Can You Manage a Mob?

Bambi Francisco, a MarketWatch reporter and columnist, recently posted a piece on her blog with the provocative title “Managing the mob.” It made me ask, “what is a mob?” Many of us associate a mob with an unruly, perhaps threatening, group of people. If you hear there’s a mob on the street, do you stay inside? Or do you join them?

“Mob” has also become an active part of digerati lingo. The term “smart mobs” describes the wisdom of crowds facilitated by electronic communications. A “flash mob” is the sudden convergence of a group in a public place, organized by email.

The word “mob” has its root in Latin, “mobile vulgus,” which, according to “Merriam-Webster“, means “vacillating crowd.” Have you ever heard the word “ochlocracy”? It means “mob rule.”

But I digress. The question is whether you can manage, or control, a mob — a “vacillating crowd.” It’s a really interesting question. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it raises important, telling issues that expose how we think about our role vis-à-vis the constituents that matter to us. Those constituents may be our customers or local voters. They may be employees. Or they may be readers of a column or blog. My most important constituents right now are the people using my company’s new service.

“Smart mob” takes on new meaning when I think of it as a smart, vacillating crowd. It conjures up images of something kind of organic, not quite stable, perhaps amorphous, and constantly changing, contingent on what it is relating or reacting to. The mob’s intelligence stems from its lack of structure. The smart mob has built in intelligence that kind of bubbles to the surface, depending on the challenge it’s confronted with.

A while back, I wrote about “mob indexing,” more commonly referred to as tagging. Mob indexing means painting the Web with keywords without any structure or control. If you and I and 10 of our closest friends try to tag 100 items by attaching keywords we each think are representative or relevant, the result will be little more than a mess. On the other hand, if the mob — thousands of people — all attach keywords to those same 100 items, something interesting happens. We now get a statistical distribution of keywords with clustering and a long tail.

Try to manage the mob and give them more structure, education, and knowledge about how you want them to tag the 100 items, and you actually loose the wisdom of the crowd. A thousand librarians cataloging the 100 items is a wasted effort because one or two would provide the same result. It’s the “noise” and distribution of keywords that makes it interesting to have thousands — a mob — of “uneducated” people categorizing information.

So can you manage the mob, a vacillating crowd? I don’t think so. Get used to living in a world of ochlocracy. In fact, an attempt to manage a mob can easily anger it. And an mob angry with you can’t be a good thing. So when the mob is at your door, which it is every day for those of us with virtual Internet doors, no good will comes from attempts at control or management. You can certainly have rules for what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not, but don’t tell the mob how or what to think. The mob is smart and the crowd vacillates. So listen and engage, and you may just find that smart, vacillating crowd will bestow its wisdom upon you.

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