"We are the bartenders," AOL exec Ted Leonsis once trumpeted to explain the phenomenon of AOL chat rooms. Like a good bar, Leonsis noted, AOL provides the tools and venue that allow people to connect with each other and have conversations, the essence of community building. Community remains a cornerstone of the wired Web, the essential (if elusive) prerequisite for advertising dollars, commerce and growth.
The founders of UPOC, Inc. (upoc.com) are betting that community will be as powerful a concept in the mobile wireless arena as it is for the wired Web. The New York-based startup is aiming its mobile community building service at the "gen wireless" - the 56 million 15 to 29 year olds in the U.S. (May 2000 Census), 42% of which own a mobile phone or alphanumeric pager (UPOC commissioned Harris Interactive Study, July 2000).
Last February UPOC closed an US$18 million "B" round of venture funding backed by Patricof, Advent International, Tribune Ventures and 550 Digital Media Ventures.
Universal Point of Contact - UPOC
UPOC is a platform for users of mobile phones, Internet phones and text pagers to send text and voicemail messages to groups of people at the same time - a task that is complicated in the U.S. by the diversity of technical standards embraced by U.S. carriers.
UPOC users form groups around musical performers ("Destiny's Child"), television shows (HBO's "Sopranos"), information useful to people on the go ("NYC Subway Alerts") and not so useful information ("NYC Celeb Sightings").
Laurel O'Donnell of New York City started the "Daily Quip Group" almost a year ago, sending short, amusing quotations from the likes of Churchill and Oscar Wilde to a community that has swelled to more than 1700 members. "I've been pleasantly surprised at the entertainment value," she says.
Ben Silverman's well-known Dotcom Scoop Website actually began as a UPOC group in September 2000. "I originally planned to dish some dirt to friends working in New York," he recalls. The group grew "organically" and spun off the Web site.
Similarly, marketers for record labels like Epic or groups like Tenacious D can create "channels" to send alerts, ticket offers and official information to people who opt in for the service. UPOC's strategy is to use groups and channels as complimentary approaches to building affinity groups. Moreover these sorts of partnerships increase the credibility of the site.
UPOC vice president of Marketing Greg Clayman recalls that once the prototype launched, "almost immediately communities began to form, even among the beta group." Today the site has over 106,000 registered users and hundreds of groups, varying in size from 2 to a couple thousand members.
Carriers have puzzled over what kinds of new services to develop for this promising demographic lode, a task David Berndt, Yankee Group Director of Wireless Mobile Technology, likens to "trying to figure out the market for automatic transmissions in 1900."
Some carriers like Alltel, which recently collaborated with UPOC to build its First Fan Buzz wireless sports service, are coming to the conclusion that one answer may be mobile communities.
"Carriers are very enthusiastic about what we do," says UPOC's lean and angular CEO, Gordon Gould, "because we drive a huge amount of traffic for them. Obviously, that's something that's billable."
UPOC makes money through sponsorships, setting up channels for companies like Virgin Records Urban and Jamdat Mobile Games, and more recently by building branded communities for carriers.
The Alltel service allows users to customize news, scores, headlines and ticket information for teams like the Florida Gators and Nebraska Cornhuskers. UPOC collects development, set-up and maintenance fees.
"Revenue share," a standard business model in Asia and Europe, is more problematic in the U.S. market, says Gould, partly because carriers don't like revenue share arrangements, and partly because of the technical difficulties involved in setting them up.
Gould believes revenue share arrangements are inevitable in the long run. "If [the carriers] don't make it economically attractive for [companies] to participate in the mobile Internet space, [companies] aren't going to do it," he says.
A spam vehicle?
Some feel UPOC is taking a calculated risk by mixing grassroots community building with marketing alerts on the same platform. "UPOC isn't using the service the way I thought they would - to create mobile communities among kids," Rushkoff observes.
"The thing that's turned out to be more profitable is pumping channel content at kids." Part of the danger is that consumers who sign up for multiple channels will get "sticker shock" when the next bill arrives from the carrier, notes Charles Golvin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. Users may weary of having to pay for alerts. "I might sign up to hear about Tenacious D," Golvin adds, "but two months later I'm just deleting messages."
Gould is aware of the issue, and believes his company has taken measures to avoid turning people off. "We're emphatically not a spam vehicle," he says. Users are only exposed to messages and content that they specifically "opt-in" to receive. If a user gets tired of getting messages, she can go into "away" mode - still in UPOC but not receiving messages - or choose to have messages sent to her email instead of phone.
One of the more predictable developments is the emergence of dozens of sexually oriented groups on UPOC, such as the "Phone Sex" (314 members) and "Nuthin But Cyber-Sex" (179 members) groups.
Gould believes sexually oriented groups are "inevitable" when, as has been found on the Net, people are able to connect with others anonymously. "People need food, shelter and companionship, which often means sex," he says.
Mobile community building also has political and economic implications that are only now hinted at. "The Resistance," a UPOC group that practices absurdist political theater, used UPOC services to orchestrate a demonstration of U.S. President George Bush's inaugural ceremony.
Looking out five years or more, rich media may turn services like UPOC into powerful platforms for personal broadcasting. Cam-equipped phones, coupled with access to long buddy lists, could make it difficult for Rodney King-style outrages to go unnoticed.
Gould foresees the day when users, sporting more powerful handheld devices and accessing wireless services via satellite, may step "off the grid." Such decentralized mobile communities, operating over encrypted networks, could form cash or barter economies that would be difficult to tax or regulate.
"When you offer the ability for the population to take control of communications technologies," Gould says, "you get some very unexpected results."
UPOC is located two blocks from what used to be the World Trade Center. The company remains up and running, though staff are operating remotely while the offices are cleaned up. A company spokesperson reports that staffers used UPOC technology to prevent other employees from coming into the area during the early hours of the attack.
John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los Angeles.