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Why Social Mobile Media Matters for Broadcasters

February 10, 2011 |
2009 National Association of Broadcasters Show

This is a transcript of the technology luncheon keynote I gave for the 2009 National Association of Broadcasters Show.

I am a cultural anthropologist and I spend a lot of time observing what people in Japan and the US do with their technology, particularly portable gadgets of various kinds. Now one of the things that I love about being an anthropologist is that it gives me an excuse to be nosey and to ask people a lot of questions about their private social lives, how they communicate, who they communicate with, and what kinds of technology and media they love and hate.

One of the studies I did with my colleague Daisuke Okabe in Japan, and that was funded by Intel research, was a particularly good one for satisfying my nosy tendencies. We asked young urbanites and their families in Tokyo to show us what’s in their bag, and then we tracked how they used their portable devices, wallets, keys, and other media as they moved around the city.

So what’s in the bag. Here’s an example of a mobile kit from the mother of a teen that we had in our study: a mobile phone plus the following items that are pretty standard across the different mobile kits we looked at. Wallet, planner, pen, toiletries, keys.

But take a look at the mobile kit of her daughter Machi. Here we have all the basic items – plus the following gadgets – two mobile phones, and a gameboy DS, headphones, and an ipod. This is a pretty typical mobile kit for a tokyo teenager.And she’s not even the most gadget rich of the bunch. Take a look at this one with a PDA, two mobile phones, music player, headphones, laptop, a book, and DVDs.

So why in the world would somebody need to carry around two digital cameras, two mobile phones, and a laptop. Or a PDA, laptop, and two mobile phones? The guy with this mobile kit is a real news junkie. He has a car, and can drive to work, but he chooses a longer train commute because it gives him time to consume media in a highly selective—and private way. He does what we call cocooning – he puts on his headphones, jacks into one of his devices, and uses his train commute as a time to tune into a customized media experience. Before he leaves the house, he downloads podcasts and news stories to his PDA. He also carries around DVDs to play on his laptop if he is more in the mood for entertainment media. And while he’s doing that he’ll also be tapping out messages on his mobile phone, or checking out a social network site where he can share his latest news and media finds with his friends. This is a media experience that is demand driven and crafted through his use of personal, private, intimate, media devices.

What were seeing with the younger more wired generation is a proliferation of devices that they carry around with them that enable them both to capture media and to consume media, as well as to stay constant social contact with one another. It’s about more screens, more viewing, more listening in more places. What this young man’s mobile media use demonstrates is that there is tremendous latent viewer demand for personalized and social mobile screen experiences. So much demand that people are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to piece these experiences together with a complex ensemble of devices and services that aren’t optimized yet to meet this demand.

My goal for the next 12 minutes is to convince you of this latent demand, of how and why social mobile media is the next big thing for understanding the future of media content delivery. And I’ll do it by focusing on how kids in Japan are using portable media. Young people in Japan have been using mobile communications and mobile internet for longer than any other population in the world, so in many ways they’re who you should be paying attention to if you’re trying to identify future trends in this space.

So I’ve started out by talking about the technology. But what’s important about this is not the technology. The technology is just a proxy for things that people want to do. And it’s also not about the content. Or at least its not JUST about the content. I’m not saying that content doesn’t matter, but I am saying that content matters differently than it did in an era that was mostly about stationary screens and sustained attention. What is so different about today’s world of mobile, social media is that context matters as much as content does. And by context I mean the personal context as well as social context.

Here’s a simple illustration of what I mean by personal and social context. In the early years of our research, about ten years ago, people were puzzling over why in the world Japanese teens were so attached to text messaging. My colleague Daisuke and I captured kids text message logs, and we also asked them to keep a diary of the context for each text message. The basic who, what, why, when, and how kinds of questions.

When you first look at these text message logs, it seems like they are completely content free. It’s a lot of what you see on social network sites for US teens. Yo what up, I’m tired, this video rawked. This is why adults look at this kind of communication and think that it is a collossal waste of time. Why bother to even send messages like that? But the important thing to understand is that this isn’t about sharing information or content. It’s about sharing presence. It’s about being together—even when you are apart. These are messages that say – hey, I’m here, I’m thinking of you, and we’re together. It’s about inhabiting what my colleagues in Japan are calling a full time intimate community.

You may be thinking, well this is really all about personal communication, it’s not about media content. But the reality in today’s media and communication environment is that the boundaries between those two things, between personal point to point communication and stuff that is part of the world that you all here inhabit – broadcast, publication, one to many communication – is getting more and more blurry. On sites like YouTube professional TV content mingles with amateur home videos, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start a blog or a podcast, and everyday viewer chatter about media propagates in highly public ways on fan sites and social media sites all over the internet. What I would argue is that it’s by getting the personal communication and mass communication to work together that media industries can find new ways of succeeding in a digital, mobile, networked world.

If you look at survey work on what kinds of screens kids are paying attention to these days, you’ll see that TV screens are as important as ever, and this is true in Japan as well as the US. At the same time, use of social media like text messaging, email, social networks sites, is ALSO on the rise. What this means is that we have a generation of multi-taskers who are engaged in social communication at the same time as they are constantly steeped in media content.

Here’s another example of how kids are growing up in a mobile social media world. The other day, I was on a plane with my son, and he was playing Mario Kart on his gameboy DS. The teenager in the row ahead of us peeked through the crack between the seats to see what he was up to, and pretty soon they were racing each other, connected through the wireless connection of the DS. The fact that they were both packing a portable, connectable game device, and they both loved the same game changed the dull space of plane travel into a social space of opportunity for them. The key feature of the media is that it is portable it’s personal, and it involves social interaction.

And it is precisely this portability and connectivity that is the reason why the Gameboy DS is outselling every other game console on the market today and why Mario and Pokemon are the best selling game franchises of all time. Ever since Pokemon, Nintendo has understood how to put social experiences at the center of play – game boys and trading cards specifically – and to integrate other media like television, movies, and comics as part of this social and interactive ecosystem. Portable technologies are platforms that maximize opportunities for social media engagement. And it’s not just gaming. The same is happening for music, the same is happening for news, and the same is happening for TV and video. The social is what gives meaning to media consumption, and media content is what feeds social buzz. Marketers talk about this as viral media. For kids its media that has social currency. If you see an elementary aged kid pull out his gameboy, if you see a teenager pull out her video ipod of camera phone in a social situation, you’ll see a kind of flocking behavior as kids gather around the device. The media is the social glue, the common language that means you belong.

And this is the reason why young people in Japan are packing so many screens in their pockets and bags. They need to have the media that represents themselves close at hand. Let’s go back to Machi. Why does she carry two mobile phones. When she upgraded her phone she wasn’t able to transfer all her data. One of the phones is her old phone that has a ton of emails, photos, and videos on it that she wants to be able to share with her friends when she gets together with them socially. She’s an avid fan of anime and other TV shows so both of her her portable devices are full of content that is part of her fannish interests. And when she’s not physically together with her friends, she satisfies her social media itch through social network sites and video sharing sites.

One of the most popular sites in Japan today, and one that Machi accesses regularly through her phone as well as through her PC is NicoNico Douga, or Nico Video. It’s like a Japanese version of YouTube, but with an important addition. The site lets viewers post commentary in a way that is timed to a particular place in the video, so it scrolls across the screen as you are watching a TV show or a video clip. What this means is that people get a sense that they are viewing with a group of others, seeing what they liked and didn’t like, where people got excited about something. Nico video was started as a kind of rogue site initially, but now accounts for about 1/12th of the traffic of the Internet in Japan and the company is developing more relationships with content distributors to bring programs to the site.

Nico video is a prime example of a site that caters to a personalized, viewer and demand driven media experience that is also deeply social. When it became possible to access Nico Video on mobile phones in Japan, mobile viewership has been growing.
The same is true for the top social network site in Japan, Mixi. If you look at this graph, you’ll see that the early years of adoption were dominated by PC based page views, but as it became easier to access the site off mobile, mobile internet page views have dominated.

With GREE the second most popular social network site, the contrast is even more stark. The blue line is mobile access and the red line, which is PC access has remained virtually flat over the past 4 years. In other words, most people see mobile access as the preferred way of viewing these sites. People can engage with the media content that they want, when they want it, and how they want it, on a device that is completely personal and private, that they can coccoon with on the train, in their bedroom, in the classroom when they’re teacher isn’t looking, or in a lecture when the speaker is not being particularly interesting.

Now you may be thinking that all this portable media is an interesting diversion, but given a choice, people would always prefer to engage with big screens, high fidelity, and more immersive media experiences. But this bias underestimates what it is that makes the mobile space so compelling and different. Even in Japan it’s only been in the past few years that mobile social network sites and video sites have really started to take off. We’re at the very beginning of the curve of mobile media adoption, but if the trends in Japan are any indication, social and mobile where there is pent up viewer-side demand. These mobile services are not a second rate version or a replacement of the home theater, but is its own unique set of experiences that centers on the more personalized, private, and socially connected. Remember that I am talking about a generation of multi-taskers that love to connect the dots between different platforms — what they want is the linkages between these personal mobile experiences and what they are getting through existing broadcast media and home entertainment.

The US is five or more years behind Japan in the adoption cycle of mobile media and the degree to which people have incorporated it into their everyday routines. But now with American teens starting to clue in to text messaging, and iPhones and blackberries becoming attractive to the older set, we’re seeing that tide start to turn. But regardless of whether you’re looking at Japan, Korea, the US, or Europe, we’re still just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve given you a lot of examples, a lot of stories, and much of this may seem far off from the immediate concerns that you are facing. So let me try to bring this a little closer to home. What are the take-home lessons here, and what are some examples of folks who seem to be moving in the right direction in meeting some of the latent demand in the mobile media audience. Let me give you three categories of take homes.

1. Demand-centered distribution. For an earlier generation, TV programming flow and TV schedules were a social fact of nature. We planned our lives to be home to watch certain shows at certain times, and we looked forward to chatting about the latest episodes with our friends and colleagues at school and work the next day. We had stable media rhythms and that was what defined the social media landscape. VCRs, and now DVRs have changed all that, but mobile media takes this personalized, time-shifting experience one step further—making it space-shifting. You can’t count on people viewing things at the same time, nor can you count on people viewing things in the same kinds of locations and situations anymore either. Podcasting and iTunes are preludes to this broader shift towards demand-centered mobile content distribution, but it’s when this kind of content is integrated into a more social ecosystem of always on connectivity that we’ll see the mobile media ecosystem really start to take off.

2. Diversify your media ecosystem. The media franchises that have done the best in the portable media space are the ones that link together narrative and interactive media and immersive and portable platforms. I’ve already mentioned Pokemon, which is one of my favorite examples of a franchise that leverages portable media and user-generated media to drive social engagement and viral buzz. And it does it in a way that creates energy in multiple media formats including television and cinema. Another example of this working is with some of the mobile TV content that we’ve seen in Korea in the area of news reporting. This is an area that my colleague HyeRyoung Ok has been doing research in. For example, Click Click Ranger was a show that mobilized a team of 100 young citizen reporters to capture video clips of people doing anonymous good deeds which are submitted to be featured on a Sunday prime time show. 90% of the captured video was recorded on mobile phone cameras. In this case, people were capturing media with their mobile phones, and viewing the episodes on mobile TV services, while also feeding the traditional broadcast ecosystem. In a similar vein, the Korean show Uporter also invited everyday citizens to capture news on the street with their mobile phone cameras to be aired on traditional news broadcast, mobile TV, and website. These are all examples of interesting new forms of experimentation with multiple distribution channels, centered on content that is driven by the capacities of portable, personal, interactive, and user-generated social media.

3. Support social viewing. Success in the networked media ecosystem means that media creators are building community as well as content. This means that successful companies are pulling from their communities and letting their fans talk back, rather than being scared about what they might say. In the PC-internet space, there are more and more experiments in this area. If you look at a site like YouTube or like, you see lot of opportunities for viewers to rate, comment on and share the media at hand. Contrast this to a site like Hulu, iTunes, or the standard mobile TV site which are doing a really great job of delivering content, but have relatively few opportunities for social interaction.

Current TV’s experiments incorporating twitter streams into their debate coverage is another example of networked social viewing. Facebook also did something similar. But nico video is one of the only examples that I know of that has really made social viewing work on the mobile screen.

These are all hints and preludes to what our media ecosystem might look like when we really move into a mobile era where media content and distribution is interacting in a rich and synergistic way with always-on social communication. I hope I’ve convinced you to join the effort in working to make this happen.