LunarStorm: Sweden's Youthful, Increasingly Mobile Virtual Community
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Feb 03 19:00:00 GMT 2005
If those cool-hunters who hang out in Harajuku and Harlem don't speak Swedish, they probably don't know about LunarStorm, an equally likely if less celebrated habitat of young culture-makers. I can't think of an institution, brand or subculture anywhere in the world that could compare with LunarStorm's mindshare among Swedish youth.
When I talked with him in Stockholm in 2001, LunarStorm founder Rickard Ericsson told me it had the attention of more than 60% of Sweden's 15-25 year olds. They were getting ready to launch LunarMobile, a means of using SMS to link community members to their Web-based message boards and chat rooms via mobile telephone. In that sense, it was a probably the first moblogging community. These days, LunarStorm claims more than 1.3 million active members (82% of the people aged 12-24 in Sweden, 88% in ages 12-19), with up to 50,000 of them online at any one time. The entire population of Sweden is less than 9 million, so LunarStorm's market share is like having 10 million teens out of the USA's 300 million people online in the same virtual community at all times. Between 300,000 and 400,000 users visit Lunarstorm daily; the Web site receives a staggering one billion page impressions per month.
As commercial virtual communities go, LunarStorm is an oldie -- even if the same can't be said of its membership. LunarStorm founders have succeeded to a degree in building a successful walled garden, in a sense: who needs the Internet when you can get a personal page, with your own blog, photo album, chat room and message board, with access from mobile phones as well as PC? When I asked Johan Forsberg, LunarStorm's information director and partner, for an update, I learned that other features now include Friendster-like social networking, clubs, classmate directories, friend (and enemy) lists, music, music videos and movie clips, employment information and a reputation system that enables members to vote on each others' profiles, diaries and lists. Intra-community advertising is a profitable premium service: members can publish own banner ads for their clubs or their own profiles for around $2. Kollage, Lunarstorm's digital photo album, another premium service, holds over 3 million pictures.
Forsberg mentioned more than once that the aim of LunarStorm management "has always been to turn analog behavior and needs into digital products and services." In explaining what he meant by that, Forsberg came up with an intriguing claim: "there's been a lot of fuzz about one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many etc, but everyone's missed the core of mobile usage -- The Giggle Effect, the two-to-two implications. Picture a girl and her best friend giggling over their mobile while sending something stupid and hilarious to the nice-looking guy they met downtown yesterday night at the bar. Picture him picking up this stupid and hilarious message and showing it (of course giggling) to his best friend. That's what mobile Internet is about, relations in pairs, two-to-two relations, not positioning! So the services have to be a great joy for you and your best friend, both sending and receiving."
Forsberg is confident that more LunarStormers will be eager to take their online lives with them when they leave their PCs -- when services improve: "We used to have a joint venture with Vodafone around a cash card, Vrål. It was a success in some ways and less successful in others. One key factor that's been difficult to handle, besides operators taking too much of a cut, has been the slow growth of mobile Internet usage. Therefore we had to focus on SMS services (and some MMS). Today though, we are pretty successful on the WAP scene. We have turned some of our basic features into WAP pages -- nothing fancy, but effective. We have around 30,000 loyal WAP customers who spend 5-10 minutes daily on wap.lunarstorm.se. Over 70,000 of our 1.3 million members have tried our WAP. Probably this could really take off when Java or Symbian apps are in common use, and flat fares for data traffic is a reality. Today very few use mobile Internet, but when they start doing it we probably will be one of the first to succeed."
One of the signs that you authentically apply the term "community" to an online group is how they react in a crisis, and whether they are able to organize collective action in the face to face world. My correspondence with Forsberg was truncated when he had to get to work quickly to assist the online relief and support network that sprang up when thousands of vacationing Swedes were among the missing. "All our commercial areas from Tuesday through Sunday the week of the disaster were dedicated to fund-raising for charity organizations, and all of house ads and unsold commercial space will be donated for a decent period of time. LunarStorm has also donated a sum to Save The Children," Forsberg reported.
Discussion groups provided psychological support and new clubs were founded by members: "some of them have 10,000 members and are growing fast." Priests moderated discussion groups 24/7 every night during the earliest days of the crisis and will do so "for as long as our members are in deep need for it." And "Five to 10 homepages have turned into virtual graveyards the last couple of days," with more than 400 names at the time he wrote. "Charity organizations and ministers of the government have been chatting with our members, and traditional media have covered our impact and importance for our members of this situation. The meaning of the interactive society for younger generations has become really obvious to all Swedes the last couple of weeks."
For Sweden's youth, LunarStorm became a portal for information, connection, emotional support, and relief work, a role that traditional media could not fill. I think that qualifies as a kind of "community."