Howard Rheingold: Learning From The 'Thumb Tribes'

By Roland Piquepaille

Howard Rheingold is well known as an observer of technology trends. Among other works, he's the author of "The Virtual Community."

He thinks he has discovered another disruptive technology: the cell phone. And more specifically, how people -- mostly young ones -- are interacting with their phones to send and receive text messages, known as SMS (for Short Message Service).

He saw these interactions from Japan to Finland and from Brazil to Italy. He decided to write a book about this phenomenon.

Robert D. Hof discussed this book, "Smart Mobs," with Howard Rheingold. Here is a selected excerpt.

Q: What started you on this particular trend you call smart mobs?
A: Early in 2000, I was walking around Tokyo and couldn't help noticing that people were looking at their telephones rather than listening to them. And they were thumbing messages into them rather than talking into them.
A couple of months later, halfway around the world in Helsinki, I was sitting at an outdoor café. Three teenagers came by, encountered two older adults, maybe their parents, and one of the kids looked at his phone and smiled, and showed his phone to the other two kids, and they smiled. But they didn't show it to the two adults. Suddenly, a circuit closed. I thought, O.K., something is happening in Japan, it's happening here, it has infiltrated both societies. It's now happening in the U.S. What's going on here?
It wasn't until [later that] it was explained to me that those telephones had persistent Internet connections. Then I thought, "Oh, the Internet -- now it's in people's pockets." It's everywhere. People who wouldn't even own a computer or sit in front of a computer at work have these things.

For additional information, you also should read Andrew Orlowski's article, "Phones more disruptive than PC or Internet." It's published by The Register, so the tone is quite different. Here are some edited quotes from a conversation he had recently with Howard Rheingold.

Q: How did it happen everywhere else, but not here [in the US]?
A: Price was a big persuader. In Europe, it was cheaper to text someone telling them that you were late, than making that call.
Q: If personal communications were so popular all over the world, why was the USA an exception?
A: There's always been a reluctance of US operators to let go of high product margins. And they've marketed to 30 year old executives, not 15 year old girls, like they did in Finland.

And don't forget to visit the Smart Mobs Weblog.

Sources: Robert D. Hof, BusinessWeek Online, November 20, 2002; Andrew Orlowski, The Register, November 21, 2002; Howard Rheingold Smart Mobs's Weblog

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