Earlier this week, an article on Philly.com described a "flash mob" gathering of hundreds of Philadelphia's youth on South Street last weekend. The article describes the situation as one where there were definitely a few trouble makers who were being obscene and disturbing the peace of South Street visitors; however, the sheer size of the crowd and the speed at which they gathered was what provided the spectacle. Incredibly, this "mob" assembled itself using Twitter.
The focus of the article (and therefore the public's concern) was the havoc caused by the teens and some of their intolerable acts. Although I don't condone their behavior and feel for the patrons of businesses whose customers were harassed, I couldn't help but think about the immense power and speed of today's social media tools for connectivity and group action.
Obviously those young people were bored. They needed something to do. Young people spend a lot of time engaging with each other online, and it was only a matter of time before social media tools were used for offline socialization. But how do we get to a situation like the mob in Philadelphia? It's left many of us in the region a little shaken. It only took minutes to assemble that group. Of course we could start asking questions about where their parents/guardians were, but that's a post for another day.
This seems like a social step in the wrong direction. Over the last 18 months, we've experienced a social media boom. Many non-profits and government agencies are harnessing the power of these tools most effectively. President Obama practically won the 2008 Presidential Election by leveraging social media (Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was amongst his senior advisors). Millions of dollars were raised in response to the earthquake in Haiti in a few hours. Young people also used the power of social media to tweet and Facebook their thoughts and feelings about healthcare reform on Sunday.
There are amazing things going on in the world of social media, but last weekend's events in Philadelphia should remind us that there is a darker side. Campaigns like MTV's "It's A Thin Line" are tackling the sexting issue, and I'm sure that teen authorities will follow with positive messaging around safe social gatherings. Today's youth are the best at using social media tools to collaborate together - as last weekend's "flash mob" in Philadelphia shows - for better or worse. They are screaming for attention, literally, so let's come up with positive ways for them to collaborate.