At the end of each day. often just before I go to bed, I take some time to write in an online journal and read what my friends have written in theirs. It’s something which allows me to connect with my virtual community regardless of where I am in the world or how busy my schedule has been. I classify this as a quiet, immersive experience. There is a relatively high volume of content creation and a low expectation of immediacy or interaction.
During the course of the working day I also exchange picture messages, texts and group emails within another community, separate from that I connect with in my journal. These interactions often take the form of ‘prompts’ – a web-site for others to look at, an image relevant to the group or a suggested activity for people to participate in. The quantity of content created is small, but there is a high frequency of exchanges and high expectations for response and immediacy.
My participation in both of these communities qualifies as ‘social networking,’ a term much hyped by the mobile industry, but which can cover a wide range of often incompatible interactions. For instance, I use my mobile device extensively to create, view and respond to ‘prompts,’ but almost never for my online journal.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there is little motivation for me to create journal content on the move. I usually write entries when I have time to pause and reflect on what’s happened during the day. This often coincides with being in a place where I have access to my laptop or workstation, so I can sit and take my time over creating and browsing content with a full keyboard and a big screen. There is no time pressure on me when I’m creating this content, so why would I use the inferior capabilities of my mobile device when I can wait a few hours and achieve the same objective in a much more relaxed fashion?
I may consider browsing content created by others in this community when I’m on the move, but given that many of them are located thousands of miles away, the community operates on a schedule all of its own. I therefore perceive little value in the immediacy mobile access would provide.
In contrast, my community of prompters is comprised of people located primarily in my home city. I see them on a regular basis and often the prompts will be directly related to time-sensitive events, e.g. who would like to meet up this evening? Who can recommend somewhere to eat? What’s the easiest way to get there? In these instances, mobile access is often essential. If I’m unable to get this information on my mobile device, I’m unable to participate in the community as there are times of day when I may be away from the PC long enough that I could miss out on the discussion altogether.
The language of this community is both visual and textual. The written interactions tend to be short and used for agreeing particular activities. The graphical communications are often used simply to provoke a reaction – sending a picture designed to make people laugh, mocking another member of the community or sharing an experience I’ve just had. Whole conversations can be conducted through pictures, without a single word ever being exchanged.
Of course, the behavioural patterns of other users will be very different. There are users who do not have regular access to a PC and may be more willing to accept the relative inconvenience of a small screen and poor input capabilities to gain access to a community. Others will be heavily focused on a particular purpose: for instance, communities which form around sharing music content may prioritise mobile access to the download resources of the group over any other feature.
Community interactions on mobile devices will be as diverse as the communities themselves. Users may want to participate in several of these communities at any one time and therefore have a different set of requirements depending on which group they happen to be interacting with. Most will be part of a wider experience that spans desktop and mobile.
While we must always keep this diversity foremost in our minds and maintain the caveat that there will always be users whose activities cannot be conveniently defined, we can start to identify common enablers of social networking applicable to all users:
Sharing experiences, information and contacts is at the heart of social networking. The more items that can be shared within the network, the more active it will be and the higher the perceived value for the user. It is crucial that the sharing process is simple and consistent throughout. It should be possible to share any item – whether it’s a photo, music file, video, web link or any other form of media – using the same set of interactions: select the item and choose the recipient or group you want to share it with. Simple as that.
The currency of social networking is information. The networks form around the exchange and subsequent consumption of information. This can take many forms: browsing a journal entry, reading a list of someone’s favourite books or checking out someone’s travel schedule. All of these activities constitute the consumption of information to provide a context for social networking.
Generating information provides you with currency to enhance your status in a social network. Mobile devices have traditionally been about communicating and, more recently, accessing information. However, there are many ways in which they can be used as creation tools. They are particularly suited to generating visual information such as photos and videos. An emerging generation of devices with keyboards and handwriting recognition are also increasing the possiblities for text input.
These basic building blocks of social networking already exist on the web. The question is how can the unique capabilities of mobile technology add another dimension and enhance the user experience?
This is one of the points on our MEX manifesto and will be debated at the conference on 2nd/3rd May 2007. Al Russell, Head of Mobile Internet & Content at Vodafone, will deliver the keynote responding to this manifesto point. With today’s announcement that Vodafone has done an exclusive European deal to pre-install a MySpace client on its handsets, he will no doubt have a lot to talk about.
There are several ways social networking can be enhanced by mobile technology.
The most obvious advantage of mobile phones is the immediacy they provide. As outlined in the examples above, there are certain types of community interaction which rely on this immediacy and because mobile devices are always with us, they could become the natural tool for keeping in touch with community information streams across a number of platforms.
Mobile phones now have some of the easiest to use multimedia capture capabilities of any device. Handsets like Nokia’s N95 and Sony Ericsson’s K800 take remarkably high quality pictures and videos. Capturing experiences is now much easier and accessible to many more people, but the process of sharing this content is still too difficult.
This is potentially the key difference. Mobile devices are inherently personal. They are with us at all times and are rapidly becoming the gateways through which we drive many of our interactions with the world around us, serving as communicators, digital wallets and tickets. This provides us with a wealth of contextual information in digital format which can be used to enhance the social networking experience.
Location is a much cited example, showing the position of other members of the network. Automatically sensing a user’s availability depending on whether they’re on another call is also a possibility. If we assume the mobile device is with us at all times, the possibilities are limited only by our concerns about privacy. Knowing the location of one user enables a range of services, but a group of users all sharing their positions provides much greater scope for innovation – for instance, recommending the most convenient meeting point for the group or sharing one user’s restaurant recommendations with another who happens to be in that area.
Financial context could also be a powerful driver. If, as in Japan, mobile subscribers start using their handset as a digital wallet, these purchases could inform social networking behaviour. Customers who purchase a particular type of music could access the profiles of similar fans or be sent information about local events where those kind of tunes will be playing.
Humans are naturally social creatures. Mobile devices are becoming the main tool we use to interact with our peers and our environment. Combining these elements in a network which allows experience, intelligence and context to be shared freely will lead to an explosion in network usage. The challenge for the mobile industry is to understand the wide range of behaviours which drive this kind of activity and find a way to price services effectively.
Please post your thoughts and any examples of successful mobile social networking applications. I hope you’ll be able join us at the MEX conference in London on 2nd – 3rd May for the full debate.