The Transient Crowd: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are
Entrepreneur Jeff Jackel tells me that he came up with the idea for a "transient" location-based social network while sitting in the left-field bleachers at a Los Angeles Angels game. "Everyone around me was on their phone. I wondered, why can't I connect with the other 40,000 people who are doing this, and why can't the Angels connect with me right now and do something with us here right now? That is what basically got in my head."
Apparently, it got in his head and buzzed. A year later we have a novel and promising little app launching today in the iPhone App Store called BuzzMob. The simple idea is that anyone -- an audience member, a neighborhood watch commander, a concert or sports venue -- can create a ring around a local area that will let fellow app users share thoughts, images, and content of any sort related to the space at the moment. It is an ad hoc and transient mobile social space where the host and people in the zone can create content and augment a space.
The BuzzMob host creates a Ring within a GPS-determined zone. A handy touch screen interface lets the creator narrow the ring to a few blocks or expand to the space of a small town or piece of a city. People using the app within the ring can join it for content exchanges. If the ring is made "public," then those outside the ring can see its activities but not add content. The app uses GPS to determine real members within the physical space so no one can game the system and pretend to be there. Likewise, the creepiness of such a localized view of others is minimized by the fact that people in the space cannot be pinpointed by others.
Jackel is quick to distinguish BuzzMob from the familiar check-in and social network apps. This is an ad hoc space. It does not rely on broadcasting your whereabouts to or seeking out members of an existing social network. Wherever you are, you or the venue can craft a space within which occupants can exchange content. "It is just people in the space enhancing the experience," he says.
The utility of such a simple tool is immediately obvious. In essence, a concert or sports promoter can augment the experience at a venue in any number of ways, not least of which is just to let people in the space exchange views and images. There is a feed of current conversations and posts. But also helpful is a map view that lets people geo-tag specific spots in the venue with comments and advice. In a theme park or state fair, users can tag favorite places or give others guidance about special offers and plant push pins that guide people to them. Concert promoters could post backstage images to the crowd to give them an enhanced view on the event. The app has several basic map, feed and photo views on the content, but there is also room for countless modules BuzzMob can build with a client for other material, including polls, contest, links to URLs, etc. A food ordering system could be included in a Ring, for instance.
As a business, BuzzMob's model most likely will rely on venue partnerships and providing customized services. My guess is that it also needs the venues to achieve some visibility. After all, who is going to discover or carry around an app like this without some prompting by the location itself? Ultimately, this is an app that could do best as a feature or service within a most established network like foursquare or Facebook, making it more likely that people could discover and use it within a space. Also the "mob" part of the app moniker may be a tad unfortunate, given the recent wave of bad flash mobs. One has to wonder, too, who has what kind of control over the content in any given event, when perhaps the mobilized crowd gets, well, mob-like.
But there are some interesting scenarios here. Imagine if a band offers its traveling Ring to fans so they can follow the group from venue to venue and observe the event from the perspective of the concertgoers. In my neighborhood in northern Delaware, the residents have a rag tag "network" email ring that certainly could be enhanced by a Neighborhood Ring. A Ring within a major theme park could be enormously helpful in guiding people to certain attractions or communicating waits for rides, blue light specials, etc. And of course, the basic idea of the app is that it activates the crowd itself as an immediate content-creation engine that helps reverse the polarity of the usual venue experience. Suddenly the spectators have a more nuanced role in defining a mass experience than simply cheering or booing.
The idea of augmenting a physical space at a point in time via technology is at heart what mobilization is all about. It is interesting to me that Jackel does not come from the mobile or tech arena. He is a film school grad who once started a branded entertainment company and then built a clothing company in the last half of the past decade. This is just an idea that he says came to him out of a simple question inspired more by an instance than by the technology: How can we make this space, this moment, richer? In the end, that is the essential shift mobilization represents -- from a digital revolution that enhanced knowledge and hyper-activated information, to a next stage where the mobile device uses that information and those digital processes to re-engineer experiences and augment the moment.