danah boyd has been using the launch of the new iPhone  as a prompt to reflect on cluster effects -‘the cool things that people do when all of their friends can do the same things’.  The crucial thing about that definition is that it is not about mass adoption as such, it is about reaching the critical mass of adoption within a particular social group.

Right now, a phone is primarily a 1-1 communication device and, if you’re lucky, an information access device and a portal to the web. Interesting things can happen when the mobile is a platform itself. In other words, when you can assume that everyone around you has the same tool, you can start doing networked activities that don’t rely on a website. Cluster effects in mobile will be what happens when the LCD is not texting. From there, you can innovate. Sure, we’re going to see a plethora of mobile social network sites and mobile location friend services and mobile dating and mobile media sharing communities. The first wave will always be a translation of the web. But once you have cluster effects, you can also start innovating and finding new services and tools that allow people to connect in meaningful way. New games can emerge. New social services. Innovation in this space will be iterative – it will involve throwing things out to the market and seeing what consumers do and do not do. It will require iterating based on their practices and not trying to shove those curvy creatures into square holes. But there’s no point in leaving the starting block until cluster effects are underway because, sadly, iterating in imagination land inevitably leads to techno-utopian fantasies instead of meaningful applications.

Of course she is talking about a particular demographic:  iphones are not much in evidence among the customers of my organisation.  Texting remains the HCF as well as the LCD – and for many, even that is exotic and unfamiliar.  But despite that, putting it together with three other pointers drives out some powerful conclusions:

The first is that the biggest impact of the iphone will come after the smart people have moved on to the next thing – following Yogi Berra’s famous principle that, ‘Nobody goes there no more, it’s too crowded’.  As I noted a while back, the iphone is a symbol of the future, even if that future is still several years away for many, and won’t be called the iphone when they get there.

The second is that the increasing elegance and power of the gadgets is reinforced by the growing power of mobility.  As Vint Cerf is cited as saying early last year:

The future growth of the Internet lies in the hands of mobile phone users, not computers

He was primarily drawing a first world/third world contrast, but the point is just as forceful looking at gaps and patterns within societies.  The era of the landline is beginning to slip, displaced by the social and economic context of mobile phones (no contract, no risk of debt, unaffected by changes of address) as well as by their utility.

The third is danah’s last point.  We won’t know what all that will be good for until it becomes clearer what it is good for.  The waiting doesn’t have to be passive, though.  We can attempt to understand what people might want to do independently of our current ability to support their doing it – which is fine up to a point, so long as we understand that that point is quite limited.  That’s partly the result of the general chaos effects which afflict weather forecasts, but it is also more specifically a result of our not yet having even thought about how the way the world works is affected by the universal and ubiquitous use of powerful but pocket sized network devices.