In Xiamen, on the southeastern coast of China, a petrochemical corporation has been constructing a $1.4 million factory to produce p-Xylene, a highly toxic petrochemical used to make polyester for fiber and plastic packaging. Public concern in the city over the health risks posed by the factory's presence has been stirring dissent for some time, but opponents face the powerful joint force of a corporation and the government. Then several weeks ago, someone sent a text message. It said:Once this extremely poisonous chemical is produced, it means an atomic bomb will have been placed in Xiamen. The people of Xiamen will have to live with leukemia and deformed babies. We want our lives and health!
Danwei provides many more details on the overwhelming local opposition to the project and how the media has covered the controversy.
It's very easy to assume that technology is the pivot point that changed everything in this situation - without the high-tech solutions that enable targeted communication to move at breakneck speed, these activists would never be able to outsmart a determined and government-backed corporation in China.
Frankly, I don't think such a notion would do the organizers justice. The tool wasn't the factor -- the creative and strategic application of the available technology was.
Text messaging isn't exactly cutting-edge anymore. Danwei shows there were more advanced technological options available - but they were also well-established and the government was shutting them down before messaging could propagate effectively in those channels. This effort was relatively low-tech, but definitely high-concept. It involved a strategy that identified opinion leaders, attracted self-selecting communities, and implemented a suite of evolving and mobile communications tactics.
This wasn't a mob, it was a campaign.
In fact, the concept of the smart mob is nothing new -- only the name is. Paul Revere roused the Minutemen using nothing more than a lantern in a church tower, a horse, and his voice. But even Revere's plans depended on a network of volunteers who knew to wait for a signal and would be ready to move in a minute. That took weeks, even months, to plan - and it relied on the creativity and daring of determined people.
I realize this may sound like blasphemy to the technophiles who stop by here, but I think the success of protestes in Xiamen shows us that tools don't have to be sophisticated as long as the people who use them are strategic and creative.