Innovating Mobile Social Technologies (Damn You Helio)

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by: danah boyd

The next step in social technologies is mobile. Duh. Yet, a set of factors have made innovation in this space near impossible.

First, carriers want to control everything. They control what goes on a handset, how much you pay for it and who else you can communicate with. Next, you have hella diverse handsets. Even if you can put an application on a phone, there's no standard. Developers have to make a bazillion different versions of an app. To make matters worse, installing on a phone sucks and most users don't want to do it. Plus, to make their lives easier, developers often go for Java apps and web apps which are atrociously slow and painful. All around, it's a terrible experience for innovators, designers and users.

This headaches have a detrimental effect on the development of mobile social software. Successful social technologies requires cluster effects. Cluster effects require everyone within a particular social cluster to be able to play. If 20% of your friends can't play because their phone/carrier won't let them, the end result is often that NO ONE plays. Of course, there's a tipping point where people buy a new phone or switch carriers, but that tipping point is hefty and right now, it's for things like SMS not neuvo apps. Switching carriers is even uglier – it requires a huge drop in price.

Being able to get to basic cluster effects is the *baseline* for a mobile social app to succeed. This alone won't make it work, but you need that to even begin. There are lots of other limitations, especially when the MoSoApp depends on geography. Take a look at something like Dodgeball. It was utterly brilliant at SXSW because 1) everyone was able to use it; 2) huge clusters were on it; 3) everyone was geographically proximate. There was a curve of use so that a fraction checked in all of the time, most checked in occasionally and a fraction never checked in. But that's the ideal distribution for cluster effects. Still, because everyone *could* use it, it was used.

Over and over, i hear about cool technologies that involve multimedia sharing, GPS applications, graphical interfaces, etc. In theory, as research, these are great. Unfortunately, without clusters, you cannot even test the idea to see if it would make sense to a given population. 🙁

There are only three phones out there with cluster effects right now: Crackberry, Treo and Sidekick. Even still, the killer app for each of these (email or AIM) connects them not to each other but to a broader network because of non-mobile technology. Plus, each of these clusters has issues when it comes to developing for them. Crackberry appeals to the business world who is on leash to their boss. Productivity-centric apps could be helpful to this crowd, but it will not be *fun* and most of these ideas involve privacy destruction. The Treo is central around the business tech world but most of this population socializes with people who are trying out every new phone on the planet; this group is too finicky and besides, they want everything OPEN. Then there's the Sidekick – it has penetrated the hearts and minds of urban street youth. Sadly, few designers are really interested in thinking about black urban culture. ::grumble::grumble::

When i heard that the Helio was going to launch with MySpace on board, i got super super excited. Like IM and email, MySpace is a perfect application to bridge web and mobile interactions. Sure, it only would include the communications messages and not really take advantage of the mobile issues with social networks, but it would be a good step, no? The target would inevitably be 16-30, an ideal target for dealing with mobile sociability. I was anxiously awaiting the launch, figuring that if anything could push youth to center around a technology, it would involve MySpace. From MySpace, you could actually start innovating with youth networks, location-based activities, image sharing, etc. Opportunity!

And then they launched. What marketing asshole chose the prices? $85 a month minimum on top of a $275 phone??? Has anyone not noticed that the target youth market is using the free generic phone and a $40 a month plan? You need to lure them away from their T-mobile/Sprint/Verizon plan and entice to come over. You need to do this en masse, with enthusiasm. You cannot do this for $85 a month on top of a $275 phone. ::sigh:: Opportunity lost.

There are two ways to get mobile social applications going:
1) A population needs to have access to a universal interaction platform which (except for SMS and dialing) means being on the same technology;
2) Carriers/handsets need to standardize and open up to development by outsiders.

The latter is the startup fantasy and i don't see it happening any time soon (stupid carriers). The former is really hard because it means enticing people over away from their contracts. Plus, it means moving against gadget individuality, which is something that people have really bought into. The only way to do that is for it to be super accessible and super cool. This is unfortunately an oxymoron because cool in gadgets equals expensive which means inaccessible. While the trendsetters will all opt-in, you need the followers to come along too for cluster effects to work.

There is a third option: destroy the carriers. The possibility of WiFi phones (following blanketed WiFi) means that you just have to deal with multiple handset makers but, right now at least, they are better about openness. At least then, you'd just have one development roadblock. Unfortunately, this is probably a long way off because the telcos are in bed with legislators who are being extremely slow about universal WiFi and are all about protecting dying industries.

I hate when innovation is jammed up by bad politics and stupid forms of competition. One of the hugest challenges of convergence culture is that traditional competition doesn't work. We're not competing for who can create the coolest toothbrush design anymore. We're now competing for who can build the biggest roadblocks in convergence. Today, innovation means figuring out how to best undermine the roadblocks without getting into legal trouble. Talk about a buzz kill.

So what should be done? Oh carriers, handset makers, innovators, venture capitalists, legal people… Is the goal to innovate or to control? What should be done to push past these roadblocks? (And for all of you in favor of control, remember that there are other markets besides the US/UK/Japan where innovation will occur and laws will not protect.)

Update: I want to clarify some things around youth purchasing. The youth market is 14-28. The 14-21s get their phones from their parents and are on their plans. The 21-28s get their own plans. The 14-21s are stuck with whatever free phone they get unless they can beg and plead for a cooler phone for their birthday. They also get shit plans, although many have been able to convince their parents to support SMS these days. This segment of the youth population is *key* because they are hyper active and this is when they are setting their norms for phone use these days. The way to get to them is to either make a phone that is so cool that they beg and beg for their birthday (and it fits into their parents' plan) or to make a package so cheap that they can convince their parents to get them a separate plan because it's economically viable. The 21-28s have more flexibility but they are still strapped for cash and are quite cautious with their plans, but if they've gotten used to SMS they don't give it up. They are also more likely to take the free phone unless they are the trendsetters (because they now have to pay and begging doesn't work). The exception to this is actually working class teens who tend to buy their own phone starting at 15/16 – they buy cooler phones but still have shit mobile plans. This is why the Sidekick worked so well in this demographic. (Note: these observations and this post are based on what i've seen hanging out in youth culture, not any interactions i've had with mobile or tech companies or any formal data i've collected for my dissertation. In other words, i may be very wrong.)

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