I, for one, think it could be a great idea for AT&T to serve as a mobile ad network. But if it wants to succeed, AT&T should start thinking about Wikiasari.
Wikiasari is an upstart search engine (still in development) from the people who brought you Wikipedia, the wildly-popular user-generated encyclopedia. Like Wikipedia, Wikiasari will rely almost entirely on its community--this time, to determine search results. (The initial sorting and ranking will be done by technology, but humans will determine the end product). Wikiasari, a culmination of sorts in user-generated content, is a real watershed in the history of media.
There are two ways that user-generated content has changed everything. First, it's flipped the traditional platform/content dynamic on its head: in traditional media, content is king and platforms play a supporting role; in user-generated content, it's not always clear which one is the star. Newspaper readers focus a lot more on the news than on the paper; moviegoers pay more attention to the movie than to the screen; but it's the YouTube and MySpace interface--and not the bevy of amateur-produced clips of dancing beavers and shoddy personal pages--that really shine in the user-generated media.
A second change user-generated media has brought is a shift in the nature of the communications conversation. In the traditional world, mass-communication high priests (Hollywood, the press, Martha Stewart) talk to (or at) the media consumer. In consumer-generated media, users engage in a community-wide conversation, and the high priests are largely left out. "The one thing that I feel like I know how to do is build communities," Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikia (Wikipedia and Wikiasari's parent company), told Noam Cohen of The New York Times. "I mean people who know each other, who have discussions."
User-generated content, in other words, is making the media world a lot less like the traditional mass media, and a lot more like the telephone--a medium for enabling consumer-generated conversation, in which the business ignores content entirely and instead focuses on building platforms that make peer content-sharing (i.e., phone calls) function a lot better.
Wikiasari is a major moment in this consumer-generated evolution. Consumer-generated search, even more than a consumer-generated encyclopedia, marks a shift towards consumers' looking to a community for answers about their questions and needs, rather than looking to an all-knowing, ready-made information source. If Wikiasari takes off (and if it doesn't, another wiki-based search engine surely will), it will mark a point at which the bulk of shared ideas comes from information-seekers turning towards their colleagues, rather than information being decreed from on high.
It would be well for AT&T to consider all this as it jumps into mobile advertising--at a time when mobile advertising is clearly failing to live up to its hype, and search is about to catapult consumer-generated media light years ahead. The two developments, after all, aren't entirely disconnected. Users want their media to act like telephones; it's clearly bothering them that mobile advertisers--who introduce unrequested, industry-produced content onto mobile screens--are trying to make telephones into the old media that everybody's ditching. No wonder there's a backlash, with 79% of online consumers bothered by the concept of mobile ads.
That's not to say that mobile advertising has no future. For one thing, mobile ads can leverage the phone as a communication device, rather than trying to subvert it. That was the secret behind last summer's "Snakes on a Plane" mobile campaign, in which mobile users sent friends a personalized message from an automated Samuel L. Jackson, demanding that the recipient see the action flick ASAP. The campaign clearly got the point that mobile is about peer communication--and 1.5 million "Snakes" calls were forwarded in the campaign's first week.
A second way for AT&T to leverage mobile media is to provide phones that better enable the communication that the user-generated world craves. This could be as basic as improving mobile filesharing capabilities, or as sophisticated as helping two drivers in two different vehicles find one another via GPS. The bottom line is that the new-information consumers don't just want to receive information; they want to communicate. And AT&T, which now owns Cingular and stands above a vastly huge telecom empire, is in a perfect position to offer that kind of capability.
If it's thinking of going further into mobile content before the end of this year, AT&T should think seriously about the meaning of user-generated content now. And if it's stuck for answers? I'd suggest it start its search at Wikiasari.