Collective power: ‘Smart mobs’ connect, share information on Net

The future belongs to swarm intelligence, or smart mobs. Grouped together by common interests, age or occupation, smart mobs use the wonders of online technology to stay in touch and better their day-to-day lives. Nobody wishes to be cast out of these communities, so smart phones, computers and PDAs help them integrate and learn from each other.

The trend is clear, at least for the participants in Germany’s Trend Day conference organized for the tenth year in Hamburg, on June 2: Internet and mobile phones are the keys to this inter-connected world; blogging is “digital word-of-mouth propaganda,” the direct marketing and advertising of our day and of tomorrow; Web users become journalists with the advantage of services like Wikinews; and linking has become more important than products – that’s why “business itself should learn to google,” said media analyst and author Howard Rheingold at the conference.

In Germany there is a 50/50 usage of the Internet in private and business life. “This is a really exciting moment, because the technology is involved in daily life,” said Duisburg/Essen University’s Professor Peter Wippermann, founder of Trendbuero, the consulting company which organizes Trend Day. “But the cultural and social interaction [made possible by new media] is not really recognized,” he said, “So in this day we talk about how this will change our behavior in daily life.”

“Smart mobs” and “swarm intelligence” are two phrases that define the same concept, and since the organizers of the Trend Day conference built this year’s event around “swarm intelligence,” they invited Rheingold, who wrote Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, to deliver the keynote address. According to Rheingold, smart mobs are spontaneous majorities of citizens who organize themselves via the Internet and mobile phones.

SMS as a smart mobs’ tool

Rheingold called services like Short Message Service (SMS — sending and receiving text messages using mobile phones) “technologies of cooperation.” They are “embryonic” today, he said, and the way people make use of new media shapes new social forms.

SMS was slower to pick up speed in the US than in Asia and Europe, but it has now taken off in America as well, Rheingold said. “[American cell phone operators] pitched SMS to 30-year-old executives instead of 15-year-old girls, and this was a mistake,” said Rheingold, explaining why SMS was slow to develop in the U.S. Plus, he explained, there were technology problems, such as the fact that American operators did not allow for messages to be transmitted from one network to another. SMS first appealed to teenagers because it was a very comfortable way to communicate with their kind without grown-ups ear-dropping, Rheingold said.

However, 30-year-old executives are now using the text capabilities of their mobile phones just like 15-year-olds. “SMS was commercially an accident – it was not originally seen as a revenue-producing service, but today 100 billion SMS messages are being exchanged every month,” said Rheingold.

Smart mobs are “the next social revolution,” Rheingold said. Nowadays our handheld devices are more powerful than the desktop computers we had 15 years ago. In a few years virtually everybody will walk on the streets with a powerful computing machine, he added, explaining that the combined computing and communication power of the people will generate a new way of group action and interaction at a societal scale.

Blogs change the business world

To Wippermann, the intelligent swarm means evolution, rather than revolution. “The Internet was a technical revolution,” Wippermann said. “The intelligent swarm is a social evolution.”

This evolution has been changing the way people communicate and is also changing the way people do business. New technologies and new communication habits offer new marketing tools. According to Wippermann, in an intelligent swarm people communicate and exchange information and opinions about products.

Blogs are one popular way for people to do these things, and this is why blogging becomes more and more important to marketing. The dialogue of the “grassroots consumer” defines the success of the markets, said the German professor, who is a specialist in trends-based brand management.

In his conference address, Wippermann talked about some of the ideas he tackled in the book The New Moral of Network Children (Steinle/Wippermann). According to Wippermann, those who can offer “a childish play instinct and youthful naïveté will provoke swarm intelligence. Events, action and styling determine the efficiency of swarm communication. Those who don’t remain in the discussion will be turfed out.”

This is how blogs became important in influencing and shifting American political views during the 2004 election, and they are now used by politicians as a campaign tool. And this is why companies that understand the power of blogging sometimes create fake blogs to discuss — and hence promote — their own products and services.

“Links are more important than products”

At the same time, in modern society linking has come to be more important than products, said Dr. Norbert Bolz, a media philosopher who teaches at the Institute for Language and Communication at the Technischen Universität Berlin. “Quality alone is not enough,” according to Bolz. “Success is a network effect. Weak connections are stronger than strong connections. Acquaintances are more important than friends,” he maintained.

“Today you make the main profit not with the quality of products, but with process of linking between buyers and sellers, between products and people,” Bolz said in an interview with OJR. The quality of products is still essential but is no longer enough, he added. “Linking is the new added value of the 21st century,” Bolz argued.

Links have absolutely added value to journalism and not only to online media, Bolz said. “A very simple example outside the world of online journalism is what traditional media do nowadays,” he explained. “Every traditional medium, television or print media, can only exist nowadays by linking to online media. Many stories have a link toward a Web site.”

The German philosopher believes besides the value of one product, today you have to provide consumers of media and other products and services with something more: “You have to give consumers the impression that they no longer consume one product at a time, but a whole sentence of products.”

One product is one word, Bolz said. “But nowadays we don’t need a word, we consume whole sentences, we consume stories. And that is [something] you can only construct by linking products or services if you want to produce and sell a story – and this is what people expect from markets nowadays: they want to buy stories. And this means you have to link products to provide a whole environment of consumerism.”

Is this the end for traditional media? Bolz’s answer is no. “I’m absolutely sure traditional media will survive,” he told OJR. “I don’t think the prospect of cannibalization in the media is really true. I think media will coexist. They will be complements of each other. Because every medium, even an old one like books on printed paper, has some qualities you can’t [find] in other media.”

What will happen, Bolz said, is that every medium will have to find its “unique selling proposition.” Most people who say the print media days are over “are just too lazy to think of their own unique selling proposition.” Things will surely change, Bolz thinks, but not in the sense that everything will be digital. “What we’ll have is a media mix,” he said. “People will arrange and mix multiple media they are interested in and everyone will be characterized by a different media mix. I think this is a much more interesting perspective on the future of media than all this talk about the cannibalization of traditional media by the computer and by the Internet. Everything will coexist, in a new way of course – wherever you have coexistence, it means that every part of this coexisting situation must redefine its own qualities.”

Wikipedia and Wikinews: anyone can produce information

For many, the keyword on the Internet is “free.” And not only in the sense that you get free information, but also in the sense that people sometimes seem pleased to work for free. Actually, online communities – call them intelligent swarms or smart mobs if you like – are often based on their members’ willingness to freely contribute to the group’s knowledge.

This is the engine powering Wikipedia, for example, at least according to its founder, Jimmy Wales, who came to Hamburg to explain how people are voluntarily posting entries on this Web encyclopedia out of sheer will to better human knowledge. Wales published the Wikipedia software in January 2001 and after four years the free encyclopedia — where entries are written, edited, corrected and sometimes voted out by ordinary people who don’t get any pay — is larger than Britannica online and Encarta put together. It is in the top 100 Web sites, and it registers more than 500 million page views a month.

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing. If the mainstream media can’t do good, unbiased journalism, then we’ll have to do it for them,” Wales said.

And they are not just doing it to the free encyclopedia, Now the Web has Wikinews.org, working by the same principles: “the free news source that you can write,” as the site advertises itself. Add to that Wiktionary, where users can input word definitions; Wikibooks, which aims to create a “complete curriculum from kindergarten to university,” as Wales put it; Wikisource for reference; Wikiquote for quotations; and Wikimedia for picture and sound files.

But doesn’t the fact that anybody can edit an encyclopedia or a news site hurt quality? And how reliable is a source where anybody, including fanatics, the dumb and the crazy can post?

It is reliable, argued Wales. Although it does not have a reputation mechanism such as those used by eBay or Slashdot, where posters’ credibilities are monitored, Wiki’s reputation “is a natural outgrowth of human interactions,” he said.

What helps is that in fact 50 percent of all edits on the English-language Wikipedia site are done by a mere 0.7 percent of all users — 524 people — and only two percent have written over 70 percent of all articles, Wales said. On the German-language site, he added, nine percent — 320 people — of all users are responsible for more than 90 percent of edits.

When things are in danger of getting out of control, for example when fanatics or extremists attempt to corrupt Wiki’s content, Wales, who views his role as that of a monarch over a kingdom, has the power to intervene and correct things. He said he nearly had to use this power when a group of neo-Nazis planned to exploit Wiki’s vote-out system to erase content they didn’t like. The Nazis tried to group-vote some articles out, but they were overwhelmed by other users and didn’t succeed, Wales explained. A nice example of how “spontaneous majorities of citizens,” as Trend Day speakers defined the smart mobs, organized themselves to counteract a neo-Nazi mob that proved to be a minority.

Dangers: cacophony and fetishism

But with so many people having a voice online, isn’t there a danger that views that society usually casts out may sometimes prevail on the Net? With so many sources such as online communities and blogs out in the wild, how can Internet users tell value from the rest? Could this multitude of sites overwhelm and confuse the readers?

“Yes, of course,” said Bolz, but this is a characteristic of the Internet culture: diversity at its best, but also at its worst – “too many voices, a cacophony.” Not only the smart mobs mobilize, he said. It is also “the dumb, the crazy, the paranoid, the radicals – everyone has a Web site, everyone has a potential of community, so the development of this new technology is not a straight road into progress or happiness, and I look at it with mixed feelings. I have mixed emotions, we have to pay our price.”

Moreover, with so many new possibilities of interaction, there is always another danger; Bolz called it “fetishism” and said it is characteristic of the whole world of interactive media. “Wherever there are interactive media, interactive possibilities, there is the danger of fetishism – which means people are interacting, or people are communicating not because they want to transfer information, to cooperate or do things, but they just communicate for communication’s sake; they just link for linking’s sake.” Often they do it only because it is fun.

“But I think these are all problems of a very early stage of this new communication,” Bolz argued. “It’s the childhood of the new digital media, and children are not only funny, but they are sometimes very dumb and very crazy, and we just have to wait, as a culture, until we get mature.”

And we’ll grow up in five or six years, Bolz thinks. “I’m optimistic because the Internet is a very explosive medium and it starts for most of us in 1995, which is exactly ten years ago, and this is not very long,” he said.

About Alex Ulmanu

Alex Ulmanu teaches online journalism at the University of Bucharest and the "Media" University in Romania. He is also the Culture editor and the online editor of the Romanian daily Evenimentul Zilei (evz.ro).