The Lollapalooza Syndrome: When Meatspace and Cellspace are Redundant

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 26 August 2003

A mass gathering of wireless generation members doesn’t necessarily mean a massive use of wireless technologies. On the contrary, the most wirelessly literate may know best when to switch off and enjoy the party.

The best thing about having been, at least at one point in my life, cool enough to be invited to parties at Timothy Leary’s house, is that I got to meet some pretty spectacular people face to face. On the very same summer afternoon out on his patio of his Beverly Hills home nearly ten years ago, I met Oliver Stone, Yoko Ono, Trent Reznor and, the one person with whom I stayed in touch, Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell.

We got talking that afternoon about kids, media, and technology, and vowed that we would create things (he, music; me, books) to help them usher in a more interactive and conscious age.

Then, just last year, he said he wanted to do something really special for his rock festival, Lollapalooza - something that would involve cell phones, running around, finding stuff, and learning positive messages about the environment, or transformation.

Sounded good enough to me, so I put him in touch with a couple of ex-students of mine who had started a tiny but daring wireless entertainment company called HipNTasty. They do all the usual stuff, like interactive stories, ring tones, and handset graphics - but they also “get it,” and create weirder wireless experiences that both push the envelope and take advantage of the mind space that cell space seems to encourage. One of their games, Spellcaster, gives users magical incantations they can perform, and another draws “lucky Gurl charms.” They do fun, weird applications that treat the wireless device less as a piece of technology than as a sacred object or powerful talisman. Which, in many ways, it is.

And which, more importantly, made them the perfect match for a mystic like Perry Farrell. After a few months of meetings they emerged having conjured up two main game experiences. A few sponsors and technology partners later, the games were a reality.

Finding partners for such a venture was a no-brainer. Although promotional spending is as tight in the wireless market as anywhere else these days, everyone in the wireless industry - and I mean everyone - wants to connect to the so-called Gen Y. They’re supposed to be the early adopters of the wireless world, and the ultimate wireless consumers. Teens are the ones thought to be more willing to download games, chat via thumb, and upload image files via GPRS. Who is going to turn down the chance to reach millions of them in the context of a hip event like Lollapalooza?

The first game was called Mobilehunt - basically a scavenger hunt where you get the clues as messages on your phone. The best part about Mobilehunt, though, is that it’s so easy to program that users can create and conduct their own scavenger hunts.

The other game, the MindField, is pretty much an organized version of a Flash Mob. Everyone who has signed up to participate will receive messages on their phones telling them to carry out certain tasks. One person may be told to go to a certain location and act like a chicken. Then someone else will be told to find the chicken, and bring it somewhere or tell it something. Following all the instructions and being in the right place at the right time can win the player a backstage pass, or maybe some face time with Perry Farrell and the band.

Sounded good to me.

Surprisingly, though, no more people played these games than play the games offered at conferences of any other type. Businesspeople at a real estate convention will be just as likely to play a promotional cell phone game as kids at Lollapalooza - Gen Y or not. How many, exactly? The numbers were, in the words of one researcher, “average.” And average means not good enough to bank on, or to disclose to this journalist.

I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising, after all. If you’d been waiting for months to go to a festival with 50,000 other teenagers, some sexy, some cool, some who you might even know, would you really want to interact with them through your wireless device? Probably not.

I could see resorting to the cell phone if you were in dire need of a break-the-ice game (HipNTasty produces a great set of spin-the-bottle games, by the way) or desperate for a conversation starter (“Hey, check out my new screensaver”). Otherwise, you’d probably use the phone to get directions, find your buddies, maybe check out the set list (another great use of the medium at Lollapalooza), and then stick it in your pocket and hope it doesn’t ring.

Because if you’re dancing with your best friends in a mob of 50,000 potential other ones listening to Jane’s Addiction, then your cell phone has already done its job.