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On Howard Rheingold’s “Smart Mobs” and Nintendo’s SMS press announcement

Overload: or, welcome your new overlordWhen Game Life’s Chris Kohler reported that the Wii had finally outsold the Xbox 360 in the U.S. yesterday, he also reprinted Nintendo’s annoucement, which itself is written in a strange, alien shorthand. “After just 20 mos, Wii is the new console leader in the US @ nearly 10.9 million units, says NPD 2day.

Kohler received said information from Nintendo directly—not through a formal press release, but instead through a text message.

That’s a text message that Nintendo of America just sent to journalists’ phones, knowing they’d be away from their desks covering E3. (The company used the same delivery medium to announce the Wii MotionPlus controller on Monday.)

Although Kohler’s SMS message from Nintendo isn’t the main point of his update, I find this unbelievably interesting. Two days ago I noted that I’d followed E3 news and rumors using Twitter almost exclusively—and using the new Twitteriffic iPhone app, at that. “When I look over my Twitter friend-feed,” I’d said (yes, quoting myself is bizarre), “it’s like this extremely concise liveblog written by ten or twenty people.”

Smart Mobs by Howard RheingoldWhen Howard Rheingold published Smart Mobs: the Next Social Revolution just six years ago, the book read, at best, as doe-eyed optimism, and at the very worst, as science fiction. At the time, it was impractical for the average American to browse the ‘mobile web’ using any ordinary mobile handset (if I recall correctly, my then-Sprint contract referred to text messaging as “mobile e-mail” or some such gibberish). Even the title, Smart Mobs, seemed a misnomer at the time. The neologism was obviously derived from another new term, ‘flash mobs,’ itself a sort of misnomer. After all, here in the States, any zombie mob or Improv Everywhere performance seems, even now, to require weeks or months of preparation. These events are hardly ‘flashes.’

So when Rheingold described mobile technology as an efficient medium for grassroots messages, or as something that could ”[transform] cultures and communities in the age of instant access”—in his book, Rheingold pointed to the many public demonstrations, “organized through salvos of text messages,” which resulted in the 2000 impeachment of the Philippines’ then-president Joseph Estrada—the idea of cell phones as a means toward political or cultural revolution seemed absolutely foreign, metaphorically and literally. Wasn’t AOL’s instant messenger service enough? Who used a mobile phone for anything except to let your dinner party know you’d be late to the restaurant? Or, for instance, when Rheingold discussed the idea of “wireless quilts,” or when he mentioned things like 3G (on the same page! Page 136!), it seemed completely out there: even the average technophile was still a year or two away from picking up his first wireless router.

And when Rheingold wrote about Finland’s preoccupation with location-based gaming, his description totally predated the ubiquity of English-language expressions like ARG. And even in the present day, it’s difficult to explain location-based gaming even to tech hipsters: I recently had a hell of a time trying to explain the concept to my section of the iPhone waiting line. Only an employee of Limbo, a Finnish social networking site that makes use of mobile technology and the iPhone’s GPS, knew what I was talking about.

the importance of the heartRheingold mentioned, in 2002, that those mobile phones that sell best in Japan all include, beyond the usual alphanumeric characters, a “heart” symbol. I was astonished. Who were these people? I wondered. This was well before I’d started punctuating my SMS messages and informal correspondence with <3, after all.

Japan has long been ahead of the curve; incidentally, the first chapter of Rheingold’s book is titled “Shibuya Epiphany.” In the introduction to Smart Mobs, Rheingold writes of his visit to Shibuya in 2000:

I learned that those teenagers and others in Japan who were staring at their mobile phones and twiddling the keyboards with their thumbs were sending words and simple graphics to each other—messages like short emails that were delivered instantly but could be read at any time. When I looked into the technical underpinnings of telephone texting, I found that those early texters were walking around with an always-on connection in their hands. The tingling in my forebrain turned into a buzz. When you have a persistent connection to the Internet, you have access to a great deal more than a communication channel.

It wasn’t until 2005, at E3, that I realized text messaging was the best way to collaborate, particularly with coworkers on the crowded, noisy show floor. I wasn’t a latecomer to SMS, per se, at least not by North American standards. Like many of my ilk, I didn’t own a cell phone until 2003, and even then, I tended to leave it behind in my apartment. But by 2005, enough people owned cell phones; mobile technology’s subsequent ubiquity made text messaging worthwhile and reliable. Indeed, the value of every other social networking technology—SixDegrees, Friendster, Myspace, Orkut, Facebook—is wholly contingent on whether everybody else uses it. What is technologically and sociologically viable on a mobile device is very different from what is possible on the computer, the Xbox, and the web, if only because, in 2008, everyone has one, and it is always on. This new fact intrinsically changes the way we are using cell phones.

Kohler’s text message from Nintendo, in lieu of a formal press release, strikes me as impossibly efficient, and also impossibly Japanese. Five or six years ago, the text message would have struck me as, well, impossible. Now, every journalist is accessible by mobile on the show floor, and where each might have been stingy with giving out his mobile number six years ago, today, he gladly surrenders it to the Nintendo Rollodex.

And as part of the ongoing Dark Knight marketing, a link to each new ARG ‘scavenger hunt’ is sent to its players via text message. While mobile social software like Dodgeball and Limbo have yet to catch on in the U.S.—here, the thought of faceless followers knowing your every move is, in a word, creepy—services like Twitter have inexplicably caught on. What’s more, that service has transitioned into an almost wholly mobile service (does anyone still use the web interface? Besides me, I mean), and over a very short span of time. Even the Facebook and Myspace iPhone applications have seamlessly turned onetime web-based services into excellent mobile software. We are very new to what Rheingold calls “a persistent connection to the Internet,” and we are more receptive to that new freedom than we ever might have guessed in 2002.

How long until other PR groups catch the SMS fever? How long until those one-off Twitters and strangely-punctuated SMS messages become fodder for genuine news? Until they become the news itself?

I wouldn’t have called Smart Mobs: the Next Social Revolution a must-read back in 2002: although it seemed, at the time, valuable and interesting, its subject matter was not yet totally applicable or crucial. How the times have changed.

This is by no means a stand-in for a review of Smart Mobs. I’d never intended to write about the book at all, least of all for Infinite Lives. Perhaps I should reconsider. Online multiplayer had an extremely narrow market six years ago; therefore, sections of the book that didn’t exactly pertain to videogames half a decade ago are, in 2008, absolutely relevant. “When I learned to see the signs,” Rheingold wrote, “I began to see them everywhere—from barcodes to electronic bridge tolls. The other pieces of the puzzle are all around us now but haven’t joined together yet.” In the ensuing six years they have joined together. Smart Mobs effectively predicted a sociological reality.

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