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joe holt on Smart Mobs

A friend of mine who appeared earlier in my blog, joe holt, wrote to me with an interesting story about smart mobs:

"Smart Mobs" reminds me of just how fundamental communication is to the human animal. At the root of so many amazing inventions (from written language to the cell phone) lies the desire to keep in touch. It's democratizing and soul-filling. Do you remember that I took a year away from hi-tech and worked at a middle school? I became friends with most of the students at the school, and I still keep in touch with many of them (they're going to college soon!). I knew the computer geeks and geekettes, of course. I taught a C programming course and tutored several of them personally. But I also became friends with the other stereotypes. (And in middle school all you have are stereotypes.) The actions of one group in particular intrigued me. They were the Popular Girls with Pagers. What on earth did they use pagers for? Boyfriends? Drug dealers?

One of the Pager Girls worked for me during a prep period, and I asked her one day. We were good friends and so she let me in on the secret -- which teachers and -- forbid! -- parents were never to know. First of all, boyfriends and drug dealers are nowhere in the picture. As you can probably guess, they used them to keep in touch with one another. But what no grown-up really appreciated was the extent to which they used this technology. Each girl has a numeric signature, and the group developed a medium-sized vocabulary of numeric phrases and messages which can be strung together to form entire sentences. So that after lights out, for example, one could sneak onto the phone and say "Thinking of you, I had fun today. Love Christie." And it would look like 042-99-22-82-112. They would do this all day long. They would get out of class under the pretense of using the restroom, then sneak over to the office and say "Don't worry, it'll get better" or "I hope you do well on the test." Pagers were officially banned from the school, but the girls managed to keep them hidden and out of the awareness of school officials. I was amazed. I felt like an anthropologist. And remember, these are not the Geekettes.

It's easy to imagine teenagers around the world -- a few years ago inventing and memorizing numeric codes to communicate via pagers -- now creating their local versions of the oya yubi sedai (thumb tribe), pecking out text messages on alphanumeric keypads at high speeds.

[By the way, I've seen two Japanese terms for "thumb tribe:" oya yubi sedai and oyayubi-zoku. Could one of my Japanese friends illustrate for me the difference and let me know which one, if either, is more correct?]

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