The writing on the wall
From The Economist print edition
Technology and society: Is the mobile phone mightier than the spray can? New â€œdigital graffitiâ€� systems are being put to a variety of uses
TXTual Healing in action
AS IF text messaging were not already ubiquitousâ€”over a billion messages a day flit between the world's 2 billion mobile phonesâ€”it is now moving from the private sphere into the public one. New technologies allow text messages to be displayed on the sides of buildings, on public screens in cafÃ©s or on vast digital displays at sporting events and festivals. Such â€œdigital graffitiâ€� can be used in various ways: to capture the mood of a gathering, boost a brand, or to spark public dialogue. Mobile devices are in a unique position to enable new forms of communication within groups and crowds, since almost everyone in the developed world now carries one, notes Linda Barrabee, an analyst at Yankee Group in Boston. â€œWe are still in an early stage, but there is promise,â€� she says.
The earliest examples of digital graffiti appeared in Europe, where text messaging took off years ago, unlike in America where it has only recently become popular. In 2001, for example, at the Speaker's Corner building in Huddersfield, England, a tickertape-like display showed the results of a text-message poetry contest. Sponsored by the Arts Council England, the contest elicited some 2,000 poems, 100 of which were displayed on the constantly scrolling screen.
The latest digital-graffiti systems are rather more elaborate, thanks to the efforts of companies such as LocaModa, a start-up based in Somerville, Massachusetts. It has installed eight â€œWiffitiâ€� screens (a name derived from â€œwireless graffitiâ€�â€”it has no relation to Wi-Fi networking) in coffee-shops in several American cities, sometimes with the support of sponsors. Between double espressos, patrons send text messages to the 50-inch screens. What they write is also mirrored on the web, so that visitors to wiffiti.com can remotely observe what's going on at, say, the Hurricane CafÃ© in Seattle, the Filter Coffee Lounge in Chicago or Half Fast Subs in Boulder, Colorado.
When Jason Hetherington, a 26-year-old exam instructor, was working in Dubai for six months, he often visited wiffiti.com to see what was up at Somerville's Someday CafÃ© in Somerville, Massachusetts, his old haunt. â€œIt was a great way to get a taste of what was going on back home,â€� he says. Stephen Randall, the boss of LocaModa and one of the founders of Symbian, a company that makes software for smartphones, likens the result to a location-based blog. He plans to have sponsored screens capturing â€œthe word on the streetâ€� in 10,000 places by 2009.
Some of the messages sent to the screens are remarkably banal, but things occasionally get spicy. In March one woman received a marriage proposal via the Wiffiti screen at Toscanini's cafÃ© in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What is more, she accepted via Wiffitiâ€”after a mere 29 minutes of contemplation. Although it might seem to make more sense to talk to, rather than text, the person sipping coffee nearby, â€œpeople are looking for a way to break the ice,â€� says Tamara Mendelsohn of Forrester, a consultancy. Furthermore, systems like Wiffiti are â€œnoncommittalâ€”you're not going to face rejection,â€� she adds.
For others, public texting is a chance to cause a stir. Paul Notzold, a designer based in Brooklyn, has rigged up a system to project blank speech bubbles on to public walls. He generally sets up after sunset for better visibility and passes out leaflets explaining how to send text into the speech bubbles. â€œThere is an element of empowerment in being able to post a message,â€� says Mr Notzold, who just finished a master's degree in design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He has done a dozen or so â€œprojectionsâ€� on to buildings: in Brooklyn, along the canals in Amsterdam, in a public square in Hamburg and even on to the Millennium Museum in Beijing. â€œThe police were around, and when they came over I thought they were going to shut it down,â€� says Mr Notzold. In fact, they just wanted to know the phone number to send messages to.
As the photos on his TXTual Healing website reveal, most messages (â€œWhere's my other sock?â€�) lack lyricism. But Mr Notzold expects gravitas will come with time. â€œThe more I can get out there and do this, the more people are going to text politically and socially charged material,â€� he suggests. His text-message graffiti system gives people a way to stay engaged, he believes, â€œinstead of just plugging into games or music on the phone, and disconnecting from society.â€�
Digital graffiti can have commercial as well as political uses. This summer Britvic, a British soft-drinks company, ran a â€œCourt on Cameraâ€� promotion at the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Consumers who were queuing for tickets were encouraged to send photos from their phones to a giant screen adorned with branding for its Robinsons line of soft drinks. â€œIt became a form of co-branding, where the consumers stamped their identity on the event,â€� says Daniel Conti, Britvic's new-media manager. VIP tickets to the centre court were awarded to the senders of the best pictures.
But text-based campaigns are more widespread. Last year Nike, a maker of sports gear, used text messaging to allow people to conjure up images of customised shoes on a giant screen in New York's Times Square. Anyone who did so received a text message in return that contained the address of a website where the design could be confirmed and the shoes ordered. And in July this year Procter & Gamble invited women to text their secrets to Times Square's giant screens, as part of a promotion for its Secret deodorant. (â€œI cut my sister's hair when she was younger and told my parents that she did it herself,â€� ran a typical message.) The messages were also displayed on the secret.com website. â€œBrand awareness has increased dramatically,â€� says P&G.
Similarly, MOVO Mobile, based in Sarasota, Florida, ran a spring-break promotion for Gillette, a maker of grooming products, in which college kids could send flirty messages to a large screen at a night-club. Sending a message, of course, opens the door to follow-up messages from the event's sponsor.
Digital graffiti even have their religious uses. Teen Mania Ministries, an evangelical Christian group based in Garden Valley, Texas, sets up huge screens at its â€œBattle Cryâ€� events, which are attended by tens of thousands of teenagers. Those attending can text personal messages to the screens, or use them to ask the preachers questions. The idea is to train teenagers to use technology â€œfor a higher purpose,â€� says Tocquigny, the advertising agency involved.