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Text Messages to Mobilize Inauguration Protesters

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; 5:21 PM

About 400 demonstrators who plan to protest President Bush's inauguration Thursday will take their cues from a higher power -- the cellular airwaves.

The organizers of Turn Your Back on Bush will use a free service called "TxtMob" to coordinate their silent protest against the president. As the presidential motorcade travels down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House after Bush's swearing-in, protesters lining the parade route are expected to turn their backs.

Turn Your Back on Bush plans to use TxtMob to provide "updates on the action" as well as more practical advice such as which security checkpoints people should avoid because they are too crowded. A separate message list for the media will also be maintained.

"People are familiar with a large march or protest model so the act that we're doing is something different and new," set Jet Heiko, 31, spokesman for Turn Your Back on Bush. "In a sense, undermining the message that George Bush would like to have on that day requires us to communicate in a different way with people."

TxtMob is run by Tad Hirsch, a 34-year-old who is pursuing a doctorate in media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The service is relatively low-tech, relying on the same short text messaging ability that's been in use for years and highly popular among teenagers. But using TxtMob to send the same message to multiple recipients at once is an effective tool for protesters -- giving people the ability to read, respond, converge and disperse at a moment's notice.

In a way, TxtMob is a serious update on Flash Mobs, the ultimate flash-in-the-pan tech trend of two years ago in which groups of people would coordinate via e-mail and cell phone to meet en masse in public spaces, engage in some kind of frivolous behavior such as clucking like chickens, and then vanish into the bemused crowd.

Orange-clad demonstrators used the service in November and December when they flocked into the streets of Kiev to protest what they said was a rigged presidential election in Ukraine. But TxtMob was first put to use last summer during the Democratic National Convention in Boston and the Republican National Convention in New York.

Feminist group CodePink used it in Manhattan to mobilize nearly 1,000 people over three hours to arrive at a particular location in Central Park and build a human image of a weeping Statue of Liberty, said co-founder Jodie Evans.

CodePink plans to use TxtMob on Thursday for its 250 members who are expected to show up in Washington. Evans said the group will use it to move members to particular locations or if someone gets in trouble and requires help.

Getting through security is a critical priority for Turn Your Back on Bush protesters, who plan to execute their about-face maneuvers along the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue. While the Secret Service published an extensive list of forbidden items, including the a catchall "other items determined to be a potential safety hazard," cell phones and other handheld computers are permitted, said spokesman Tom Mazur.

Items measuring more than 8 inches by 6 inches by 4 inches are forbidden. "Most, if not all cell phones will fit in those parameters," Mazur said.

TxtMob was developed by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a group of artists and engineers formed in 1998. The institute's mission, as described on its Web site, is to develop technology that allows activists to better coordinate protests and other action. On the Web page that describes TxtMob, there is an image of a cell phone displaying the message "riot cops moving forward -- batons [...] stay strong!" The technology's slogan is delivered in the same vowel-lite style as a hastily-typed text message: "nw mor thn evr."

The group did not respond to an e-mail message seeking comment.

Hirsch, the MIT graduate student, said he handles maintenance and "further development" of TxtMob because the IAA does not want to be involved in the technology's daily management. He uses the service to augment his studies of how activist groups use technology to advance their platforms. He does not charge groups to use it, though he accepts donations via the Web site. Hirsch said he has received less than $100 in the past several months. Several companies have offered to buy the technology, but Hirsch said he will not sell it.

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