Mobile Virtual Communities
By Howard Rheingold, Wed Jul 09 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Today's experiments with mobile virtual communities will grow into next year's trends.

Five years from now, the innovations of today's early adopters could become part of the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of people:

  • Jyri Engestrom is opening a social club (pdf) in the middle of downtown Helsinki that combines physical location, virtual community, and sms messaging.

  • In Stockholm, Styrbjorn Horn has created a mobile chat platform for teenagers who already use sms to "swarm" as social groups in the physical world.

  • Last Monday, Rickard Ericsson's "Lunarstorm," a virtual community that has captured the attention of more than 60% of Sweden's 15-25 year old population, added a mobile extension to its web-pages, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Lunarstorm now provides its own SIM cards to enhance its mobile services in ways they couldn't with traditional operator agreements. LunarMobil works like an ordinary mobile operator with one important difference; the company provides you with a unique "remote control" for your Lunarstorm-presence and activities. Anything you could do on, you could do from your mobile phone using standard SMS-messages.

    During the 1990s, people socialized by way of new forums made possible by the Internet and accessed through their desktop computers. Millions of people worldwide projected their interpersonal communications into a nonphysical cyberspace where disembodied personalities shared knowledge, waged flame wars, conducted business, created industries, gossiped, organized, plotted, collaborated, conspired, invented, and amused: virtual communities. If you know where to look, it is possible to detect the first signs of virtual communities moving off the desktop and out of cyberspace.

    It is too early to paint a detailed portrait of the social technologies of 2010, but a look at the past and a peek at what today's earliest adopters are doing reveals a few hints about the general shape of the future mediasphere.

    Social cyberspaces have been growing and mutating for a surprisingly long time. In the 1960s, even before the antecedent of the Internet was born, the experimental PLATO timesharing system included an early form of online message board. As soon as the ARPAnet, ancestor of the Internet, was invented in 1970, the programmers who built it started electronic distribution lists to argue about their favorite science fiction authors.

    In the 1980s, people who didn't have access to the Internet invented PC-and-slow-modem-based BBSs - at one time, their were over 50,000 BBSs in North America alone. Usenet and Fidonet facilitated online discussions by hundreds of thousands of people long before the Internet became a household word.

    Technology facilitates community growth

    Social communication drove the growth of the Internet for two decades before the Web transformed the Internet into a mass medium in a matter of months.

    Email, listservs (automated mailing lists), BBSs and Usenet newsgroups (online message boards that enable groups to communicate asynchronously via public writing over long intervals), chatrooms and IRC channels (realtime synchronous text communication among groups), instant messaging (one to one synchronous text communication), MUDs and MOOs (multi-user environments in which players socialize, build fantasy worlds, and engage in elaborate role-playing games) were used by hundreds of thousands of early enthusiasts for years before the Internet started growing to include millions of mainstream participants.

    The Web brought an easy to use visual interface to the Internet in the 1990, similar to the way graphic user interfaces made PCs useful to the non-geek masses in the 1980s. Mobile communication during the first decade of the 21st century will bring non-geek masses to virtual communities people who would never use a PC, but are sophisticated texters or mobile game-players.

    When the Web brought Internet to the masses, online social communication platforms mutated into new forms. Now that the Net is mobilizing, expect virtual communities to evolve into new forms yet again.

    Virtual communities and mobile communications each have their own uniquely powerful characteristics. When those characteristics combine, powerful hybrids are likely to emerge, just as the merger of the PC with the telephone network created a wholly new medium, the Internet.

    Before speculating about the characteristics of mobile communities, it pays to start with the separate characteristics of virtual communities and mobile communications.

    Virtual communities are:

  • Organized around affinities , shared interests, bringing together people who did not necessarily know each other before meeting online. Teenagers in Pasadena and Osaka communicate about their shared passion for a television show, or a shared worry about a disease.

  • Many to many media. Unlike few-to-many (broadcast) or one to one (telephone or SMS) media, virtual communities enable groups of people to communicate with many others. Every desktop, every wireless device, is becoming a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly (as well as a computer and telephone).

  • Text-based, evolving into text plus graphics-based communications. For decades, online communities were built with nothing more than unformatted text. Web-based media bring inline graphics, animations, video, sounds, formatted text, links into the conversation.

  • Relatively uncoupled from face to face social life in geographic communities. People communicating worldwide about shared interests most often do not live close enough to meet regularly face to face.

    Mobile communications are:

  • Organized around known social networks. People call and message people they already know. Most often, you communicate with people who are already in your address book.

  • Acessible anywhere, anytime, are always on. The Internet, and all it affords, is no longer tied to the desktop computer and wired network, but has diffused into a freefloating wireless datacloud.

  • Text-based evolving to text and sound and graphics-based communications. Customized ringtones and cute graphics for SMS messages are only the beginning. Cameras and telephones are merging.

  • Closely coupled to the behavior of people in physical space , and have strong effects on how small social groups coordinate activities in geographic communities.

    Mobile virtual communities are:

  • Many to many, desktop and mobile, always on. Virtual communities and the resources of the Internet are instantly available to people and their software agents wherever people are located - at their desks, in transit, at home.

  • Used to coordinate actions of groups in geographic space - teenagers swarm in malls, young adults club-hop, activists mobilize on the street.

  • Game environments, social arenas, artistic media, business tools, political weapons - like other virtual community media, mobile virtual communities will start with young people as means for entertainment and light social interaction, then diffuse into other institutions.


    I met 23 year old entrepreneur Jyri Engestrom in a small L-shaped room very near the center of Helsinki, a couple of blocks from the Parliament. Although the all-important electricity and information conduits had been laid, and a floor was down, the rest of the interior space was under construction.

    Outside the window a panoramia crossroads of buses, cars, and pedestrians is visible. Engestrom and his associates seek to build a social-technical crossroads in this place and in cyberspace, linking groups of people together through on-site media in the face to face place, through mobile communications among community members who are not physically present, and through a new kind of cyberplace that links the virtual and physical parts of the community. They call their physical and cyberplace "Aula" and are more focused on social experimentation than profit.

    The community is starting with around 150 members who have begun to meet face to face and online while the physical space is under construction. They plan to grow by invitation and word of mouth (or word of SMS) and are deliberately leaving room for the community members to help design the communication space.

    Each member keeps a tiny chip in his or her pocket, purse, or shoe, a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID tag) that makes information accessible to the mobile devices of others in the physical nightclub. Projections and monitors will mix virtual communication with the conversation in the club. I plan to revisit Aula again after it opens.


    Styrbjorn Horn, who I met in Stockholm a few days after I first visited Aula in Helsinki, is a generation older than Jyri and his friends. Horn is in his thirties, with a baby at home, and although he is also focusing his efforts on social innovations online, he is definitely an entrepreneur of the traditional business variety.

    His business,, is based on the social revolution that has swept through the teenage milieu of Scandinavia, UK, Japan, Korea, and Philippines - the use of SMS messages, hundreds a day, to weave together ever-changing social groups. His system makes it possible for teenagers to maintain continuous presence in their virtual worlds, moving to SMS from online chat, and back.


    Another entrepreneur I met in Stockholm, Rickard Ericsson, has been building virtual communities for nearly a decade, and he's still in his early 20s.

    A year and a half ago, he decided to turn his passion into a business and teamed up with Kjell Sallein to create Lunarstorm, an online community that enables its teenage members to build their own web pages, post pictures of themselves and their friends, create their own message boards and chat rooms, and to rate each other's pages for coolness.

    Lunarstorm was instantly successful, reaching over one million members in less than a year. More than ten thousand people are online at one time. Almost all of them high-school students - the same group that builds rituals and customs around SMS. This summer, Lunarstorm is adding a mobile component, so that community members can remain linked to one another mobile devices when they are away from their PCs.

    Hints of tomorrow's lifestyle

    What do these early adopters and intersecting trends portend for the future?

    First and foremost, new mobile forms of virtual community will generate an enormous amount of traffic and revenue: around the world, billions of SMS messages already are transmitted every day, and this is just the beginning of the hockey stick growth curve.

    Most important for the emergence of a services industry that could be more robust than Internet-based business models, mobile telephone and SMS users, unlike Internet users, are already accustomed to paying small amounts for each message. Any new social communication medium that can piggyback on telephone billing ("Botfighters," the mobile, location-based game from It's Alive in Stockholm, or the Bridget Jones messages from Riot-e in the UK are early examples) has a chance to win big.

    Second, it will mean that participants in online communities will remain in continuous contact over multiple platforms on desktops and in mobile devices, and will be used to coordinate group activities in the geographic world, thus blending affinity-based and local-acquaintance-based social communication. If the adoption patterns taken by PCs and by SMS messaging are any clue to future events, expect the first communities to be built by 12-25 year olds.

    Third, vendors and operators can create tools and platforms, but the killer apps are going to be social, not technical, and will be invented by the users on the street, not engineers in laboratory.

    Therefore, the future of mobile online communities are more likely to be discovered than designed, detected than deployed. Enterprises that hope to compete in this space must direct constant attention to tuning their antennae to what is happening on the streets. Emerging social customs in real populations, not laboratory R&D, will drive the growth phase of the mobile virtual community era.

    With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

    Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.