New Technology Makes Convention Un-Conventional

Like the majority of my fellow New Yorkers, my attitude toward this city hosting the Republican National Convention (RNC) was the same as it would be about any occurrence that produced barricades, street and subway closings, random arrests and SWAT team drills in front of the office.

I laid in supplies and grumpily hunkered down to work from home.

As the RNC’s appointed time approached, the absolute last thing I expected was that I, together with thousands of others, would spend the week using new technologies in even newer ways. Activist-authored Web sites, RSS feeds, streaming audio, and most especially, SMS messaging, were lifelines for people in this city, whether they wanted to protest the convention, avoid it altogether, just get through the week unscathed, or all of the above. These were the tools the mainstream media used to report on the convention, and, in no small measure, they were weapons of publicity and dissent deployed against major brands that seemed to operate under the erroneous assumption that sponsorship of GOP-related activities would be a low-key, under-the-radar affair.

And, it should be mentioned, all the new tools were replete with best practices: user surveys, FAQs, privacy policies, feedback solicitations, multiple delivery options. You know… all that stuff we encourage you to do.

The most critical technology of the week was TXTmob, best described as an SMS bulletin board to broadcast messages to groups of cell phones. If you signed up for any of the RNC-related groups, your phone buzzed with dozens of messages daily:

“Police are getting into formation to deploy nets at 34th and 11th (coca-cola protest).”

“Police are clearing the sidewalk in a 1 block radius of media march at fox news.”

“need protestors at 38th and Park Ave. bush arriving any second!”

“please take injured to clinics at 410 w. 40th st. @9th ave..”

“…legal observers advise getting out of Union Square area”

If you were lucky enough to have been virally tipped off to TXTmob, it became a don’t-leave-home-without-it necessity. Pockets of the city at times resembled mobile-savvy Tokyo, with people staring into handheld devices for direction, instruction, even encouragement. A non-SMS-enabled friend started calling every half hour for updates. On the street, smartphone users appeared to outnumber the 18-year-old anarchists in black.

TXTmob was developed by activist group Applied Autonomy for the Democratic Convention in Boston. I spoke with “John Henry” (not his real name), who developed the technology from open source software. “The whole system runs off an old PC I found in someone’s closet,” he told me.

A couple hundred people signed up for the service in Boston. At the RNC, the un-advertised service reached nearly 6,000. There were even a handful of out-of-town subscribers who wanted to feel in touch with events in New York.

“The feedback’s been really positive,” John said, referring to a post-convention survey email sent to subscribers. “A lot of people just appreciated knowing what’s going on, especially in a city like New York where there’s such a poor line of site, it’s impossible to know what’s going on even half a block away.”

As an example, he cites people who SMS’ed alarm when they smelled something burning at a large demonstration. Others in the crowd quickly texted back the cause, and assurances things were under control. “People were using it for medical support, and a huge number of journalists commented it was the only way to know what was going on in the city,” he said. “A lot of journalists were using it to get messages and rush off to the scene.”

TXTmob provided a platform for communication, not content. John confessed he was impressed (as was I) at the number of brands targeted in protesters’ messages: event sponsors (Goldman Sachs, Coca Cola), Fox News, even methods for I.D.’ing delegates at specific times and places (“Delegates may be carrying yellow Nextel bags” “…red New York Times bags”). “That points to the changing nature of dissent,” he observed, “People view those brands as being on the par of government.”

When T-Mobile subscribers stopped getting TXTmobs messages early in the week, the hue and cry quickly spread to the blogosphere (including A-list blogs), with accusations the company intentionally blocked protestors’ messages. Not true, a T-Mobile spokesperson told me, the sheer volume triggered a spam filter. Yet brand damage was done. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal called T-Mobile to get its side of the story before I did, the spokesman said.

Between SMSs, I was glued to the live audio stream from A-noise. The 24/7 broadcast, available both online and over the phone, aired live call-ins from people throughout the city. The group even made available a How to Be A Street Correspondent flier. The coverage was insanely immediate (people were literally phoning in as they were being arrested), very professional and, like TXTmob, helpful for people trying to get through the city, and the week.

Moreover, all this information was viral, gleaned from Web sites like nyc.indymedia.org, replete with news feeds, clear interfaces, RSS, useful links — everything you’d hope to find (and so rarely do) in big budget corporate sites.

And the activists are evolving. “We’re sort of trying to do two things,” explained John, who just announced an MIT Media Lab research assistant will be working on TXTMob going forward. “We expect to see this used by people who want to express dissent. I don’t know that we have plans to sell or to market it, per se. At this point, our motivation is getting this out as broadly as possibly. We’re interested in non-profit agencies and that kind of use. There are a number of companies that are starting to use the system, apparently for internal communications.”

When I mentioned that TXTMob last week was a far cry from last year’s interesting-for-a-second, but rather useless, flashmob vogue, John agreed.

“I was as curious as anyone to see what the practical applications of this would be,” he said. “Some people were using it in a totally non-utilitarian way. They were using the service because they wanted to be connected to it. This is sort of an open community project.”

Well, thanks, John, whoever you are, for making life so much easier — not to mention so much more interesting — last week.

I would gladly have paid money to get TXTmob SMSs when that storm wiped out the New York City subway system on Wednesday. I miss you already.

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