Community convergence


Definitions are notoriously difficult to pin down in the mobile industry. Take ‘convergence’, for example: in various contexts this can refer to anything from the emergence of IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) networks to the ‘home zone’ pricing strategies employed by operators encouraging their subscribers to replace fixed line usage with mobile calls. I’d like to confuse things further by talking about ‘community convergence’

Communities exist everywhere. In the workplace, among the neighbours in your street, online – anywhere there is shared affinity, there is the possibility for a community to emerge. Of course, every community has its own unique characteristics, such as the strength with which members are bound to it, the frequency with which members communicate and how much participation they have in the long-term direction of their community. All of these factors and many more combine to determine the overall strength of the ties which bind members to that community, and that itself is something which can differ for each individual participant.

Today many subcribers already use their mobile devices to stay in touch with their communities. At the most basic level the other community members are simply entries in your Address Book. The fact that you are communicating with them from your mobile device, as opposed to your office PC or fixed line phone, is relatively irrelevant – the only difference is that you can do it on the move. The industry has not yet delivered services which combine the power of these communities with the power of mobility.

Slowly operators and handset manufacturers are waking up to the potential of harnessing these community relationships. Companies which can understand the complexity of their customers’ communities and provide tools which enable them to participate more effectively and with unique mobile capabilities will benefit from greater subscriber loyalty and pricing power.

Communities which have grown entirely in the digital medium represent a particularly interesting opportunity. Members are already accustomed to existing within a virtual environment and there is a consistency to the data collected on each member.

Blogs represent an obvious example. Take LiveJournal, for instance, which was acquired in 2005 by Six Apart. LiveJournal has nearly 2m active users, of which about 800,000 have updated their blogs in the last 7 days. Some 67 percent of LiveJournal users are female and most are between 16 and 21 years old.

The key to LiveJournal is the ‘friends’ feature. LiveJournal users define themselves by their virtual friendships. When you become someone’s friend you can access their personal ‘friends only’ entries and their journal appears as a sub-set of your own, alongside all your other friends. This creates a web of inter-connecting friendships, allowing users to discover journal owners with similar interests or simply encouraging people to sign-up for their own journal account so they can gain access to someone else’s friends only content.

There are about 300 posts per minute to LiveJournal, almost all of which are made from PCs. Every journal contains a ‘user info’ page, including a profile, a user-defined list of interests, date of birth, location, list of friends and the option to list your instant messaging or other contact details. Those sort of data are like gold dust to companies which understand the value of communities – even network operators don’t have that much contextual information on their subscribers.

It is possible currently to access LiveJournal from a mobile device, but to do so involves considerably technical complexity and, like so many other mobile data consumption scenarios, suffers from varying degrees of incompatibility depending on your handset and service provider.

In April 2005, Nokia and Six Apart agreed a deal which enables LiveJournal users to post to their journals from the Nokia LifeBlog application, a mobile client developed by the Finnish manufacturer. It is a start towards introducing mobile services which harness fully the power of communities such as LiveJournal.

Significantly, the agreement was pushed by Christian Lindholm, better known as the pioneer of Nokia’s interface technologies, and now director of multimedia applications at Nokia Ventures. Supporting and enhancing community experiences in the mobile environment is a huge interface challenge, as well as the commercial and infrastructure headaches.

This is where we come back to the issue of convergence. Community convergence is about bringing together all of these elements – UI, software, network infrastructure, presence and commercial agreements, into a user experience greater than the sum of its parts. It is an experience which will also be inherently tied to the notion of convergence because almost all of the users will be ‘converging’ from a previous platform experience – in this case the PC – where they are accustomed to certain capabilities and usage scenarios. They will only be prepared to pay a premium for mobile if it adds unique value.

It will require Herculean effort to get it right, but the opportunities are significant. Returning to the LiveJournal example, imagine simply adding a mobile presence feature to everyone’s LiveJournal friends list. LiveJournal users would be able to see, at a glance on their mobile device, who had updated their journal and who was available for an IM chat.

This could be extended to content recommendations. Every LiveJournal entry provides the user with the option of listing the music they are currently listening to. A mobile client would enable users to see what their friends had on their playlists and then link directly into the operator’s music download service to hear a sample or purchase the track. Users are also asked to indicate their mood alongside each entry, so the community could be enhanced by giving members the ability to send ‘e-gifts’, such as music purchases or icons, when one of their friends is feeling down.

This level of convergence, personalisation and user-driven content generation was explored briefly at the PMN Mobile User Experience (MEX) conference in September 2005 during a debate chaired by Julian Swallow, CEO of mobile blogging pioneer Mobrio. It will be one of the central themes at the next MEX in May 2006: the potential for community convergence, the technology require to deliver this and the commercial strategy which will define the rules of the value chain.

I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of months exploring ideas with key players in this area and I am always interested to hear from anyone who has a view on how communities can be better integrated with the mobile experience. Please email me at marekpawlowski@pmn.co.uk if you’d like to share some thoughts.


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