Editor's Note: On July 5, a few dozen mobile bloggers -- Web publishers who post photos, video and text to the Web from cell phones and other mobile devices -- gathered in Tokyo for the First International Moblogging Conference. The event was particularly resonant for author Howard Rheingold, who predicted in his book "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" that advances in technology would soon give everyone the tools they need to publish independent reports of news events as they are happening directly to the Web and other platforms.
"The moblogging conference is evidence that the culture of street bloggers I anticipated has sprouted in the real world," Rheingold writes. "I love watching a preposterous prediction materialize with baffling swiftness, especially when I was the fool who put the forecast in writing in the first place."
We asked Rheingold to pull together his thoughts on moblogging and how it will change journalism: Does the nascent moblogging movement mean journalism will eventually become more democratized, or is moblogging a fad destined to only ever be chic among a geeky minority?
Will the next Tiananmen Square uprising, the next shuttle crash or Rodney King beating be broadcast from thousands of citizen reporters' phones? Will average citizens eventually be part of the media machine, regularly contributing to and creating their own news reports, instead of just consuming them?
Rheingold's prediction: The answer is being formed today, and moblogging "is one of the leading indicators to watch as the shape of the new mediasphere becomes visible ... Because the winners and losers of the era of mobile media aren't decided yet ... the uncertainty of the situation presents an opportunity: Informed action in the near future could influence the way this nascent media culture develops -- or fails to develop -- for decades to come."
Smart Mobs Revisited
By Howard Rheingold
Although I could not be physically present at the First International Moblogging Conference, I was happy that it happened and delighted that it happened in Tokyo, if only because it vividly conjured the reality I had conjectured in "Smart Mobs" in October 2002: "What if smart mobs could empower entire populations to engage in peer-to-peer journalism? Imagine the power of the Rodney King video multiplied by the power of Napster. ... Putting video cameras and high-speed Net connections in telephones, however, moves blogging into the streets. By the time this book is published, I'm confident that street bloggers will have constructed a worldwide culture."
I quoted Justin Hall in "Smart Mobs" regarding the scenario that became technically possible in 2001, when one of the first mobile videophones fell into our hands and we wandered Tokyo, wondering what, exactly to do with it.
Hall, who was one of the conference attendees, wrote in 2002: "With the technology in place, it's only a matter of time before an amateur news video is directly distributed to the Web, or to 10 friends in video mail in a news chain letter. When that happens, this new form of news distribution will become the news, and then, ultimately, it will be no big deal."
As I write this, the world is in transition from my prediction and Justin's -- a moment when it is obvious that a new social phenomenon is emerging but it is not yet clear whether we are seeing a fad that is destined to be assimilated, commoditized, and/or disinformated, or whether we are witnessing the emergence of a powerful new medium for collective action, like the literacy that was enabled by the printing press and Internet.
Because the winners and losers of the era of mobile media aren't decided yet and the boundaries between domains have not been negotiated, the uncertainty of the situation presents an opportunity: Informed action in the near future could influence the way this nascent media culture develops -- or fails to develop -- for decades to come.
Once the new media regimes harden into place, individual or even collective effort to reshape them will be far more difficult, if not impossible. I think moblogging, and whatever it may evolve into, is one of the leading indicators to watch as the shape of the new mediasphere becomes visible -- and offers one of the most important leverage points for action.
The moblogging conference is evidence that the culture of street bloggers I anticipated has sprouted in the real world, although that name for the activity never occurred to me -- Adam Greenfield, one of the conference organizers, coined the term "moblogging" in November 2002.
Greenfield decided that the word should be pronounced with the "mob" part sounding like the word "mobile," but others, like Joi Ito, another conference attendee, pronounce it to sound like Smart Mobs. Because the name was invented in print (and online), the legitimate pronunciation can't be known until one emerges from common usage.
As far as Justin's forecast goes, sending still pictures from cameraphones to Weblogs is almost "no big deal" among teenagers in Tokyo, Helsinki, London, Rio de Janeiro. However, instantaneous street video of world-class breaking news beamed directly to the Web has yet to occur.
A pivotal moment like this, balanced on the inflection point between the deskbound regime of the PC era and the necessarily more fluid and untethered mobile-and-pervasive era, is the perfect time to ask whether the inevitable media incident will necessarily lead to peer-to-peer journalism. As futurist Paul Saffo notes, "Don't mistake a clear view for a short distance."
I would only add, in regard to many-to-many media: "Don't mistake the tool for the task." The right tools for global, instantaneous, multimedia production and distribution are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve the goal of democratizing journalism.
... the most important remaining ingredient of a truly democratized electronic newsgathering is neither a kind of hardware nor a variety of software, but a species of literacy ...
Certainly in regards to the production tools, the sudden expansion of availability approaches the scale of democratization of knowledge enabled by the printing press. A high-quality digital video camera, equivalent to the $50,000 camera used by big league news crews years ago, can be obtained for $1,500, and that price will drop to $150 within 10 years. Another few thousand dollars today buys a digital editing tool that can double as a laptop computer and is equivalent to the editing facilities that used to rent for $100/hour. Wireless broadband Internet access and easy-to-use publishing tools like blogs have brought the means of distribution of journalism within financial reach of entire populations, as well.
But a dozen early adopters does not a movement make. Now that access to the means of production and distribution is no longer a barrier, the most important remaining ingredient of a truly democratized electronic newsgathering is neither a kind of hardware nor a variety of software, but a species of literacy -- widespread knowledge of how to use these tools to produce news stories that are attention-getting, non-trivial, and credible.
Journalism, if it is to deserve the name, is not about the quality of the camera, but about the journalist's intuition, integrity, courage, inquisitiveness, analytic and expressive capabilities, and above all, the trust the journalist has earned among readers.
Good journalists discern compelling stories in events, cultivate and mobilize networks of sources, double check and triple check facts, develop reputations that can only be won by getting the story right week after week, year after year.
The most famous pioneer in the earliest years of the democratization of journalism, Matt Drudge, did not establish a sterling example of new media's promise. Now that savvy and respected newspaper journalists like Dan Gillmor have become enthusiasts of what Gillmor calls "we journalism," some of the necessary professionalism has begun to correct the imbalance of Drudge's example. The Drudge Report serves as a cautionary tale for those who would fall victim to the magical thinking of assuming stronger democracy is the necessary result of the democratization of publishing.
Blogs, RSS syndication, RSS aggregators, metablogs and reputation systems like Technorati and NewsMonster now offer a dynamic and rapidly evolving collective editorial filtering system. Some of the sites that are linked by the most people and thus rise to the top of Blogdex or Daypop on a given day contain important breaking news, some of them are bizarre or even repulsive anomalies, some are obvious or covert hoaxes.
But the opposite of Saffo's dictum can also be true when innovators race each other: Never underestimate humble beginnings. The first personal computers with 16 kilobytes of RAM were useless. But today, we can hold in our hands computers and media players that are a million times more powerful and a fifth the price of the first PCs.
Evolutionary biologists sometimes speak of "arms races" where predators and prey rapidly co-evolve more effective offensive and defensive traits. The emergence of a filtering and reputation layer in the blogosphere is driven by the arms race between the need for useful information and the increasingly undifferentiated barrage of good, bad, ugly and incomprehensible words, images, sounds and software.
Now, by subscribing and linking to online sources we trust, the consumers of blog content are becoming a kind of collective editorial system. The more attentively we sift and analyze and share our discoveries online, the more the writers of blogs (and whatever blogs evolve into) can grow a social intelligence: personally tunable but collectively produced sense-making and way-finding. At least that's a plausible ideal.
For all its entertainment and social networking value, the most important promise of blogging is that it could help revivify the moribund public sphere that is as essential to democracy as voting. The petitions, letters to the editor, pamphleteering that preceded the American and French revolutions were essential enabling institutions for the experiments in self-government that followed.
But the arrival of political public relations and the "massification" of mesmerizing media have degraded the public sphere to the point where vituperative talk radio has married the brutal fascination of television wrestling with the verbal venom of online flame wars.
There are signs that after more than a decade of political insignificance, the democratic potential of the Internet is being realized by more people every day.
In Korea, Ohmynews helped tip an election and elect a president. Worldwide, Indymedia provided ad-hoc counter-media at the scene of political protests. During the worldwide demonstrations against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the BBC Web site showed stills from cameraphone shots sent to them directly by participants in demonstrations from Stockholm to Rome. In the United States, the Howard Dean campaign emerged to the surprise of the majority of pundits because it used Internet-based organizing media such as a blog, Meetup.com, for early Dean enthusiasts to self-organize, and online fund-raising political e-commerce to the tune of $700,000 in one day. The 2004 election looms as a watershed event for Internet-based media. Moblog the conventions!
Moblogging is at a convergence of technical capabilities with the insatiable human thirst for new ways to learn, create, and communicate, and the political necessity for a truly effective peer-to-peer journalism as a counter to "disinfotainment" cartels. Here's hoping that the pioneers will be joined by millions of others, that the Matt Drudges will be forgotten as the Dan Gillmors emerge by the dozens. Once upon a time, reporters were heroes. Maybe moblogging will help revive the endangered and vital tradition.