The camera phone was the product nobody needed, but feral youths and citizen journalists have rescued this pointless piece of technology
When the manufacturers of mobile phones had saturated the market,they were left with a conundrum: what to do next. Their achievements were considerable. They had added another, previously undreamt of, stratum to the multi-layered miseries of rail travel; they had interrupted from the gallery the finest orchestral performances; they had presented people with the loudest voices the opportunity to exercise them in public; they had blighted town and country alike with their masts and towers; they had caused health scares galore. And all in the space of a very short time. How to follow that?
They put their heads together and came up with an answer that no one could have expected – the camera phone. Why? Because they could do it. There could not be a finer example of a product-led innovation. It is impossible to believe that any mobile-phone user, no matter how addled his brain had become through exposure to microwaves, could have said: “You know what I could really do with when I’ve finally finished yakking? Take a picture, that’s what.” It would have made as much sense to have a mobile phone that doubled up as an electronic toothbrush or one of those gadgets that trims nasal hair.
However, in a phenomenon that is little-studied or remarked-upon in marketing circles, the buying public found uses for the camera phone post hoc. This was a rare instance of an industry seeking not to fill a gap in the market, but rather through its own actions creating one, which the market itself filled in unexpected ways.
Just as the pioneers of mobile telephony for the masses could not have imagined the ingenious ways in which the public would use the invention to irritate each other beyond what was previously believed to be the limits of human endurance, the creators of the camera phone could not have foreseen the consequences.
Leaving aside the peculiar British taste for photocopying and photographing one’s private parts for wider circulation, which is worthy of a study in itself, who would have thought that Britain’s lively and resourceful bands of street urchins would have seized upon this electronic marvel as a means of reliving their night’s entertainment? Equipped with a camera phone obtained through the normal channel – robbery with violence – feral youth number one sneaks up behind a passer-by and sets about kicking the daylights out of him, while feral youth number two, the Frederico Fellini of the production, records the action on the phone. Later that evening, in a urine-soaked stairwell/theatre the production team settles to a soothing canister or two of solvent and views the rushes.
Happy slapping was invented not by a dreamy visionary in a Soho studio but by an underprivileged nobody in a sink estate, which to a marketer is a humbling thought. It’s a reminder that great ideas can spring from any source, and at random.
Nor was the public done with its creativity. Word from Germany is that the mobile camera-phone is creating a people’s army of paparazzi, enthusiastic amateurs who, spotting a celebrity out and about in street or gutter, whip out the handset and record the image for public consumption in the next day’s issue of Bild.
News organisations such as CNN and The Guardian have been using reader-generated photos and video files since the Asian tsunami, but the Norwegian tabloid VG and the regional SaarbrÃ¼cker Zeitung in Germany mobilised readers with regular reader-reporter sections. Bild and a Swiss tabloid, Blick, followed – bringing millions of readers into the new age of “citizen journalism”.
“The important events of the future will be documented by amateur photographers,” says Nicolaus Fest, of the Bild editorial board. “Amateur photographers are omnipresent and that’s an interesting development. Whether you see them with fear or hope depends on your point of view.”
Christian Schertz, a lawyer to the stars, is in the first camp. “I’m reminded of George Orwell. Citizen is encouraged to watch fellow citizen and even gets money for it.” So far, he has represented a number of celebrity victims including German international footballer David Odonkor who – while appearing to urinate in a parking lot – was captured by a sharp-eyed amateur paparazzo. Schertz persuaded a judge to order Bild to erase the picture from its archives.
Once you untether the beast of technology who can tell where it will roam and who it might savage? Salutary, and a little scary to think that what began as an innocent enough attempt to put us in touch with others wherever we or they might be, has led to the clandestine snapping of a footballer allegedly having a pee in a public car park. Where will it all end? In tears, as always.