Rehearsing the Future: First International Moblogging Conference Report
By Justin Hall, Tue Jul 08 17:00:00 EEST 2003

As increasing numbers of people begin mobile multimedia broadcasts from around the world, we will be tying cyberspace to meat space, further intertwining the internet with our lived experiences.

Back in November 2002 TheFeature posted an article examining the possibilities of personal media publishing from mobile phones - moblogging. What was then a piecemeal effort of a few dedicated media mixers has become a promising worldwide phenomenon. As cameras in phones proliferate, people want a way to share their snapshots between phones, and with their friends online. Now there are sites, tutorials and even conferences emerging to facilitate personal media sharing on the road.

This July, the First International Moblogging conference gathered roughly two-hundred people in an underground fashion bunker in Japan. Toolmakers, capitalists, researchers and media makers gave speeches and joined panels for eight hours - a lively communal immersion in the future.

"Here I was"

Home pages were the first mode of popular personal publishing on the world wide web. The formal structure of weblogs emerged as publishing tools enabled users to publish easily through their web browser, adding a time and date stamp to everything published online. Moblogs took those easy-to-use publishing tools and shrunk them for a mobile phone, adding the capacity to track location: "Here I was" has been the operative expression for mobloggers.

During a panel on early moblog adopters, Mie Kennedy of TokyoTidBits demonstrated the "location info" link beneath her small mobile phone camera posts. Clicking on that link brought up a map of Tokyo based on GPS coordinates encoded in the image sent from her AU phone. It was a mindblowing moment. But as Neeraj Jhanji of ImaHima pointed out, most people are posting to moblogs from mobile devices that can not read those same moblogs. The moblog dialog is largely limited to mobile phone camera reporters and readers sitting at their computers. But that should be a temporary condition as mobile browsing technology improves.

It should be a rich media future when anyone can post or browse location-specific data from anywhere. Mixing virtual with reality, Scott Fisher shared his research with NTT DoCoMo where users can attach data to locations that can be viewed by anyone wearing a headmounted computer display. In a video that featured Smart Mobs author Howard Rheingold wearing a large computer backpack and headset, Fisher demonstrated that information could be embedded in the environment, visible onscreen as icons floating above real trees and sidewalks. Rheingold could view these location-specific messages, and add his own. One person remarked that it seemed like virtual graffiti - an inspiring vision of an annotated world.

The Connected Camera

These information tags in physical space were tantalizing. But citizens instantly sharing photos is today's "Ahah" moment for personal digital publishing, guaranteed to attract billions of amateur authors. Kaywa Ltd. is developing a series of moblogging tools for users and businesses; co-founder Roger Fischer's explained his sense that mobile phone photos will engender enormous excitement. Recently, Fischer has observed scores of mobile phone photo hosting sites popping up all over Europe. Many of these sites didn't offer the power of weblogs though - they weren't linked into the web with comments, categories, navigation between entries, trackbacks; tools that internet-based webloggers are coming to take for granted.

Alan Bradburne opened the conference with a demonstration of his tool, built for friends and now hosting over 3000 photos from over 400 users. He purchased Google advertising keywords to promote moblogging and his free photo-posting tool. A labor of love, it's now hosting enough mobloggers from around the world that Bradburne was able to describe some user behavior: people love posting photos, photos of pets, self-portraits, holiday photos, friends and family.

Bradburne's speech set the tone for the day - moblogging is about people sharing human experiences with one another. Whether the results resemble sophisticated weblog posts laden with hidden data or simple web galleries, moblogging will become mainstream, because people love a camera directly connected to the internet.

Even without photos, mobile users leave a rich trail of data. Just as we sometimes subconsciously find an exit by following a crowd, what kind of direction could we get from following mobile emails and posts? University of Southern California's Tatsuya Saito is working to find meta-narratives in the millions of stories that people tell with their mobile datatrails. He appeared shortly after Ayako Idate, Maki Toida and Tomoko Yagi from Tama Art University presented T'o'RIPSPACE - a flash demonstration of software for sharing photos based on location data. Their polished demonstration of a sweet tooth group moblogging photos of good cakes from favorite cafes was a delightful bit of colorful, tasteful tangibility.

The basement conference in the cool SuperDeluxe space was a welcome relief from the wet heat outside; blessedly tobacco-free. But there was a sort of information smoke trailing through the proceedings. Co-organizer Gen Kanai sat near the front, furiously blogging the panelists' remarks in realtime. As he posted to the web, others - attendees and absentees alike - chimed in with their comments, observations, and moblogged photos. Audience members were surfing relevant webpages on their laptops, and others used Etherpeg, a "sniffer," to pick up stray images and display them on their screens. A concurrent IRC channel run by presenter and kinetic proto-moblogger Joi Ito provided parallel commentary - some of it a little less than serious. People in Seattle asked questions in IRC about the conference, based on text posted to the web - all of it forming a thick haze of data exchange.

Polite Rehersal

President of the Content & Applications Lab at Sony in Japan, Takashi Tostuka pointed out that moblogging posts are more context than content: typically you're telling people where you are, and what's around you. As increasing numbers of people begin mobile multimedia broadcasts from around the world, we will be tying cyberspace to meat space, further intertwining the internet with our lived experiences. That would make moblogs our future social fabric; now that we understand the potential, perhaps next year's International Moblogging Conference can begin to unravel the tangles of interconnectedness to examine our computer aided behaviors.

Co-organizer Adam Greenfield described the possible scope of moblogging at the end of the day. Sounding an ominous note, he recounted the story of a terrible train fire in February in Daegu, South Korea, where victims were able to communicate with their mobile phones shortly before they passed away. All the fun of posting pictures from phones is a polite rehearsal for the incredible social upheaval that moblogging could bring or join. How will citizens armed with connected cameras and easy publishing technology effect shared tragedy or public hypocrisy? These next few years should provide some dramatic moments to test moblogging as a means of citizen empowerment and experience sharing.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.