Category Archives: shift6

Palestinian girls, dating, and the mobile phone

Last fall, Hiyam Hijazi-Omari and Rivka Ribak presented a paper called “Playing With Fire: On the domestication of the mobile phone among Palestinian teenage girls in Israel” at AOIR. They studied teen girls who received their mobile phones from their boyfriends and hid them from everyone else. Through this lens, they examine how the mobile phone alters social dynamics, relationships, and the construction of gender in Palestine. In short, they document how culturally specific gendered practices (not technological features) frame the meaning and value of technology.

All too often, we think of technology as empowering or restricting. We focus on the technology and its features rather than the ways in which it gets embedded in the lives of people. The phone has always been a gendered technology. (If you have any doubts, read Claude Fischer’s “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.”) While the story of the mobile is quite different, even the tensions between its use as a business tool and its use as a tool for family communications have been narrated through the lens of gender.

Palestinian boys give their girlfriends phones for the express purpose of being able to communicate with them in a semi-private manner without the physical proximity that would be frowned on. At the same time, girls know that parents do not approve of them having access to such private encounters with boys – they go to great lengths to hide their mobiles and suffer consequences when they are found out. While the boys offered these phones as a tool of freedom, they often came with a price. Girls were expected to only communicate with the boy and never use the phone for any other purpose. In the article, Hijazi-Omari and Ribak quote one girl as expressing frustration over this and saying “I did not escape prison only to find myself another prison.” These girls develop fascinating practices around using the phone, hiding from people, and acquiring calling cards.

For teens, the mobile phone is a key device for negotiating intimate relations throughout the world. Studies done in the U.S., Jamaica, Japan, the U.K. and elsewhere all point to the ways in which teens negotiate private relationships using their mobiles. Mobiles are a critical tool for being in a relationship. Yet, most of our studies focus on the ways in which offline intimacies are extended across space and time through the mobile. What Hijazi-Omari and Ribak are finding with Palestinian girls is that the mobile is allowing them to have private encounters and relationships when these would be otherwise impossible.

This article helps elucidate the ways in which youth from different cultures are navigating social relations through the mobile. It is well-written and filled to the brim with fascinating data that tickles the brain. A must read for anyone interested in cultural difference involving the mobile!

from faux to real – the rise of kiddie phones

Standing in the toy section of a store in the Hong Kong airport, I was fascinated by the wide array of faux laptops made for children. These machines were designed to look like laptops, but their functionality was extremely limited to a learning-based program with the graphical capability of a Tamagotchi. Faux electronics for children have been around for a while, especially in the world of mobile phones. Lately, though, technology has become cheaper and what was once faux is now real. While children’s laptops are still more hype than reality, phones for children are appearing all over the place. These “kiddie” phones are often smaller, simpler, and more brightly colored.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported on the tide of concern in Europe over the rise in kiddie phones. On one hand, there are questions about the long-term health effects of mobile phones. On the other, there is a parenting concern about whether young children should have phones at all. One of the experts quoted draws a parallel between the mobile phone and tobacco industries. In other words, are companies acting maliciously by addicting kids to mobile phones at a young age? Luckily, since it’s Europe, the furor is prompting a bunch of research.

In the States, kiddie phones have had a different tenor. Here, the safety concern revolves around access to porn and other “harmful” content as well as the potential for dangerous contact from strangers. (Research is not encouraged.) When kiddie phones are available, their uniqueness is less about look and feel than it is about parent-child specific features. For example, the branded kiddie cell phone service offered by Disney was a glorified parent tracking device for parents. Last fall, Disney cancelled the service, citing challenges breaking through the carrier stranglehold.

All of this makes me wonder… What is the appropriate age for children to first get phones? What should be the purpose of those phones? What regulation is necessary? What are the responsibilities of parents?

(This was originally posted at Shift 6. Leave comments there.)

how youth find privacy in interstitial spaces

The NYTimes ran a piece today called Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old (JK). (Note: the article is very American-centric – in the States, older folks tend to be texting illiterate.) The article begins with an anecdote of a parent shuttling around his daughter and her friend. They are talking and dad butts in and they roll their eyes. And then there is silence. When dad comments to his daughter that she’s being rude for texting on her phone rather than talking to her friend, the daughter replies: “But, Dad, we’re texting each other. I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying.”

First and foremost, the notion of “privacy” is about having a sense of control over how and when information flows to who. Given the structures of their lives, teens have often had very little control over their social context. In school, at home, at church… there are always adults listening in. Forever more, there have been pressures to find interstitial spaces to assert control over communications. Note passing, whispering, putting notes in lockers, arranging simultaneous bathroom visits, pig latin, neighbor to neighbor string communication… all of these have been about trying to find ways to communicate outside of the watchful eyes of adults, an attempt to assert privacy while stuck in a fundamentally public context. The mobile phone is the next in line of a long line of efforts to communicate in the spaces between.

At the same time, the mobile phone changes the rules. Texting allows people to communicate even when they aren’t at arms length or can’t arrange simultaneous interactions. Because texting happens silently, it’s far more effective as a backchannel mechanism than whispering. Codes are not necessarily about hiding from adults as much as efficiency; deleting sent/received messages is far more effective than codes.

Over the years, parenting has become more and more about surveillance. In this mindset, good parents are those who stalk their kids. Parents complain that their children ignore them when they’re in the same space, preferring their friends. When was this not the case? What’s different now is that there are fewer siblings/cousins running around to team up with. There’s less free time to just “hang out.” There’s no openness to go out after school and “be home by dark” (a practice that used to start in early childhood). With activities and scheduling and this and that, I’m always amazed that children don’t demand more time for friend time.

There’s an arms race going on: parental surveillance vs. technology to assert privacy. We aren’t seeing the radical OMG technology ruins everything stage. We’re seeing the next in line of a long progression. And it’s just the beginning. The arms race is heating up. As parents implement keyboard tracking, kids go to texting. How long until parents demand that companies send them transcripts of everything? What will come next? We are in the midst of the privacy wars and it’s not so clean as “where’s my privacy” vs. “kids these days are so public.” The very nature of publicity and privacy are getting disrupted. As kids work to be invisible to people who hold direct power over them (parents, teachers, etc.), they happily expose themselves to audiences of peers. And they expose themselves to corporations. They know that the company can see everything they send through their servers/service, but who cares? Until these companies show clear allegiance with their parents, they’re happy to assume that the companies are on their side and can do them no harm.

Generation gap and technology ruining everything stories will be forever more. These do sell and they are fun to read. Yet, for parents and teachers and other concerned folks wanting to get a clear perspective of what’s going on, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, the intentions and desires aren’t changing… it’s just the architecture that makes the practices possible that is. The refraction of light is changing because the medium through which it is channeled is changing, but the light itself stays the same and to guide our children, we need to remember to pay attention to the light, not the refraction or the medium that’s causing the refraction.

one company, ten brands: lessons from retail for tech companies

Lots of folks are unaware that multiple brands are owned by the same company (e.g., the same company owns Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy). Consumer activists often complain that this practice is deceptive because it tricks consumers into believing that there are big distinctions between brands when, often, the differences are minimal. Personally, while I’d love to see more consumer brand awareness, but I think that brand distinctions play an important role. I just wish that the tech industry would figure this out.

I’m a relatively educated consumer and I’m also one of the most brand-loyal customers out there. When it comes to food and personal care products, many of my brand decisions come down to smell and taste, even when these are completely manufactured in a lab in New Jersey to differentiate soaps, toothpastes, and other products that are chemically identical. I buy All laundry detergent and not other Unilever brands (Surf, Wisk) or P&G brands (Tide, Gain, Cheer) simply because it smells better. When it comes to clothes, fit trumps everything.

In other words, my purchasing decisions are heavily affected by “interface.” (Politics and convenience too…) When a company changes the interface, I get cranky. I’m still cranky with my favorite pretzel brand for eliminating the air bubbles in their pretzels that allowed for more salt to build up. The reason that I’m committed to most consumer brands is not because I love the company. For many products, I’m not even influenced by the lifestyle being sold. I simply love the interface. Luckily, most retail companies get that their interface matters and when they futz with it, they create a separate brand or segment the primary brand into “Original” and “New with XYZ.” In the world of retail, a brand represents its interface. There are interfaces I like, those that I don’t, and those that I’m completely ambivalent about. But the interface often matters a whole lot more than the “features.”

Why do technology companies often fail to understand branding the way retail folks do? Many think that they can change the interface at whim to spice-up their product. They approach user retention as user lock-in, rather than user satisfaction and commitment. They try to shove everyone into the same interface in a one-size-fits-all paradigm that tends to fit few. Why??

Unfortunately, I don’t think that many companies are aware of the limitations of their brands. When they’re flying high, their brands are invincible and extending it to a wide array of products seems natural. Yet, over time, tech companies’ brands get entrenched. Certain users identify with it; others don’t. New products using that brand enter into the market with both cachet and baggage. Yet, tech companies tend to hold onto their brands for dear life and assume users will forget. Foolish.

We all know that youth talk about certain products as “sooo last year.” This tends to cover a genre rather than a brand. Yet, teens also have plenty to say about the brands themselves. Yahoo! and AOL, for example, are for old people. When I asked why they use Yahoo! Mail and AOL Instant Messaging if they’re for old people, they responded by telling me that their parents made those accounts for them. Furthermore, email is for communicating with old people and AIM is “so middle school” and both are losing ground to SNS and SMS. While Microsoft is viewed in equally lame light amongst youth I spoke with, it’s at least valued as a brand for doing work. Yet, even youth who use MSN messenger think that is for old people. Why shouldn’t they? When I logged in just now, the main visual was a woman with white hair sitting on a hospital bed with the caption “10 Vital Questions to Ask Your Doctor.”

Take a look at all of the major portals attempting to reach universal audiences. Now imagine yourself as a teen. Why would you even visit them? Even if you were the rare teen who cared about Autos, Careers & Jobs, Dating & Personals, Finance & Money, Health & Fitness, or Real Estate, one click in and you know that this content is not targeted at you. Even the sites that allow you to “personalize” your modules rarely let you get rid of these or make them relevant to you. To make matters worse, now that these companies are heading towards mobile, they are taking these one-size-fits-all interfaces and cluttering up the phones. Ugg! Why?

I would like to offer two bits of advice to all of the major tech companies out there: 1) Start sub-branding; and 2) Start doing real personalization.

If you’re creating a new product, launch it with a new brand. Put your flagship brand on the bottom of the page, letting people know that this is backed by you – this is not about deception. Advertise it alongside your flagship brand if you think that’ll gain you traction. But let the new product develop a life of its own and not get flattened by a universal brand. Some products should be niche, especially those targeted at youth; while youth are happy to use well-established tools, they also like to distinguish their practices from those of adults and mature into new brands. In other words, they aren’t going to fall to your lock-in for very long. If you’re buying a well-established brand, don’t flatten it, especially if it’s loved by youth. Kudos to Google wrt YouTube; boo to Yahoo! wrt Launch. Even at the coarse demographic level, people are different; don’t treat them as a universal bunch, even if your back-end serves up the same thing to different interfaces.

Personalization is more than skinning and moving modules around. Give me a blank slate and let me add modules that might be relevant to me. Alternatively, make some good initial guesses based on what you know about me and let me modify them from the getgo. Help me find the modules that are most likely to appeal to me – you already have a lot of data on what it is that I do; use it for something that helps me. This is particularly important if there are going to be a bazillion Apps or Gadgets or Widgets out there because I don’t want to comb through the crud. A targeted interface is just as important as a targeted ad.

Above all, understand that no brand is universally loved and one size does not fit all. Most of us look like idiots in XXL shirts and we don’t want our technology interfaces to be XXL. People like brands that fit them like a glove. The tech industry serves up ads this way; why doesn’t it get this when it comes to their own brand? Technology is well positioned to create sub-brands and personalize those brands from there. It’s high time for the tech industry to grow up and start doing so.

mobile phone credits as currency in Kenya

As everyone knows, Kenya has been in a state of unrest since the corrupt elections in December. Interestingly, a surge of homebrewed cyberactivism has emerged to aid in information flow and resource sharing (as well as political organizing). As an example, take a look at Afromusing’s Twitter stream which contains regular updates from Kenya.

Much of what is going on in Kenya centers around the mobile phone. In Kenya, the mobile is used for everything from communication to financial transactions. More and more of Kenyan society has relied on the phone as a critical part of everyday life. Unfortunately, this has all been disrupted since the election.

Kenyan phone users do not have monthly phone plans; they pay for prepaid credits (like most of the world). Prior to the election, getting credits was easy – they were available in kiosks, stores, bars, anywhere you could imagine. Yet, these venues all closed shop after the election because of the violence and looting. Credits have become a rare commodity and the price has skyrocketed. Credits have also turned into a currency and people are trading credits for food and medicine. Credits are worth more than the government’s currency. Because of difficulties in getting credits to citizens, a service called Pyramid of Peace has popped up to help people send credits to Kenyans.

Part of why people are so shocked about what is going on in Kenya right now is because Kenya was so stable. (I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Gore supporters would’ve taken to the streets after my country’s corrupt election rather than be so complacent.) When people think about what is necessary when everything goes haywire, they normally talk about food, water, shelter, medicine. What does it mean that telephony has become a central player in people’s lives? What does it mean that access to communication technology is necessary for access to food, water, medicine?

Perhaps it would do all of us some good to consider what it would mean if mobile telephony suddenly became a rare commodity.

what are marketing and advertising’s social responsibilities wrt youth?

A new report by the UK National Union of Teachers – Growing up in a material world – shows that contemporary marketing and commercialization practices have devastating consequences on youth:

Of increasing concern to teachers is the increasing commercialisation of childhood and the lifestyle pressures exerted on children by the advertising and marketing industries. Using ever more sophisticated methods, these industries encourage children to buy particular brands of clothing and food and conform to specific images. Parents, too, experience this, as children’s ‘pester-power’ is exploited by the advertising industry. Those on a low income can feel particularly affected.

The pressure to consume and conform can lead to excessive levels of materialism and competition among children leading to bullying. There are dangerous consequences for the physical and mental health of young people.

The rise in childhood obesity and illnesses such as the early onset of type 2 diabetes, for example, highlight the dangers of advertising unhealthy food to children.

The report continues on to discuss how commercialization leads to the “creation and reinforcement of a culture of ‘cool'” amongst youth. The most terrifying finding in their report has to do with the link between bullying and consumerism: “Over 55% of those responding had either been bullied or knew someone who had been bullied because they did not have the latest products.” To fit in, youth have to consume. Marketing creates this cycle and bullies do the dirty work of making sure everyone conforms or suffers the consequences.

Body image and sexuality are at the crux of this. Girls are sold the “right” body image through dolls and clothing and their sexuality is structured around sexually provocative clothes, makeup and other product. Fitting in requires being “sexy” even at a young age. Not surprisingly, sexism and gender stereotyping are reinforced (if not constructed) by marketers seeking to capitalize on vulnerabilities.

“Companies routinely hire child and consumer psychologists to conduct research to help them target children effectively. Children’s vulnerabilities are played on as advertisers sell images of perfection and increase the pressure to have the latest ‘in vogue’ fashion and gadgets.”

In my own fieldwork, I regularly witnessed the consequences of mass commercialism. Teens had to buy to fit in and if they couldn’t buy, they were pressured to steal. Identity is constructed and status is marked by consumption. The goal of so many teens when they grow up is to make money so that they can buy the right things.

It’s easy to demonize marketers – they make for good punching bags – but many of us live off of the cud of advertising and marketing. Most of the tech industry is indebted to advertising and much of what we use for “free” is because we are eyeballs that can be manipulated. The entire structure of contemporary capitalism rests on companies ability to compete for consumers and, when they’ve saturated the market, create reasons for consumers to keep coming back for more more more. Not surprisingly, one of the reasons that companies have tapped into children is because they are the only true “new” market. More problematically, healthy economies are based on growth and growth doesn’t happen when people just consume what they need. Manipulation is central to a healthy economy – you have to convince people that they want your product so that you can report good news to your stockholders.

This presents a huge moral dilemma:

  • How can companies be both ethical and financially successful?
  • What are the moral responsibilities of a company when it comes to children’s consumption?

These are hard questions, but questions that I think that we need to start asking ourselves if for no other reason than because “teachers and parents now look to the advertising and marketing industries to become more socially responsible over their targeting of children and young people and for the Government to step in should they not live up to their responsibilities.”

(Thanks to Anastasia. News coverage of this report can be found at The Telegraph.)

This is a Shift 6 post. For more discussion, check out the comments there.

Facebook’s “opt-out” precedent

I’ve been watching the public outcry over Facebook’s Beacon (social ads) program with great interest. For those who managed to miss this, Facebook introduced a new feature called Beacon. Whenever you visit one of their partners’ sites, some of your actions were automagically sent to Facebook and published on your News Feed. The list of actions is unknown, although through experimentation folks have learned that they include writing reviews on Yelp, renting movies from Blockbuster, and buying things on certain sites. Some partners were listed in the press release. When a Beacon-worthy action takes place, a pop-up appears in the bottom right, allowing you to opt-out. If you miss it, you auto-opt-in. There was no universal opt-out, although they’ve now implemented one (privacy – external websites – don’t allow any websites). Furthermore, even if you opt out of having that bit blasted to the News Feed, it didn’t stop sponsors from sending it to Facebook.

MoveOn started a petition, bloggers cried foul, and the media did a 180, going from calling Facebook the privacy savior to the privacy destroyer. Amidst the outrage, Facebook was also declared Grinch when unassuming users failed to opt-out and had their gifts broadcast to the recipients, thereby ruining Christmas. Privacy scholar Michael Zimmer also pointed out that the feature was peculiarly named because beacons give warning when danger is about to take place. Not surprisingly, the company was forced to adjust. Zuckerberg apologized and additional features were provided to let people manage Beacon. While this appeases some, not all are satiated. StopBadware argues that Facebook does not go far enough and New York Law School Professor James Grimmelmann argues that Beacon is illegal under the Video Privacy Protection Act.

For all of the repentance by Facebook, what really bugs me is that this is the third time that Facebook has violated people’s sense of privacy in a problematic way. I documented the first incident – the introduction of the News Feeds – in an essay called “Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck.” In this incident, there were no privacy adjustments until public outcry. The second incident went primarily unnoticed. Back in September, Facebook quietly began making public search listings available to search engines. This means that users’ primary photos are cached alongside their name and networks on Google. Once again, it was an opt-out structure, although finding the opt-out is tricky. Under privacy settings, under search, there is a question of “Which Facebook users can find me in search?” If you choose “everyone,” that includes search engines, not just Facebook users. The third incident is Beacon.

In each incident, Facebook pushed the boundaries of privacy a bit further and, when public outcry took place, retreated just a wee bit to make people feel more comfortable. In other words, this is “slippery slope” software development. Given what I’ve learned from interviewing teens and college students over the years, they have *no* idea that these changes are taking place (until an incident occurs). Most don’t even realize that adding the geographic network makes them visible to thousands if not millions. They don’t know how to navigate the privacy settings and they don’t understand the implications. In other words, defaults are EVERYTHING.

Like most companies, Facebook probably chose the “opt-out” path instead of the “opt-in” path because they knew that most users would not opt in. Even if they thought the feature was purrrfect, most wouldn’t opt-in because they would never know of the feature. Who reads the fine print of a website notice? This is exactly why opt-out approaches are dangerous. People don’t know what they’ve by default opted-in to. They trust companies and once they trust those companies, they are at their mercy.

Most lofty bloggers and technologists argue that if people are given the choice, that’s good enough. The argument is that people should inform themselves and suffer the consequences if they don’t. In other words, no sympathy for “dumb kids.” I object to this line of reasoning. Most people do not have the time or inclination to follow the fine print of every institution and website that they participate in, nor do I think that they should be required to. This is not simply a matter of contracts that they sign, but normative social infrastructure. Companies should be required to do their best to maintain the normative sense of privacy and require that users opt-in to changes that alter that normative sense. In other words, what is the reasonable expectation for privacy on the site and does this new feature change that? Of course, I also understand that this would piss companies off because they make lots of money by manipulating and altering everyday users’ naiveté and sense of norms. Still, I think that the default should be “opt-in” and “opt-out” should only be used in situations that would protect users (i.e., a feature that would limit users’ visibility).

I kinda suspect that Facebook loses very little when there is public outrage. They gain a lot of free press and by taking a step back after taking 10 steps forward, they end up looking like the good guy, even when nine steps forward is still a dreadful end result. This is how “slippery slopes” work and why they are so effective in political circles. Most people will never realize how much of their data has been exposed to so many different companies and people. They will still believe that Facebook is far more private than other social network sites (even though this is patently untrue). And, unless there is a large lawsuit or new legislation introduced, I suspect that Facebook will continue to push the edges when it comes to user privacy.

Lots of companies are looking at Facebook’s success and trying to figure out how to duplicate it. Bigger companies are watching to see what they can get away with so that they too can take that path. Issues of privacy are going to get ickier and ickier, especially once we’re talking about mobile phones and location-based information. As Alison wrote in her previous post on respecting digital privacy, users are likely to act incautiously by default. Thus, what does it mean that we’re solidifying the precedent that “opt-out” is AOK?

Who clicks on ads? And what might this mean?

Advertising is the bread and butter of the web, yet most of my friends claim that they never click on ads, typically using a peacock tone that signals their pride in being ad-averse. The geekier amongst them go out of their way to run Mozilla scripts to scrape ads away, bemoaning the presence of consumer culture. Yet, companies increasingly rely on ad revenue to turn a profit and, while clicking on ads ?may? be declining, it certainly hasn’t gone away. This raises a critical question: Who are the people that click on ads?

A few years back, I asked this question to someone who worked in the world of web ads and I received a snarky (and condescending) answer: middle America. Over the years, I’ve read all sorts of speculations about search engine ads suggesting that people click on ads:

  • Because they don’t know that they’re ads.
  • Because they are perceived to be of greater quality than the actual search results (for example, in searches for travel).
  • When they’re searching for something that they want to purchase (intent to buy = desire to get to merchants quickly).
  • When they’re bored.
  • When they think that they might win something or get something for free.

Over the summer, Dave Morgan (AOL Global Advertising Strategy) blogged about a study that they did to investigate who clicks on ads:

What did we learn? A lot. We learned that most people do not click on ads, and those that do are by no means representative of Web users at large.

Ninety-nine percent of Web users do not click on ads on a monthly basis. Of the 1% that do, most only click once a month. Less than two tenths of one percent click more often. That tiny percentage makes up the vast majority of banner ad clicks.

Who are these “heavy clickers”? They are predominantly female, indexing at a rate almost double the male population. They are older. They are predominantly Midwesterners, with some concentrations in Mid-Atlantic States and in New England. What kinds of content do they like to view when they are on the Web? Not surprisingly, they look at sweepstakes far more than any other kind of content. Yes, these are the same people that tend to open direct mail and love to talk to telemarketers.

Social media services like social network sites are not designed around the audience that Morgan suggests is the core of clickers, yet these too rely on advertising. I have a sneaking suspicion that a tiny percentage of MySpace/Facebook/etc. users make up the bulk of the revenue of these sites, just as with the sites that Morgan addresses. I cannot find any research on who clicks on social network site ads (does anyone know of any???), but based on what I’ve seen qualitatively, my hypothesis would be that heavy ad clickers are:

  • More representative of lower income households than the average user.
  • Less educated than the average user (or from less-educated environments in the case of minors).
  • More likely to live outside of the major metro regions.
  • More likely to be using SNSs to meet new people than the average user (who is more likely to be using SNSs to maintain connections).

In other words, much to my chagrin, I suspect that heavy ad clickers in social network sites and other social media are more likely to trend lower in both economic and social capital than the average user. Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to test these hypotheses at all. (Does anyone? Are there any studies on class dynamics and ad clicking?)

Of course, while the ad world is obsessed with clicks because they can measure those, ad receptivity is more than just clicks. While people dream of adding clicks to TV, TV ads have been tremendously successful without the clicking option. Brand recognition, for example, is an acceptable outcome from the POV of many marketers. But the web lets us measure clicks so advertisers tend to care about clicks.

I am not an advertiser and I’m not invested in making better ads. Instead, by raising this topic, I’m curious whether or not web marketing is capitalizing on a niche group and, if so, what the societal implications of this might be? If my hypothesis were true, what would it mean if marketing is profiting primarily off of those who are economically and socially struggling? How do we feel about this philosophically, ethically, and professionally? Would we feel proud of living off of a business model that targets the poor?

Of course, my hypothesis may be wrong. Advertisers have historically flocked to the sites that draw richer, more educated, more urban populations. (As has media coverage.) They have to be doing this for a reason, right? Websites have historically tried to demonstrate that their users are such “ideal” consumers. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if these “ideal” consumers are really the people who buy most of the goods being advertised. (I’ve always been fascinated by how poorer American families tend to have immense amounts of stuff while rich American families pride themselves on minimizing quantity and maximizing quality of material goods.)

I should note that consumer culture has historically capitalized on poorer populations, long before the web. Studies of consumer culture have shown how American identity has been constructed through consumption over the last century and how, not surprisingly, those who have a stronger need/desire to prove their American identity buy into the consumer culture.

While studies of consumer culture go back decades, I’m having a hard time surfacing what is known about the culture of web advertising. Who is being targeted? Who is responding? Why are they responding? What are the implications?

You might be wondering why am I raising such a web-centric issue on the Shift6 blog. Mobile advertising is primarily growing out of the web culture. It may not be about clicks, but the idea of user responses builds on that. As advertising becomes central to every interactive technology in our lives, I think it’s important to step back and question who is being targeted, how, and with what consequence. Thus, as we are thinking about what it might mean to live in a world where mobile phone advertising is accepted, we must also concern ourselves with the implications of this.

(Note: it’s easy to read this from an anti-capitalist POV, but this should instead be read from the POV of a conscientious capitalist.)

gluttonous texting

For peculiar business reasons, Americans and Canadians have historically paid to receive text messages (although much of Canada has shifted away from this). This creates a stilted social dynamic whereby a friend forces you to pay $.10 (or use up a precious token msg in your plan) simply by deciding to send you something. You have no choice. There’s no blocking, no opt-out. Direct to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Needless to say, this alters the culture of texting. From the getgo, Americans have been very cautious about texting. To be on the safe side, many Americans did not add texting to their plan so sending a text message was often futile because it was never clear if a text message would be received by the phone in question or just disappear into the ether. Slowly, mobile users figured out who had SMS and who didn’t, but they were still super cautious about sending messages. It just felt rude, or wrong, or risky.

Teens, of course, never had this filter. They were perfectly happy to text. So much so that their parents refused to get them plans that supported it because, not surprisingly, there were all sorts of horror stories about teens who had texted up $700 phone bills. Sure enough, every family that I spoke with told me their version of the horror story and. In the U.S., we don’t have pay-as-you-go so going over minutes or texts just gets added to your monthly bill. If you’re not careful, that bill can get mighty costly. Unable to declare a max cost upfront, parents have been tremendously wary of teen texting simply for economic costs (although the occasional predator or cheating-in-school scare story does surface). Slowly, things have turned around, primarily with the introduction of cheap all-you-can-eat text messaging plans (and those that are so ridiculously high that it’s hard to go over). Once the barrier to participation is dropped, sending and receiving text messages switches from being potentially traumatic to outright fun. What a difference those plans make in user practice. The brick leash suddenly turns into an extension of the thumb for negotiating full-time intimate communities.

I’m fascinated by how U.S. teens build intricate models of which friends are available via mobile and which aren’t. Teens know who is on what plan, who can be called after 7PM, who can be called after 9PM, who can receive texts, who is over their texting for the month, etc. It’s part of their mental model of their social network and knowing this is a core exchange of friendship.

Psychologically, all-you-can-eat plans change everything. Rather than having to mentally calculate the number of texts sent and received (because the phones rarely do it for you and the carriers like to make that info obscure), a floodgate of opportunities is suddenly opened. The weights are lifted and freedom reigns. The result? Zero to a thousand text messages in under a month! Those on all-you-can-eat plans go hog wild. Every mundane thought is transmitted and the phones go buzz buzz buzz. Those with restrictive plans are treated with caution, left out of the fluid communication flow and brought in for more practical or content-filled purposes (or by sig others who ignore these norms and face the ire of parents).

All-you-can-eat plans are still relatively rare in Europe. For that matter, plans are relatively rare (while pay-as-you-go options were introduced in the U.S. relatively late and are not nearly as common as monthly plans). When a European youth runs out of texts and can’t afford to top up, they simply don’t text. But they can still receive texts without cost so they aren’t actually kept out of the loop; they just have to call to respond if they still have minutes or borrow a friend’s phone. What you see in Europe is a muffled fluidity of communication, comfortable but not excessive. As the U.S. goes from 0 to all-you-can-eat in one foul swoop, American texting culture is beginning to look quite different than what exists in Europe. Whenever I walk into a T-Mobile and ask who goes over their $10/1000 text message plan, the answer is uniform: “every teenager.” Rather than averaging a relatively conservative number of texts per month (like 200), gluttonous teen America is already on route to thousands of texts per month. They text like they IM, a practice mastered in middle school. Rather than sending a few messages a day, I’m seeing 20-50+. College students appear to text just as much as teens. Older users are less inclined to be so prolific, but maybe this is because they are far more accustomed to the onerous plans and never really developed a fluid texting practice while younger.

Whatever the case, it’s clear by comparing European and American practices that the economics of texting play a significant role in how this practice is adopted. It’s more than one’s individual plan too because there’s no point in texting if your friends can’t receive them. As we watch this play out, I can’t help but wonder about the stupidity of data plan implementation. Just last week, I went with my partner to AT&T to activate his Nokia N95. He was primed to add data to his plan because of the potential for the phone, but we both nearly had a heart attack when we learned that 4MB of data would cost $10 and unlimited would cost $70. We walked away without a data plan. More and more phones are data-enabled, but only the techno-elite are going to add such ridiculously costly plans. (And what on earth can you do with only 4MB?) It’s pretty clear that the carriers do not actually want you to use data. The story is even scarier in Europe with no unlimited options. Who actually wants to calculate how many MB a site might be and surf accordingly? And forget about social apps with uncontrollable data counts. There’s a lot to be said about paying to not having to actually worry about it.