Afterthoughts: Multiplying Cells

Smartphones are taking over, and that’s OK.

illustration: kelsey ige

Honolulu is a great city, but one thing it doesn’t get enough of is big-name musical acts flying in to perform. So when it was announced that legendary goth rock band The Cure was going to be playing at the Blaisdell Arena at the end of July, I was stoked.

When we showed up that night, it was obvious that a significant chunk of Honolulu felt the same. The place was packed to capacity—almost 9,000 people of all ages, mostly dressed in black, but otherwise looking entirely too happy and excited for such a supposedly mopey fanbase.

On the way into the arena, there were prominently posted signs warning, “NO CAMERAS.”  Notices like this are getting to be increasingly common at music events, but they’re also getting more and more pointless, given that almost 60 percent of the audience members are carrying smartphones in their pockets and purses.

Sure enough, when the lights went down and The Cure took the stage, the crowd in front of me turned into a forest of upheld arms, each sprouting a glowing phone screen.

I’ve heard people complain that these cell phone users at shows are missing the point, not living in the moment. Nationally, acts such as Björk, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, She & Him, and Savages have started taking the extra step of cracking down specifically on phone pics, with cutesy notices like, “We ask that people not use their cell phones to take pictures and video, but instead enjoy the show they have put together in 3D.”

Sorry guys, it’s not going to happen. Rather than act like substitute teachers who can’t get their classes to settle down, I think it’s time for everyone to embrace smartphones as an integral part of the concert-going experience.

For one thing, they really do add to the visceral thrill of being in a crowd of thousands of boisterous fans. The scene before me at The Cure show, a shifting sea of heads, dotted with soft points of light, was lovely—phones have become the new lighters, held aloft in tribute.

But the real beauty of a crowd armed with camera phones goes beyond its visual spectacle. Because those people aren’t just snapping photos for their scrapbook. They’re uploading them instantaneously to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine. They’re not missing the moment, they’re sharing it. And when it’s at something as large and popular as a concert, all those posts become a social happening in their own right.

(This isn’t just a phenomenon at music shows. Earlier this year, there was a striking pair of photos going around the web that compared the two crowds that gathered in St. Peter’s Square to witness the debuts of Pope Benedict in 2005, and then, five years later, of Pope Francis. In the first photo, a single flip phone can be seen amid the throng. In the second? So many people are recording the new pope, their smartphones look like a constellation of stars.)

If you were on Facebook or Instagram at all on July 30, you probably got a taste of what was happening at the Blaisdell Arena, even if you didn’t attend the concert. My social media feeds that evening were completely taken over by Cure mania. Even friends who weren’t at the show were posting pictures about how they weren’t at the show.

A lot of the concert shots looked pretty much the same—there’s a limit to what you can capture with a phone camera in a big, dark arena—but the avalanche of photos, each taken from a slightly different viewpoint, gave a cumulative sense of connection to the people around me.

It would have been a great show even without the Instagram flurry—The Cure played three-and-a-half hours of fan favorites—but I’m glad so many people were rude enough to ignore the no-cameras sign.