My Twitter quiz hell

A piece about attending the first Hive Mind quiz event in London, first published on First Drafts, November 2010

…say what?

When David Cameron returned to London from this year’s Conservative Party Conference, what platform did his train depart from? Why did the engineers of the longest continuous-span suspension bridge in the world change the blueprints after construction started? Those were the easy questions. Now, try these for size. Agtaq gufnx mbvrp eselx vurnm xsmqc aqzxa gakro altam yrvtn tpqzy vgnbx nofqw gonov? And who on earth is the person named in the hieroglyph above?

I’m sitting with my wife and two increasingly bemused friends experiencing the future of quizzing—or at least the future of quizzing in countries with high rates of iPhone ownership and comprehensive 3G networks. We’re in the Coach and Horses, Soho, and pretty much the only rule is that anything goes. Short of assaulting our two quiz-masters with a blunt weapon, there is nothing we can’t do, or won’t need to have done by the end of the evening if we want any chance of victory. We can call friends. We can use the internet. We can crowd-source our queries out to our thousands—well, tens—of Twitter followers. We can even, I have discovered, simultaneously phone National Rail Enquiries and send an inordinately expensive text message to the mobile phone service Any Question Answered, although neither of those options does much good.

Welcome to the Hive Mind Challenge—the first ever quiz where both cheating and Tweeting are de rigeur. Founded by tech gurus Adrian Hon and Philip Trippenbach, the event—which took place on Tuesday this week—was the trial run (“the alpha; not even the beta!”) and was both a wonderful and mildly terrifying experience. For a start, there were the massed ranks of Macbooks-cum-dongles that confronted my motley band as we entered. We were wielding, between the four of us, one iPhone, one Blackberry, some kind of Palm device that none of us knew how to use, and one ordinary mobile phone that didn’t like sending text messages. When the batteries ran out on the iPhone half way through, we nearly walked out in despair, so comprehensively were we out-gunned by the massed ranks of geekery surrounding us. But I’m glad we didn’t.

For a start, we came fourth—about half way down the table—thanks in part to my willingness to run across central London in response to by far the most fun question of the night: “In ten minutes time exactly, two pay-phones are going to ring at these exact latitudes and longitudes; whoever answers the phone and says the name of their team gets the points.” Shoving a senior member of Sony’s online team out of the way, brandishing an iPhone with less than 5 per cent battery power remaining, I blundered towards the marked spot on its GPS—and made it just as the ringing began. It was a minor miracle, and a cheering compensation for our failure to know anyone fluent in ancient Egyptian to whom we could send a photo message.

The evening was a pretty hard kind of fun. To win, we realised, meant not only being glued to a screen yourself for the best part of two hours, but also persuading several hundred friends and colleagues around the world to spend two hours of their evening sitting by their computers, desperately researching names, faces, places, numbers, details. Most pub quizzes are about being rewarded for random lumps of knowledge that have somehow stuck in your heads. This was all about bandwidth: both how much of it you could bring with you in a bag, and how much human capital you could stack up online of a Tuesday evening. It was a kind of intellectual arms race—and a fine proof of what diffuse communities of contacts are good at working out (numbers, dates, events, news, words) as well as what they find rather harder (music, images, locations, physical activity). In the end, too, it was an object lesson in the first law of the internet: more means better.

It was delightful, disturbing and demoralising all at the same time: modernity in a nutshell. And a searing indictment of the battery life of an iPhone. Next time, we’re told, it will be international, which begs all kinds of questions about how the tasks can be made even more mind-bending. But I hope to be there, so long as there are further opportunities for running around. And, for those of you still wondering about the questions in the first paragraph—David Cameron left from platform 7, the engineers changed their plans because of an earthquake, the coded question is a Vigniere cypher and the answer is “stationx,” and the name in the hieroglyphics is that of Amenirdis. But you’d worked those out already, right?