Us social media types like to bang on about crowd conversations, live blogging and ambient intimacy but don’t often get to see this stuff out in the wild beyond the geekmeets.
So, OrangeJon and myself decided to run a little experiment to see whether we were actually early adopters or just a little freaky. We approached Vale Festival which pulls in several thousand students for a day with much going on and offered our services in order to answer this question:
Given the very specific context of a large, diverse festival, what is the viability of crowd-generated postings via mobile devices?
Can we turn happy, ordinary students into twitterers, basically.
To maximise participation, we realised early on that it should require minimal effort to contribute. We are, after all, talking about students drinking free beer in the sun. Flat-rate data plans and iPhones were presumed to be thin on the ground.
We reduced registration to nothing, making it retroactive. Students could text their messages straight to an advertised number (standard txt rate) which would automatically register them (returning the details by SMS) and post their message on the event-specific page. This page was mobile-friendly and hosted under Bodder.
To make it even more real, we grabbed a 1.5m LED scrolling display off eBay and rigged it to show recent posts from the crowd (accessed via a generously loaned 3G dongle – thanks Pete!). Visibility was reduced in direct sunlight but it was still usable.
On top of this, we had a big poster, some t-shirts, a stack of business cards and a funky blue parasol (which later went ‘walkies’).
The raw data is reproduced below for the record. It shows the message in the order they were posted. Each post is preceded by a nickname and user id.
Si#1 is testing all Bodder systems, live at Vale Festival! [6 days ago]
Carys#120 Carys rocks [6 days ago]
anon#121 Vale fest is awesome! [6 days ago]
anon#122 Get you SLIT out darling! [6 days ago]
Si#1 is being threatened by a large slice of lime! [6 days ago]
Alex#14 is happy that Bodder is going up in the world [6 days ago]
OrangeJon#2 Carys is blonde. Oh so blonde. 😉 [6 days ago]
anon#123 hi mum [6 days ago]
anon#124 Fifty Quid to the first person who jumps in the lake. Holla at me. You know you want it. [6 days ago]
Carys#120 check out DJ Cro in the dance tent [6 days ago]
anon#125 Gta rule myspace.Com/gtaunderstand!!! [6 days ago]
anon#126 If you are reading this after party at mine for the sexually adventurous. No uggos. You will be denied entrance. 10 downing street ask for chima. Add me facebk [6 days ago]
anon#122 I’m bored, text me on 07912 482088 [6 days ago]
anon#127 Shout out to everyone at yoonee. Woohoo [6 days ago]
Si#1 kinda likes those toffee apple beers. can someone bring one over to the blue hairy brolly? [6 days ago]
anon#128 What is point bodder.com? [6 days ago]
anon#129 We’re all doomed and you hippies can’t do anything about it. [6 days ago]
anon#130 hey finnn^ [6 days ago]
anon#131 Shit and piss mate. [6 days ago]
Jonny#90 Shit and piss. [11 days ago]
anon#132 Paninis and baguettes [6 days ago]
anon#133 The jd kicks butt [6 days ago]
anon#122 Hannah lewis, text chris on 07912482088 x [6 days ago]
arjun#134 The red n blue clown is scratching the singers beard. [6 days ago]
anon#127 Get your freed beer from yoonee! RIGHT NOW! [6 days ago]
arjun#134 The red n blue clown has gone missing. [5 days ago]
arjun#134 The red n blue clown is snoggin the roman guy wearing a leaf with an ice cream in his hand. [5 days ago]
OrangeJon#2 wonders if anybody can really be Boddered [5 days ago]
- Carys was helping us out. At one point she misarranged the letters on a banner to spell ‘BODEDR’.
- Yoonee was a stall adjacent to us which was busy handing out free beer in exchange for marketable personal details.
- The messages tended to come in salvos, often triggered by personal introductions by us.
- We managed to hold off from censorship at this 99% student event.
- One guy asked if he could use our connection to check Facebook.
- Out of interest, we texted #122 with an offer to buy him a beer. This sparked a lively SMS conversation in which we established his name was Chris, certainly drunk and seriously besotted with the individual he subsequently named.
- The ‘red and blue clown’ was with Misty’s Big Adventure. This was the closest to live-blogging.
This was an incredibly useful exercise for us in a bunch of ways.
Apart from the hassle of having to take our power cable up through the trees, we had no real technical problems. People posted and their messages appeared as we checked them. We even found time to streamline the moderation process on the fly.
The eye-opener for me was the social aspect of the model. We’d believed that, given the ability to address the crowd, people would jump on it. Conversations would be sparked. Wry observations made. Although we saw some of that, we were prepared for more. I can’t say for sure, but this is how my interpretation breaks it down.
Awareness. It was a big festival and we only got properly involved close to the day. It was quite possible to spend the day out there and not check us out.
Familiarity. This is a novel mash-up of technologies, texting to an LED display via a mobile-friendly website is a trickier and more alien concept than the Wishing Tree (pictured above) or Tent of Hope.
Motivation. The above are comforting since they can be worked on. The big, hairy hurdle may simply be disinclination – why bother? People are either with their friends at the festival or just a text message away. Everyone else is just eye candy. Whilst they enjoy being where the action is, they don’t feel the need to interact with it in a big way.
The fact that many of the posts came from personal introductions suggests that a real social connection is important. Essentially, most people like to know who they are addressing before they show themselves since it shapes their message. Posting to the world (i.e. a lot of random people) doesn’t make sense. They have nothing to say to the world and they don’t presume the world to be interested.
I also suspect that the relative anonymity of posting devalues it. Where’s the social pay-off when you are not easily associated with your message? Facebook walls are hugely popular exactly because they deliver the social pay-off of targeted visibility so effectively. You friend sees the message and their friends can see the message (and your mutual friends see it in their news feed).
Getting the message out is easy. Matching it to the right context – getting it in front of the right people – is the fiddly bit. More thought required…