September 16, 2005
Excerpts: Branding Unbound by Rick Mathieson - Part VI
Howard Rheingold: The Mobile Net's New "Mob" Mentality
Howard Rheingold knows a revolution when he sees one. In 1993, he wrote The Virtual Community before most people had ever even ventured onto the Internet. And in his landmark book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, he explored the outer fringes of the mobile Web, and how its creating new bonds between human beings-for better and for worse.
Writing for the online tech community The Feature, and his Smart Mobs blog, Rheingold continues this exploration of how mobile technologies are reshaping the social, political, and economic landscape worldwide. He says smart mobs represent a fundamentally new form of social connectivity that will empower the "mobile many" to have fun and do both good and evil in the decade ahead.
RICK MATHIESON: Why makes smart mobbing such a powerful social force?
HOWARD RHEINGOLD: People all over the world are beginning to discover that they can use coordinative technologies--the mobile phone, the Internet-to coordinate face-to-face activities. On the more privileged social side of the spectrum, we have the "flash mob" phenomenon. A lot of people say, well, 'Geez, theres no purpose for that.' I say, 'Whats the purpose of standing in line buying a ticket and sitting in a stadium with 100,000 people to watch men in tight pants kick a ball around?' Its entertainment. Whats interesting about flash mobs is that its self-organized entertainment. Youre not standing in line buying a ticket and having someone elses prepackaged entertainment sent to you.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the president of Korea elected by a combination of a "citizen reporter" Web site, AllmyNews.com, and people using e-mail and text messages to coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts. When they put a call out literally during the election that their candidate was losing in the exit polls, they got out to vote and hit that election. In Spain, there was the terrorist bombing, and the elections several days later, in which there were official government-organized demonstrations followed by self-organized demonstrations. They were organized by SMS and may well have tipped that election.
And in the United States, we saw the [Howard] Dean [presidential] campaign using his blog and Meetup.com to organize. At one point he was bringing in $50,000 a day in small contributions, and 140,000 people at house parties were actively promoting him. And although Dean did not get the [nomination], this ultimately is going to change the way politics is run in the Unites States.
So, clearly something is happening worldwide; its at the level of many people organizing some urban entertainment. And its at the level of deciding whos going to be president of a country. And that threshold for collective action is lowered by the merger of the mobile telephone, the PC, and the Internet.
RM: How will the next wave of multimedia, mobile broadband networks, and location-aware technologies impact the dynamics of smart mobbing?
HR: Hiptop Nation is the first example of something that can evolve. Hiptop Nation is a combination of picture phones and blogging-people sending small, low-res photographs and a few words from their wireless device through a Web site. And that will evolve as these new technologies evolve.
Moblogging is a really interesting example of people, spread out all over the world, using mobile devices and the Web to get information out. It may seem frivolous, but it illustrates how mobile technologies can change how we view time, the way we navigate our cities, and how we collaborate with other groups of people. I think both blogging and picture phones are very powerful phenomena in
themselves, but when you combine the ability of anyone on the street to send media from where they are to anyone else in the world through the Web, I think it portends significant changes, though its rudimentary today.
Add in GPS [and other] location capabilities that let you know where your buddies are, or how to get wherever it is youre going, and that will enhance this revolution significantly.
And, in connection with that, the ability to add presence [awareness], presence being like your buddy list on Instant Messenger, so you know who is in the neighborhood now, will be huge. Were seeing some experiments with that, not necessarily from the big companies, but from small experimenters like Dodgeball. So, thats going to make a huge difference. Its hard to tell at this point whether this is going to grow from grassroots efforts like Dodgeball, or whether some [cellular service carriers] are going to get the clue and start offering that, too.
RM: What does this all mean for marketers?
HR: Anybody that has bought anything on eBay knows how reputation systems work. Before you buy something, you want to know whether to trust the seller. Online, mobile or otherwise, you can go find out what people who have bought things from that person before are saying.
Imagine the whole notion of information on places: location blogging where you subscribe to a group or service to see what kind of information they have on real places, 'This restaurant is no good,' or, 'This is my favorite bookstore.' One of the first applications Ive seen is for speed traps. Someone notices a speed trap, and then sends a notice, or it pops up on [an online] map, for everyone else to see. Im sure that law enforcement is not happy about that, but thats an example of the kinds of things that people come up with.
Likewise, the manufacturers of mass products are not going to be able to hide for very long if people are talking amongst each other about them.
Which brings me to yet another aspect of this, which is being able to use your mobile device to point at the bar code or RFID tag on a manufactured product and find out all kinds of things-from what kinds of ingredients are in there that arent on the label, or a Webcam at the factory where teenagers are assembling your sneakers in Pakistan, or what either the Moral Majority or the ACLU has to say about the politics of this company. That could tip power to consumers and clear the way for the kind of economic smart mobbing that would create very significant changes, if that happens.
A friend of mine whos a Microsoft researcher has put together a handheld wireless device with a bar code reader and connected it to Google.
I was able to go into his kitchen, scan a box of prunes, and see that it was distributed by the Sun-Diamond Growers Cooperative. You Google Sun-Diamond, and you find "U.S. versus Sun-Diamond," [an article] on the U.S. Supreme Court looking at questionable lobbying practices. You will see a partisan site called corpwatch.org with their headline to the effect of "Bromide Barons Suppress Democratic Process." Youre not going to find this out in the label, but Sun-Diamond is [allegedly] the largest contributor to lobbying against control of the chemical methyl bromide. Sun-Diamond is not going to tell you that. But if you Google it, if you connect that ability to find that information out there to your ability to scan something in real time, that changes a lot.
RM: So how can companies embrace smart mobs and use them to have a positive impact on their business?
HR: Any business that cant keep in touch with business makers, key people, and customers when they need to is going to fall behind. Were seeing that people who cant be interrupted by phone calls can be reached by SMS or instant messaging, and that groups are able to coordinate their activities at all times anywhere around the globe.
When your buddy list is an executive team or an engineering team that is split up around the world, to react to the conditions very quickly, being able to not just talk, but know when the others are online, send them text, send them rich messages, and send them documents, in real time, is pretty important. And it will make all the difference in a competitive situation.
From a marketing perspective, I think this is the very opposite of some small group deciding whos going to be marketed to. Many communities are, for the most part, self-organized. So, I think youre not going to get that smart mob power unless you have something that really moves a lot of people to go out and self-organize. Its like how AOL tried to build a top-down Internet with their little 'walled garden of Web sites. Thats not the same as having millions of people put up their own Web pages and link to each other, and create 4 billion Web pages in 2,000 days. Its about harnessing the power of collective action that enables anybody to act in a way that adds up, not organizing something from the top down and trying to broadcast it. There are some things you just cant do that way.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.