Whose Town Is This, Anyway?

"Mobile community" is another one of wireless wonderland's deliberately amorphous terms. Nascent industries usually embrace hazy language because there is just too much damned VC money floating around. It is amazing how insubstantial ideas seem concrete after seeing them a few hundred times in Powerpoint presentations. Digital veterans will recall the "content, commerce, and community" trinity to which everyone bowed--but few executed very well--back in 1999.

I don't think many developers have a handle yet on what a mobile community looks like. Is it a mobile blog,like several early entries I demo-ed last year? Users establish profiles and post images and notes that are often keyed to their physical location? At least one of these services I tracked has been trying to establish enough critical mass so that users can search from their own current location and get user-generated notes about nearby hot spots. I have seen minor celebrities emerge on this network, as frequent posters get a reputation from their peers and float to the top of a popularity ladder. In the early days I also saw a good number of penis pics ("Hey, girls, I am here in Boise just waiting for you") What charmers! Don't let these guys get away, ladies. Come to Erection-ville.



Some excuses for mobile community are just lame. One common dodge is to call polling and voting a kind of community. A popular gaming "lounge" has users review mobile games and vote on their quality to establish a kind of recommendation engine. Sorry, but without persistent identities and some kind of one-to-one exchange, this sort of application is less of a community than you have, say, with other commuters riding the train to work.

One school of thought insists that the cell phone is a horrid device for establishing a community. Unlike the PC, where lengthier messages and ongoing presence simply make it easier to establish and maintain relationships, the phone is too limiting. We are on and off the device in random moments, so chatting seems impractical (unless you are 15 and never off your phone), and messaging is just too much of a hassle (unless you have the fleet thumbs of a 15-year-old). Sure, there are a billion people with cell phones out there, but is it takes more than people text-ing "Whassup?" to one another to make a bona-fide village.

The theory goes that mobile community is possible if you extend onto phones relationships that are really established elsewhere, like mobile versions of MySpace. In that case, you can use the phone to make a stray remote post and check in on recent news from your existing posse. At least you can text "Whassup" to people you already know. UIEvolution is partnering with News Corp. to bring a mobile MySpace online soon, so we will see how effectively a thriving Web network translates onto handsets.

In theory, a cell phone should be a perfect blogging device. It has text entry, image and audio entry, which actually gives it a wider multimedia range than the typical PC. It is also a device that can chronicle your existence everywhere. Given the right interface, users should be able to take a quick snapshot of their current location, attach a note or audio message and send it directly to their blog. I have yet to see an effective execution of this idea.

I am not entirely sure that I want to see this work, anyway. Most personal blogs are tedious to begin with, because most of us believe the minutiae of our lives must be as fascinating to others as it is to us. Imagine if cell phones let you record, tag and post every moment in every place? I am more frightened than enthused by this notion. You could also argue that blogging is less communal than self-expressive, and it doesn't really leverage the highly mobile and interactive strengths of a cell phone.

Of course, all of these ideas, blogging, lengthy message exchanges, forming relationships and identities, may make the fatal and common mistake of presuming that previous digital models apply neatly to mobile. We (well, I) may be over-defining community and underestimating users' desire to connect with one another even fleetingly and anonymously (i.e. "Whassup?"). The reason we don't really know what constitutes a mobile community is that the users haven't shown us yet. And it is likely that several models will evolve to satisfy different audiences in a range of ways. Over the coming months, we will be exploring what social networking means on mobile, because it could prove to be more significant a channel for marketers than any of the media-driven data products out there. Given a choice on a mobile device, are you really going to check New York Times headlines--or whether your best bud is ready to "Whassup?"

I am in the middle of playing with one mobile community that seems to be exploring seriously the idea that relationships and communication take a unique shape through the handset and that developers need to rethink social networking on mobile. In the next column we will look at a global mobile community that claims 10 million paying members generating over 2 billion page views and average daily usage of 59 minutes per person.

Mobile community may take a very different shape on handsets, but it raises the same question that continues to dog online social networking; how do marketers effectively leverage user-generated content that is undeniably massive but altogether random and generally distracted?

Whassup with that?

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