Phone Zombies Campaign: Anchoring the term "Phone Zombies" in common language

Via LinkedIn I found a share by @andrewmurraydunn (Thanks, Andrew) to a Wall-Street Journal article about Apple’s new Screen Time app that is integrated in iOS 12. Reading the comments of the WSJ article I came upon some terminology being used to indicate those highly addictive people that are constantly absorbed in their smartphone. The term was:

“Phone Zombies”

“A person who gives preference to their smartphone and social media, even in social settings and in the company of others, which results in the person ‘not really being there’, like a zombie.” (my definition)

Idea: Introducing new terminology to affect cultural change

The comments used the word ‘Phone zombie’ casually, like it was a familiar, well-accepted slang word already. It seemed to me a highly effective way to make a person aware of their bad habits. Nobody wants to be called a ‘phone zombie’ by their friends. Using it deliberately can be a powerful tool to make people aware of their bad tech habits.

And it gave me the idea to use language strategically to change the culture and habits surrounding smartphone and social media use in positive ways. Language is power, after all. Culture drives behavior.

Idea: Change language -> Affect culture -> Drive behavior

The Humane Tech Social Consciousness Project

Changing language, by deliberately brainstorming terminology and injecting it into our daily conversations, is an activity that could be part of a larger CHT project with the goal of: Influencing social consciousness with regards to technology use. In other words: ‘Weaponize’ language to induce positive change.


Social consciousness

“The collective self-awareness and experience of collectively shared social identity […] and conscious awareness of being part of an interrelated community of others, [through which] individuals may experience social unity.” (source: Wikipedia)

Activities regarding language:

  • Defining vocabulary, related imagery and meme’s that are likely to stick in popular culture
  • Determine ways to inject them into the conversation (e.g. social media strategy)
  • Actively use and promote them in our day-to-day (online) communication

As an example of related imagery the artwork created by @micheleminno depict a great meme that can stick with the public:


I like phone zombie. It’s quite analogous to the term laptop zombie, which was popularized about a decade ago at various coffee shops and cafés where people avoided contact with each other and stared into screens. It seems a natural extension, and I agree that it calls out a behavior for what it is and promotes self-awareness in social situations. There’s already a media culture covering the subject, which makes it convenient.

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I love the idea of creating and promoting new terminology like this. I collaborated with British engineer Tim Hunkin on a satirical arcade machine about phone addiction called i-Zombie. I think that’s a pretty neat term (and slight simplification of your Phone Zombie suggestion). It could be styled as iZombie (no hyphen) for the purpose of simplicity.

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Very nice piece of art, the i-Zombie :smile:

Though as terminology that sticks, I still think Phone Zombie is stronger. You can say it with more sarcasm and putting emphasis on Phone. Also with iZombie I don’t get as strong an association with smartphone addiction. In fact hardly at all. Maybe that is because I am not an Apple user, but I still think having the topic, Phone, in the expression makes it stronger.

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I just sent an email with the Phone Zombie idea to SIRE in the Netherlands, which is a foundation for idealistic advertising. They create TV ad campaigns to highlight moral and ethical themes to the public, that affect society.

I suggested an ad video in the style of old-fashioned horror movie trailers, where during a talk with friends one person is grabbed by his smartphone and turns into a full-blown zombie… until he is violenty shaken by one of his friends and turns back to normal. The tag line: “Beware the Phone Zombies. They are everywhere!!”


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Well… you get the idea :smiley:

I got a reply to the mail I sent to SIRE that pointed me to the existing work of the Dutch social engineer Ritzo ten Cate.

Ritzo has been photographing people on the streets from very close by, just as they looked up from their smartphone, that had them absorbed before. And he was using the same term for the collection: ‘telefoonzombies’ (phone zombies). There are beautiful pictures in the collection, where you see on people’s faces how far away they had been before.

I recommend everyone to watch his TEDx talk, where he discusses the issue and does an experiment to bring the participants closer together. An experiment, btw, to raise awareness, and that we could also do as part of our own Meetups all around the world:

From smartphone addiction to human connection | Ritzo ten Cate | TEDxBreda

Examples from Telefoonzombies on Flickr

Ritzo has a great collection of photos on Flickr, that I’d recommend you pay a visit to. See his flickr albums

There are series of phone zombies in black&white and in color, more than 500 photos. The series that were shot in London have been viewed millions of times. Some examples (embedded from Flickr):

Caught in the App Groningen

Caught in the App LONDON

His latest project (still ongoing) records children in schools with a long exposure. Because the children do not move when looking at their phone, they sit perfectly still while the environment around them shows movement. It moves past them. A sample:

Caught in the App - SCHOOL

Caught in the App - SCHOOL

It’s funny. I just found some more cool prior art on the Zombie concept by one of our own members, @WwoeSsi:

Hi @WwoeSsi, great to have you here! Wanna join this initiative ?

Cross-linking this to: Producing short dramatic videos to raise awareness

My first post on this topic, highly interesting concept.

Just as creating videos with viral potential, introducing new words or expressions is highly challenging. In this case, I believe “phone zombie” has potential.

A zombie is neither alive nor dead. The juxtaposition is aimed at shaming someone who offends us by focusing on his phone in a social context, just like a zombie does not have any rapport with the living, the regular folks (save where he tries to bite their heads off of course).

Not sure @aschrijver how you plan to go about this. Creating viral content such as memes? That would be very easy to do (I mean, creating memes could be done in a matter of minutes), let us see then if our contacts’ contacts’ contacts love it too. For instance, two pictures: one of a zombie with his head down and jaw dropping, with the text “Aren’t you a bloody zombie”, one of a guy with his head down looking at his screen, with the words “Aren’t you a bloody phone zombie”. This may cause people to share and start using the expression with friends they know to do that a lot, or with whom they shared the meme.

Ok, clearly creating viral content is like building a successful app, i.e. a lottery. But given that anyone can create a meme so easily, we could start generating memes very rapidly and share with our contacts. At some point, we will strike gold.

We may want to also propose other new words or funny expressions to refer to other negative technology aspects, such as “Aren’t you a Google slut?” (Getting vulgar here, sorry for my French) to talk about people who search for incredibly embarassing topics on Google (we have a video concept on Github where someone’s search history is leaked to all her contacts - not good).

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Yep, fully agreed. “Phone zombie” comes up more naturally.


Would you consider expanding your related campaign (“Phone Zombies”) to all new sorts of words and expressions? We could discuss those on Github, have a preliminary assessment of their catchy potential, and look at memes. This would be followed by a call to action in the forum to share said memes among all our friends on social media, see if it spreads. Let us fight fire with fire!

Yes, this is the idea. Creating memes and video’s that hopefully go viral (not easy). Involves lotsa social media campaigning and the like.

The texts of the memes are most important and I want to spent time brainstorming, so we get a whole bunch of them that are both very funny, gripping and to the point. Then find the imagery to accompany them with.

Yes, indeed. We have lotsa things on our plate right now, but I envision creating an OSS project for the more tech-savvy members of our project and the broader Github member base to build a power tool (or select one, if it already exists - do not reinvent the wheel :slight_smile: ) along these lines:

Agreed in general, just thinking let’s make it exciting for contributors and, perhaps, competitive. If we were to go with memes, we can have all sorts of concepts - it doesn’t matter as long as the intended meaning is properly reflected in the meme.

I know it’s bad but memes that lead to shaming are very promising in my view. Why? Human basic nature: we love to judge and tease our friends. Hence the idea of the text “Arent you a bloody phone zombie”. Not proper, not polite, but I can guarantee you, many people will use it. Sadly, but that is the reality we need to live with, memes that spread are either cute kittens saying something adorable, or some guy saying something very lewd. I hope this is not in any way incompatible with our higher purposes.

We need to be popular with the dudes out there, cannot be too proper. We are not a major NYSE-listed corporation. We belong to the world.

Agreed, in such case, we should not get credit for these provocative memes. No one knows where a meme originally came from, and it doesn’t matter as long as our objectives are achieved.

Sure. I am all for that :slight_smile: :partying_face: We might turn this into a small contest (similar but smaller to Join the CHT Design Contest and Win! And please give us your Vote! )

I agree. This is similar to smoking in public. On the one hand try to make smokers feel guilty and self-conscious when doing it, on the other hand - in separate campaigns - offer them a hand to improve their ways.

We could create a whole series of small meme pictures that are targeted for practical use in social media interactions, e.g. to cut off a Whatsapp conversation that is taking too long. Promote that ‘as a thing’.

That is true. But I envision mention of HTC to be in the image metadata (no one looks at that really, but for search engines and people with tech saviness, whom we might want to reach as potential new members.

We need metadata any way, because the images must have non-commercial license to increase their application (and conform to our own principles). On the same note, the images we use should be vetted, so they are copyright-free, or used with permission of the copyright holder.

I guess my approach is to focus on the guilt and shame, forget about the healthy tips (healthy tips don’t work for memes, IMHO). The point is the easiest way for the new expression to go viral is to allow people to point fingers (unlike smoking, very importantly: rare is the person who will say “You are a bloody smoker” or shame a person into quitting his habit). It is socially acceptable (and your friend won’t take offense, unlike a smoker) to accuse someone of being a “phone zombie”.

Again, people love to judge and tease their friends. In this contexy, friends won’t take it the wrong way. They will admit their behavior is inappropriate, and switch gears. They may change their habits (hopefully) and later accuse their own friends to act as “phone zombies”.

Adding the word “bloody” makes it lively. It is a word commonly used in all sorts of contexts, not that bad. I am not an English native speaker, but I feel that adding “bloody” puts emphasis and makes the whole thing funny, as a joke. Really works in social contexts, which is where this new expression would spread.

As to “Google slut”, maybe over the top, but I like it. It says everything. We are whoring our secret thoughts to Google in exchange for free information on the most embarassing topics. It is pejorative, comparing the recipient to someone who doesn’t care who he is sleeping with, with the risk of getting STDs in the process. Makes a lot of sense.

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My thinking on the whole thing:

  • Introducing new words and expressions is almost the same as introducing new ideas and concepts, i.e. a new concept leads to a new word, but a new, catchy word, leads to a new concept
  • Shaming would be the idea there. Not shaming everyone, not at all. Rather, give bullets to everyone to condemn technology usage that is unhealthy (phone zombie) or dangerous (Google slut) and allow them to easily shame and tease their friends in everyday conversations (I know, I know, I use the darkest sides of human nature to advance our cause, but we need to work with humanity as it is)
  • Using lewd or provocative languages works. Most guys out there, including yours truly, are perfectly fine using crude words like “bloody” (not so crude) or “slut” (ok, maybe a bit more crude). Every culture has a rich repository of crude words, for good reasons: we love to be crude when we socialize with friends (you have no idea how crude the various Chinese dialects can be).
  • Let us make it competitive. Once we got some sort of consensus about a new expression, people come forward with meme ideas. If too crude, or unethical in any way, we dont promote; otherwise we post a call to action in the forum and ask the community to start spreading. As I said, at some point, we will strike gold. One day, we may travel to the far side of this world, start a discussion with strangers, and they will use these very words. That day, we will feel amazing.

Yes, this was what I meant. Entirely unsuited for memes, and outside scope of Speak Easy / Phone Zombie.

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I know there is a lot on your plate right now, but looking forward to your launching the Speak Easy theme and related campaigns. The path forward seems straightforward to me: propose new expressions, validate them, and then review all meme ideas and promote them. We could get there very easily and quickly, in my view.

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We could also spread a “dictionary” consisting of multiple definitions, including the one you gave for “Phone zombies” in your earlier post, or one for “Google slut”, defined as “someone who whores his most private thoughts to Google in exchange for free information on embarrassing topics”. Some definitions would be picked up, some not.

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After reading your guidelines on copyright infringement on Github, @aschrijver, I feel a bit bad for having posted this. You’re right, let’s make sure we always act in an ethical manner, and I am pretty sure we can find stock pictures or free pictures suitable for our purposes.