User Created Mobile Content
By John Geirland, Sat Aug 16 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Will user-generated content be as important for the mobile Internet as it is for the wired Internet?


User created content is the dominant content form on the wired Internet, ranging from personal homepages to Weblogs to virtual communities of every conceivable sort from Thomas Pynchon fans to garlic farmers. User created content is also an integral part of many commercial sites like Amazon.com (user reviews).

The notion of users creating their own content and sharing it with dozens or even thousands of other users is fitting for an empowering medium like the wired Internet, one with infinite shelf space that professional content creators could never fill and an interface (the desktop) that is easy to browse.

Of course, it is heresy to draw parallels between the mobile and wired Internet. That said, new devices and services are making it a lot easier to create and share new forms of mobile content with others. This raises the question: What role will user created content play in the evolution of mobile services? Will user created content – content made by one user and consumed by many others – become as pervasive on the mobile Internet as it is on the wired Internet?

Examples of user created mobile content include:

Mobile Ratings

Users are beginning to use this rudimentary but powerful form of user created content to “vote with their thumbs.” Virgin Mobile’s Youth Phone includes a service called “Hit List” where customers listen to a piece of music and vote on it. After voting, customers can hear what percentage of other customers “loved it” or “hated it.” If widely adopted, mobile ratings could drive and shape future mobile services and content offerings. Wireless Gaming Review publisher Matthew Bellows expects to see mobile game ratings appearing on handsets in the next year, as well as user reviews and discussion forum content.

Cartoons

Los Angeles-based Dfilm has developed a mobile version of its web-based Dfilm MovieMaker for two European carriers. (Announcement pending at this writing.) The mobile version will enable users to create a cartoon character that delivers mobile messages. “We’ve boiled it down to about five steps anyone can do and feel they’ve done something creative,” says Dfilm CEO Bart Cheever. While Dfilm’s Mobile Messenger is intended to enhance one-to-one communication, user created cartoons could easily circulate virally from one buddy list to another. “Mobile is the ultimate viral marketing medium,” says Dann Wilkens, vice president for brand marketing at San Diego-based PacketVideo, a mobile technology company.

Mobile Game Level Editors

Game level editors have long been a boon to game developers, extending the life of many “first person shooter” style computer games. Game producers at Los Angeles-based THQ Wireless are exploring different ways of enabling mobile users to edit game levels and content. One approach under discussion involves bypassing handset interface problems by building a level editor on a Wired Web gaming portal. A user could go to the site and create a new racetrack for a speedway race and download it into their phone. “Technically it could almost be done with today’s technology,” says Stuart Platt, a THQ Wireless game producer.

“I fully expect to see mobile game level editors in the next 18 months,” says the Wireless Gaming Review’s Bellows. He believes that in time mobile gamers will create in-game locations (houses, towns, cities, castles) just as they now do for online massively multiplayer games like Everquest.

MMS

Using MMS as a community-building tool is “becoming foreseeable,” says Nokia Phones Communications Manager Pekka Isosomppi. Nokia conference participants have experimented using the Nokia 7650 to create picture email albums and post them to sites on the wired Web. Photo albums could also travel virally by being “WAP pushed” - sending the members of a buddy list an SMS with an embedded link that brings up the photo album. Picture email is commonly used in singles profiles at SMS.ac, a San Diego-based mobile community. Community members with MMS-capable phones can check out a member’s photo before sending a flirtatious SMS.

It is possible to imagine picture email, with text annotations, finding its way into a whole range of mobile services. One example might be a location-based service for finding restaurants in London, where venturesome locale gourmands supply the restaurant profiles, photos, and ratings. Such a service might support separate communities of lovers of Indian food or singles.

Self Organization

When users come together and share content they’ve created, the result has a “self-organizing” quality. “Self-organizing systems” is an esoteric concept that has circulated through academe and think tanks for years. Self-organizing systems, Wall Street Journal writer Bernie Wysocki, Jr. writes, are built by “unorganized assemblies of people” working “on the fly, from the bottom up” to create something of lasting value like the Linux operating system or eBay.

eBay is one of the most popular and profitable sites on the wired Internet. Yet apart from some corporate window-dressing, its buyers and sellers supply the often-entertaining content (one seller auctioned his soul, opening bid $0.50). A self-organizing system “doesn’t respect traditional hierarchies,” Wysocki writes. “It brings in expertise from the edges of the network.” Could user created mobile content overturn the entrenched hierarchies of mobile operators and professional content developers?

Mobile Is Not The Internet

This is where the mantra “mobile is not the Internet” carries some weight. Mobile remains a medium of personal one-to-one communication rather than a showcase for user created content. Mobile data tend to be objective, critical and utilitarian (stock quotes, train schedules, weather). It remains to be seen what priority people will place on less timely content like Weblogs.

Another challenge: It is no secret that a lot of user created content is just plain awful. So long as users have to pay for mobile data they will be “judicious about where to spend their allocated bits,” says Forrester Research senior analyst Charles Golvin.

And despite the wonders of Java, being able to create mobile content once and share it with many is still an elusive goal. “You don’t have standardization of screen sizes,” says Joe Coletta, vice president of Solutions Management at Motorola, speaking of the new color screens currently hitting the market. Content creators still “have to do tweaking for display sizes.” Forrester Research’s Golvin adds: “Even with the emergence of x-html browsers, content owners will still have to adapt to the smaller displays and thinner pipes of the mobile world.”

User Created Content Can Be Compelling Content

Despite the obstacles, there are compelling reasons for encouraging mobile users to create content. User created content can make professionally produced content a lot more compelling. Many mobile games already incorporate SMS in the form of chat and taunts, examples being a peer-to-peer game like BotFighter (Alive) or a multi-player game like Contamination (Airborne Entertainment). SMS Taunts and chats “can really change the tone of the game,” says THQ Wireless’ Platt.

It is a maxim of the social sciences that people are more committed to something to which they have invested their efforts. Web designers have long understood that enabling users to post content, vote or contribute to a Website increases the likelihood that they will return. Why wouldn’t the same be true for mobile services?

Finally, enabling users to create content and share it with many others is just good business. Popsystems, a Finnish group-messaging firm, conducted a study of one-to-many messaging with a schoolgirl’s basketball team. The researchers found that group messaging resulted in a 60% increase in traffic per user. Revenues (voice included) shot up 20-30%. Interestingly, when individual users create their own groups, the study found, they lure in new members – 2.5 new users per month on average.

Carriers, it will be remembered, had little faith in SMS until teens seized upon the service, reinvented it and made it an indispensable part of the mobile experience. When a critical mass of users has the mobile devices and tools for creating photos, animation and even video, there is no predicting what will happen. Nokia’s Isosomppi: “It’s important for people who create [mobile] services to have a bottom-up view of things.”

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los Angeles.