One of only two photos to emerge from last night's Wilco concert, image Eric Henegen
Last night my wife and I did something quite rare – we went to a concert on a Sunday night, in San Francisco, with three other couples (Wilco, playing at The Warfield). If you don’t have kids and don’t live in the suburbs, you probably think we’re pretty lame, and I suppose compared to city dwellers, we most certainly are. But there you have it.
So why am I telling you about it? Because something odd happened at the show: Wilco enforced a “no smartphone” rule. Apparently lead singer Jeff Tweedy hates looking out at the audience and seeing folks waving lit phones back at him. Members of the Warfield staff told me they didn’t like the policy, but they enforced it - quite strictly, I might add. It created a weird vibe – folks didn’t even take out their phones for fear they might be kicked out for taking a picture of the concert. (A couple of intrepid souls did sneak a pic in, as you can see at left…)
And… no one danced, not till the very end, anyway. I’ve seen Wilco a few times, and I’ve never seen a more, well, motionless crowd. But more on that later.
Now, I have something of a history when it comes to smart phones and concerts. Back in 2008 I was a founding partner in a new kind of social music experiment we called “CrowdFire.” In my post explaining the idea, I wrote:
Over the course of several brainstorming sessions… an idea began to take shape based on a single insight: personal media is changing how we all experience music. (when I was at Bonnaroo in 2007), everyone there had a cel phone with a camera. Or a Flip. Or a digital camera. And when an amazing moment occurred, more folks held up their digital devices than they did lighters. At Bonnaroo, I took a picture that nails it for me – the image at left. A woman capturing an incredible personal memory of an incredible shared experience (in this case, it was Metallica literally blowing people’s minds), the three screens reflecting the integration of physical, personal, and shared experiences. That image informed our logo, as you can see (below).
So – where did all those experiences go (Searchblog readers, of course, know I’ve been thinking about this for a while)? What could be done with them if they were all put together in one place, at one time, turned into a great big feed by a smart platform that everyone could access? In short, what might happen if someone built a platform to let the crowd – the audience – upload their experiences of the music to a great big database, then mix, mash, and meld them into something utterly new?
Thanks to partners like Microsoft, Intel, SuperFly, Federated Media and scores of individuals, CrowdFire actually happened at Outside Lands, both in 2008 and in 2009. It was a massive effort – the first year literally broke AT&T’s network. But it was clear we were onto something. People want to capture and share the experience of being at a live concert, and the smart phone was clearly how they were now doing it.
It was the start of something – brainstorming with several of my friends prior to CrowdFire’s birth, we imagined a world where every shareable experience became data that could be recombined to create fungible alternate realities. Heady stuff, stuff that is still impossible, but I feel will eventually become our reality as we careen toward a future of big data and big platforms.
Since those early days, the idea of CrowdFire has certainly caught on. In early 2008, we had to build the whole platform from scratch, but now, folks use services like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare to share their experiences. Many artists share back, sending out photos and tweets from on stage. Most major festivals and promoters have some kind of fan photo/input service that they promote as well. CrowdFire was a great idea, and maybe, had I not been overwhelmed with running FM, we might have turned it into a real company/service that could have integrated all this output and created something big in the world. But it was a bit ahead of its time.
What has happened since that first Outside Lands is that at every concert I’ve attended, I’ve noticed the crowd’s increasing connection to their smart phones – taking pictures, group texting, tweeting, and sharing the moments with their extended networks across any number of social services. It’s hard to find an experience more social than a big concert, and the thousands of constantly lit smartphone screens are a testament to that fact, as are the constant streams of photos and status updates coming out of nearly every show I’ve seen, or followed enviously online.
Which brings me back to last night. I was unaware of the policy, so as Wilco opened at the sold-out Warfield, something felt off to me. Here were two thousand San Francisco hipsters, all turned attentively toward the stage – but most of them had their hands in their pockets! As the band went into the impossible-not-to-move-to “Art of Almost”
and “I Might,”
I started wondering what was up – why weren’t people at least swaying
?! The music was extraordinary, the sound system perfectly tuned. But everyone seemed very intent on…well…being intent. They stared forward, hands in pocket, nodded their heads a bit, but no one danced. It was a rather odd vibe. It was as if the crowd had been admonished to not be too … expressive.
Then it hit me. Nobody had their phone out. I turned to a security guard and asked why no one was holding up a phone. That’s when I learned of Wilco’s policy.
It seemed to me that the rule had the unintended consequence of muting the crowd’s ability to connect to the joy of the moment. Odd, that. We’re so connected to these devices and their ability to reflect our own sense of self that when we’re deprived of them, we feel somehow less…human.
My first reaction was “Well, this sucks,” but on second thought, I got why Tweedy wanted his audience to focus on the experience in the room, instead of watching and sharing it through the screens of their smartphones. By the encore, many people were dancing – they had loosened up. But in the end, I’m not sure I agree with Wilco – they’re fighting the wrong battle (and losing extremely valuable word of mouth in the process, but that’s another post).
There are essentially two main reasons to hold a phone up at a show. First, to capture a memory for yourself, a reminder of the moment you’re enjoying. And second, to share that moment with someone – to express your emotions socially. Both seem perfectly legitimate to me. (I’m not down with doing email or taking a call during a show, I’ll admit).
But the smart phone isn’t a perfect device, as we all know. It forces the world into a tiny screen. It runs out of battery, bandwidth, and power. It distracts us from the world around us. There are too many steps – too much friction – between capturing the things we are experiencing right now and the sharing of those things with people we care about.
But I sense that the sea of smart phones lit up at concerts is a temporary phenomenon. The integration of technology, sharing, and social into our physical world, on the other hand, well that ain’t going away. In the future, it’s going to be much harder to enforce policies like Wilco’s, because the phone will be integrated into our clothing, our jewelry, our eyeglasses, and possibly even ourselves. When that happens – when I can take a picture through my glasses, preview it, then send it to Instagram using gestures from my fingers, or eyeblinks, or a wrinkle of my nose – when technology becomes truly magical – asking people to turn it off is going to be the equivalent of asking them not to dance – to not express their joy at being in the moment.
And why would anyone want to do that?