What Happens When Sharing Is Turned Off? People Don’t Dance.

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?

42 thoughts on “What Happens When Sharing Is Turned Off? People Don’t Dance.”

  1. Wilco has always been a band that wants people to experience the music.  I’ve seen Jeff loose his cool on multiple occasions because there was so much talking going on during the show, true fans weren’t getting the experience they paid money for. 

    1. I totally get that and respect it.
      Just wonder if our shared understanding of what “experience” is might shift over time

  2. Hm – I saw them a few months ago and there was no such policy in place. (In fact attached is a pic my friend @blackraptor:disqus  took on his phone). Maybe it’s a more recent thing they’re trying. 

    I agree it’s usually futile to try and enforce that sort of thing, but it seems weird to me that the lack of dancing was due to a no smartphone photo/video policy. I’d think things like alcohol availability, night of the week, set list, etc. would impact that a lot more. In fact, I feel like I dance more at shows when I’m really in the moment and not thinking about what I should snap a photo of or tweet out.

    Btw, regarding Wilco losing word of mouth. I think they’re at the point where they don’t have to worry about that and don’t really care. I remember I saw LCD Soundsystem at their second-to-last-show and James Murphy also made a point to discourage people from using their smartphones in that way. I think he was annoyed because it makes it harder for people in the back to see the performance. I’m sure he also knew that they were big enough that it wouldn’t make much difference in terms of chatter and buzz.

    Anyway…glad things got more lively at the end!

  3. A thoughtful and intriguing post.  But I think this is a stretch–you’re making a sweeping point based on a tiny, isolated data point.  Yes, obviously people now connect to things/events/etc via smartphones; a trend that isn’t going away, as you point out. But people simply don’t dance much at Wilco shows (with or without phones).  Maybe 8 years ago, sure.  But Wilco’s crowd is a slighter older one now. They cater to a more thoughtful, 30-something group, rather than a partying/dancing/inebriated mid-20s crowd. Try the no-cellphone experiment with a few uptempo youth-oriented bands, and you might have a case.  But for now I’m not buying it, sorry.  Joy can be experienced and expressed equally vibrantly with and without social media.  What about plays, broadway, comedy shows, movies (e.g., places where cellphones are mostly banned)? 

    1. You are probably right. They dance to Wilco at festivals! And I dance to Wilco, but you are right, an older, more sedate crowd last night – early 30s, and probably had to work today.

  4. Great post, John. I wonder however how much of the experience (and memory of it later on) we miss by the taking out our phones, and trying to capture and/or share it. I see it as the bands way (possibly unsuccessful) of inviting people to enjoy the experience.

    I don’t think our attention can be two places at once. And once the phone is out, people’s attention can quickly be gone to texting, email, etc … of course, should be up to people to choose, but if I am speaking or playing music, not much fun to see a room full of people looking at acreens. I can see how that would be hard for musicians.

    1. To me it’s all part of the moment, the sharing, the being, the anticipation of capturing a moment. But I’m a journalist/photographer at heart.

  5. “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”

    It might be the case that if you restrict people then they might behave in a restricted manner. Not necessarily specific to phones. Just a thought…

  6. The reason that nobody danced at the show, is not because they didn’t have their iphones; if they had the phones, the would be taking pictures, texting, tweeting, and yes, sometimes making calls-but NOT dancing. A larger sample size of concerts in the last few years would reveal this sad fact: people don’t dance at shows anymore. And yes, that is all about smart phones.

    Smart phones are reason for this lack of motion, not the absence of them. The use of these devices has habituated people to being “outside of the experience”.  They are simply living receptors, who analyze and direct the external stimulus in ways that are meaningful to them. That is now the “experience”. Without the phones, they were lost. With them, they dance with their fingers.

    It is interesting that people prefer to manipulate the experience than actually be in it. When smart phones eventually integrate with us, the manipulation might actually morph back into a more organic experience, as we move the data around our internal network. An eventual re-unification of the now and the data.

      1. I disagree, without the title of professor (though I have been one).

        I think when people are excited, tuned into their social base, they are less inhibited, and more willing to dance.

    1. re: Smart phones are reason for this lack of motion, not the absence of
      them. The use of these devices has habituated people to being “outside
      of the experience”

      -a different experience from outsidelands ’08: 

      The video above has a camera POV that appears to dance along with the crowd.
      Not everyone will appreciiate the fx and the focus is not on the artist. Instead this video captures the spirit of the crowd, as people are dancing with their phones. Crowdfire was also there to ignite the energy that evening. People seemed less focused on “capturing stills” for sure!

      1. Yes, I think we’re in some kind of transition wrt to how we incorporate comms tech into shared culture

  7. I think you’re right. And that brings up a point that’s perturbed me for a long time. The same thing happens, on a massive scale, to people at work. 

    People are less interested in being at their job because mobiles are banned, available only during breaks/lunch, or allowed in emergency situations. Mobiles and workplace procedures need a paradigm shift. But, there needs to be a reason why this change should take place.

  8. John, as a connoisseur of Wilco set lists, I can tell you that the show you experienced wasn’t the kind one would be dancing to. The first two thirds of the show was quiet and introspective. The first Wilco show I saw several years ago was the same way, with the audience in their seats and very still until the middle of the performance. Anyway, how can you dance when you’re tweeting or texting? PS – you don’t want to go to a Ryan Adams show either. 

    1. Thanks Judy.
      I actually can’t sit still to any Wilco set list, so maybe it’s just me. I mean, I at least sway to Ashes! And I did, of course, with my wife, though honestly we were the only ones moving.

  9. If this were a prince concert or Black Joe Lewis and The Honey Bears I would be concerned.  But Wilco isn’t exactly dancing music.  Maybe rocking out music at times, but certainly I wouldn’t be surprised or angry to see people in a wilco crowd not doing much besides watching and absorbing the show.

  10. In the early days of mobile phones I remember seeing one being used to direct a person to where his friends were sitting at a free Billy Bragg concert and realizing then that the big brick I was carrying was going to be huge – within a few years they were everywhere and smaller.

    Once they became a “social” tool, their popularity funded the progress. Add the numerous social apps that are now enjoyed by millions and we are distancing ourselves from our immediate view for our cyber conversations. Are mobile devices important – of course. Do I think we need to unplug sometimes – absolutely.

    Unfortunately, we are pushed to stay connected. No one makes money the other way. With start ups being told Mobile First, this is not going to change any time soon.

      1. John I agree – spoke at last year’s TheNextWeb conference about SEO and online marketing to the startups and hackers and asked audience how many were concentrating on mobile marketing – 75% of audience said yes – told them they were limiting themselves to 25% of reach

        But it showed too many people are moving to this all mobile approach – fueled no doubt by the popularity of mobile devices.

  11. I was at a Wilco show in Charlottesville five or six years ago.  I’m used to shows where people get down.  Wilco was great but was dancing.  I figured people just weren’t enjoying the show.  Then it came time to get the band back on stage for an encore.  People were going bat shit crazy making all kinds of noise just to (stand and) hear a little more Wilco.   I quickly realized that Wilco’s fan base just aren’t the type to wiggle like, for example, people do at a Widespread Panic show.  To each their own.  I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with a phone policy.  

  12. I was at the Wilco show on Sunday evening and, well I never knew there was a no-smartphone policy. That’s why I took a photo with my iPhone: 

    And I have to say I saw plenty of other folks taking pix too, especially toward the back. And I also saw people dancing — or at least jumping around — where ever there was room in the sold out hall. Seemed just like the two other Wilco shows I’ve seen (Fillmore and Greek) in the last few years.So, no criticism on your main point about the importance of sharing, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the Wilco show or a no-smartphones policy. 

      1. It was pretty crowded up front, but I nearly got knocked over in the back by a bunch of really happy guys dancing and pumping fists and so on. And no one said anything to me when I was taking pictures.

        The other thing is that Wilco can be kind of serious, contemplative experience. For a rock show, anyway. See the SF Chronicle’s review: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/01/31/DDJN1N0COO.DTL

  13. I think you have it all wrong here. People couldn’t really dance because they were at a sold out concert where people were constantly pushing each into each other to get closer to the stage. People were drinking and just completely crammed in and there was no where to move. This makes dancing really hard.

    Also, smartphones ruin concerts. Absolutely ruin them in my opinion. When I have paid good money to see a show the LAST thing I want to do is look up at the stage through someone else’s camera. I am there to EXPERIENCE something in my own real life, not take pictures of every single moment so I can somehow try to share this experience later. 

    Pictures are great, but I like them far better when they are taken by professionals who have a pass to take photos at a show. No one can fully get the same feeling from looking at a picture of the show you went without actually having been there themselves. 

    Save your memories and put away your smartphone before I smack it out of your hand at a show. 

    1. I think the era of the smartphone, as I said in the post, is going to be over within a decade. But we’ll never stop looking for ways to share our experiences.

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