in Santiago's Plaza de la Ciudadanía, a public square located next to Chile's presidential palace, then broke into a choreographed and costumed dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller. The mob was intended to get the Chilean government to support a better educational system, which they say is currently rotten and dead.
And while technology has made these events easier to organize, it has also made them easier to stop.
After a group of kids robbed a 7-Eleven in under one minute in Maryland last week, police posted surveillance camera footage online, and many members of the community came forward with tips. At least half of the people in the video were identified just a few days after the incident.
In London, Scotland Yard employed similar tricks after the massive, terrifying riots that rocked England last week. Police published pictures of looters online and made posters with rioters' faces on them, which they plastered in cities like Manchester and Birmingham. Thousands of people have been arrested and over 1,000 have been charged.
But should organizing flash mobs through Twitter, texting or other means be illegal?
Earlier this week, two people in London were sentenced to a combined four years in a juvenile center for organizing looting through Facebook. Jordan Blackshaw, 20, invited about 100 people to an event called Smash Down in Northwich Town, while Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, created a group called The Worthington Riots.
Yet, the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio thinks such measures are inappropriate and legally questionable. Cleveland has its own flash mob problem, and the city council unanimously voted to ban the use social media or cell phones to start a flash mob. However, Mayor Frank Jackson immediately vetoed the bill, saying it infringed on the right of all citizens.
This was a bold and controversial statement, as well as the right one. Not only does criminalizing technology not get to the root of the problem, it will do little to deter youths. Anyone acting in a violent flash mob is already committing a crime, yet the threat of arrest doesn't stop them. What's more, a government control of personal communication threatens the liberty of law-abiding citizens.
What is becoming apparent is that the best way to crack down on flash mobs is through curfews, at least for the time being.
A curfew inducted last weekend kept the streets of Philadelphia relatively quiet. In the Center City and University City neighborhoods, anyone 17 or younger must be home by nine p.m. In all other areas of the city, anyone under the age of 18 must be indoors by midnight, and anyone under 13 must be off the streets by 10 p.m. With just one weekend under the new law, police apprehended around 50 kids who were out too late. The juveniles will face fines of upto $300.
As the ease of communication increases and as social networking platforms become more widespread, the flash mob problem will get worse before it gets better. But this trend will eventually be curbed. But fighting the technology is not the means to an end.