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Smart Mobs II March 20, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in New Media, Smart Mobs.
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Last week, I started off my post by summarizing Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold with the term “community.” The second half of Rheingold’s book extends the community sentiment not just by discussing communities of people, but what happens when mobile technology permeates every corner of that community and weaves it together. (As a side note, the term “weave” seems especially apt in this circumstance, especially since the title of one of Rheingold’s chapters is Wireless Quilts.)

Traditionally, community has been restricted by location. Communities coalesced around the town square; they were places where people could physically unite to discuss the issue of the day, gossip about neighbors and connect with fellow citizens.

Along the same lines, information was restricted by location. To obtain money or financial information, you had to go to a bank. To get a pair of pants, you had to go to a tailor. To find out about a restaurant, you had to ask around until you found someone who had previously dined there.

But what happens when all of that information exists all around us, embedded in the social fabric? If you can point a cell phone or a mobile environment reader any given object and get reviews, recommendations, coupons, and more information about it? What if we live in a world as Weisner (p. 87) envisioned, a sore of “ubicomp?”

At that point, community isn’t just about people. It is about the people around us and the material environment that they live in.

And what if every stranger you ran into wasn’t so strange? One day, everyone might have the ability to follow any other person’s digital trail and track their personal reputation, as Rheingold suggests in chapter 5. Virtual communities like eBay operate on trust and the “shadow of the future.” In a digital world, as that shadow becomes increasingly discoverable, it also reshapes the ability of people to misrepresent themselves to the people around them.

And last, what if word of mouth isn’t restricted to the physical? If ubiquitous mobile techology makes communication easier, you are able to see events like the protests leading to the fall of Estrada in the Philippines (p. 157) or the growing protest in Seattle during the WTO Summit.

What if you can locate a stranger 3,000 miles away, learn everything about them engage them to act on behalf of a cause, or convince them to vote for a candidate, or buy a product, or share some news with a friend?

So what is the “why question” that bundles all of these questions?

Why is wireless communication technology important?

And the answer?

Because it revolutionizes what a community is and what it can do.

Cell phones and open source March 13, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Smart Mobs, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
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If the word that best summarizes the themes of We the Media and Naked Conversations is “conversation,” then the word that encapsulates the readings from this week is “community.” The revolution of digital media is the result of two-way communication and peer-to-peer interaction. Smart Mobs and the selected reading from The Cathedral and the Bazaar show what happens when peers of interested individuals ban together to form communities.

Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs is a play-on-words — it describes both the intelligence of small mobile devices to serve as instant, hand-held connectors (a “mobile device”), as well as the groups of networked individuals joined together by this technology (A “mob”). Although the book was written in the earlier part of the decade, his observations and the philosophy behind them ring true today.

The notion of the commons is an interesting one, and author Rheingold is right: cooperation is what makes this technology interesting.

What was most fascinating to me is thinking about what has happened even in America alone since the book was first published to impact our mobile society. First, the explosion of the BlackBerry as a communications device nearly negates an observation made by Rheingold in chapter one. While when he was writing, texting was not seen as an appropriate business activity in America while it was used in places like Japan. Today, the BlackBerry has become a status symbol among professionals who want to show that they are connected to their work, their colleagues and their clients.

The second interesting development has happened even more recently — the takeoff of Twitter. Twitter blends blogging with mobile technology, allowing users to use the Web, instant message software and their mobile devices to send short “life updates,” revealing to their friends what they are doing and thinking in real time.

Sending messages through mobile networks truly accomplishes the goal of community, connecting people to one another across untold distance virtually any time.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

If the commons is an important concept to Rheingold, it is essential to Raymond. The Cathedral and the Bazaar is a treatise on the virtues of open-source development. Rather than locking development of new technologies behind the walls of a single company or inventor, the best work can be accomplished by cooperation among the collective. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The open source model of software development allows each person willing to contribute to the whole (based on their level of interest and expertise), ultimately yielding a product that meets real users’ needs.

Perhaps the most illuminating section came when Raymond compared open source development to project management. It was especially resonant to me because the other course I am taking this semester is Digital Media Project Management. Raymond summarizes the five necessary tasks of traditional project managers as defining goals, monitoring progress, motivating staff, organizing activities and marshaling resources. Raymond says that in the context of open source, each of these needs is irrelevant. Marshaling resources is unneeded because resources are only limited by a willingness to participate. Participants don’t need to be monitored or motivated because the group is self regulating and participants self-select to participate.