cultural artifact embodies the genius and the disruptive excess
of capitalism as clearly as the cell phone. Ubiquitous in most
developed societies in Europe, the Americas and Asia, the cell
phone has become a laboratory – some would say an asylum
– for testing the limits of technological convergence.
Less a telephone today than a multi-purpose computer, cell phones
are game consoles, still cameras, email systems, text messengers,
carriers of entertainment and business data, nodes of commerce.
Particular age cohorts and subcultures have begun to appropriate
cell phones for idiosyncratic uses that help to define their
niche or social identity. Today’s Forum will examine the
cell phone as a technological object and as a cultural form
whose uses and meaning are increasingly various, an artifact
uniquely of our time that is enacting, to borrow the words of
a contemporary novelist, “a ceaseless spectacle of transition.”
Katz is professor of communication
and director of Rutgers University's Center
for Mobile Communications Studies, which he founded in 2004.
Katz' research focuses on how personal communication technologies,
such as mobile phones and the Internet, affect social relationships
and how cultural values influence usage patterns of these technologies.
His books include Machines That Become Us: The Social Context
of Personal Communication Technology (Transaction, 2003,
editor) and Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private
Talk and Public Performance (Cambridge, 2002, co-edited
with Mark Aakhus). He is also the author of Social Consequences
of Internet Use: Access, Involvement and Expression (MIT
Press, 2002, with Ron Rice).
professor of Chinese cultural studies, and the head of Foreign
Languages & Literatures at MIT. Her research interests are
focused on contemporary Chinese popular culture and its relationship
to marketing and advertising. She worked at Ogilvy in Beijing
for two summers as a consultant for the Planning Department,
and is currently finishing up a book manuscript [Brand New
China: Advertising, Media, and Commercial Culture]. Wang's
presentation on cell phone branding and youth culture in China
is based on some of her work at Ogilvy.
is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]
Katz: I'll be addressing three topics: some major changes
that have taken place in the world due to the rise of the cellular
phone, ways that the mobile phone is embodied and “performed,”
and possible trends for the future. While I'll be talking specifically
about cell phones, the trends may be applicable to other technologies.
To ask questions
about “cell phone culture,” we must first define
culture. For the purposes of this discussion, culture can be
defined as a shared set of practices, norms, values and symbols.
Katz shows the audience
a hand-carved wooden replica of a cell phone from Namibia, and
several other artifacts modeled after cell phones. This new
technological device is already generating a decorative and
statistics indicate that two billion people currently have subscriptions
for cellular phones, referred to in Europe as “mobiles,”
enough phones for one third of the planet's population. In fact,
there are some countries with more cell phones than people.
In the United States, 66% of the population owns a cell phone:
U.S. population stands at 297 million, with 197 million cell
phone users. Collectively, people spent 675 billion minutes
talking on cell phones in June 2005. The ring tones industry,
which allows people to hear popular songs when their cell phones
ring, is now a $5 billion a year market, an instructive instance
of an ancillary industry arising from the ubiquity of the cell
industries now market mobile games and “mobisodes,”
video content designed specifically to be viewed on cell phones.
Other creative uses have arisen, including Short Message Service
(SMS), text messaging, and fake talking (in which people pretend
to talk on their phones to combat loneliness or fear); cell
phones have also proved useful for social interaction in places
like Saudi Arabia, where young men and women are restricted
in their ability to socialize.
Cell phones affect
our built environment, most notably in the form of widespread
advertising, not just in industrialized cities, but also in
the third world. Unlike the Internet, which has sparked fears
of a “digital divide” between the industrialized
and developing worlds, cell phones have become popular all over
the world. The cell phone is portrayed as glamorous, but also
inexpensive. Many users decorate and personalize their phones,
giving rise to folk art cottage industries. The cell phone has
become a kind of art in itself, in which a user's choice of
phone and decoration acts as a kind of personal statement.
The ubiquity of the
cell phone has caused changes in certain cultural norms, as
well. Businesses, movie theaters, parks and restaurants are
just some of the spaces in which the appropriateness of cell
phone conversations is disputed and unclear. The Metropolitan
Museum of Art doesn't allow cell phones, but this doesn't always
stop people from using them. (Katz shows a picture of a museum
patron crouching to avoid being seen while using his cell phone.)
Cell phones seem to prioritize communication with distant people
over those sharing one’s space, and the ethics of this
new behavior are not universally agreed upon.
Classrooms are another
area that have clearly been changed by cell phones, but how,
and how much? Women were more likely to use phones, while men
were more likely to use music players. Four percent of students
said they thought it was acceptable to use a cell phone in class.
41% said they had used them to check messages in class. About
half said use of text messaging was acceptable, while about
a third considered playing games appropriate.
Despite the comparatively
small screen sizes, people have begun watching television on
their cell phones, to distance themselves from crowded situations
and prioritize their attention. Despite the widespread acceptance
of video technology on cell phones, consumers remain wary of
two-way video, due to concerns about surveillance and privacy.
Cell phones have
been used to mobilize supporters of political causes. Cell phones
have been credited with helping to augment the Orange Revolution
in Ukraine. In France this past month, demonstrators used text
messaging to coordinate activities and avoid police. In China,
text messaging figured prominently in anti-Japanese demonstrations.
To summarize: Cell
phones are enabling people to create their own micro-cultures;
they are changing cultural norms and values, and demonstrating
consumers' ability to modify and repurpose technology for their
own use. I believe that cell phones, by allowing people to insulate
their private interactions from the culture around them, will
encourage a kind of “walled garden” of micro-cultures
that is complex, but exclusive.
Wang: There are many angles from which I can discuss
Chinese cell phone culture. It is widely known that East Asia
is advanced in the production of “killer applications”
for mobile technologies. In this presentation, I'm going to
take a different approach and use marketing as an entry point,
drawing on a project I was involved in for Motorola. Linking
marketing and cell phones leads us to music marketing. Cell
phone penetration is expected to outstrip computer penetration
in Asia for several years, and most cell phones are used by
people under 25. My focus is thus not only on music marketing,
but youth culture in general, both in China and the world as
advertising agency Ogilvy took over Motorola's global account,
I was assigned to a project in summer 2004 that intended to
map out the relationship between Chinese youth and their musical
vision was to develop an alternative iPod. They had obtained
a deal with iTunes, and sought to become the dominant supplier
of mobile media content. Motorola had two specific aims: getting
consumers to buy Motorola phones, and getting them to buy content
from corporate partners of Motorola. It wasn't just built for
consumers, but also for partners like MTV who would provide
2008, there will be close to 500 million Chinese mobile phone
subscribers. Currently, Short Message Service dominates mobile
data transfers. Multimedia content has achieved very little
market penetration so far. Music on mobile phones is still quite
rare. Motorola's task, then is to find a way to integrate mobile
multimedia content into people's daily habits.
The story of iTunes
in China is instructive. iPod and iTunes were not born together
in China. Unless you have a U.S. or European credit card, you
won't be able to purchase music from iTunes in China. Rather,
iPods are mainly used to copy CDs from personal collections,
which are usually pirated. Trying to sell legal copyrighted
music is obviously difficult if copyrighted material is rare.
At the time of this
project, Ogilvy was working with a company called Crystal. Their
research was deemed unsatisfactory, but it's important to understand
why. What did Motorola ask Crystal to do?
Crystal's own definition
was this: to provide intelligence from consumers, culture experts
and music subcultures. They built a network with two groups:
the first consisted of artists who were involved in creating
culture at the grassroots level, while the second consisted
of writers and journalists who studied the culture from above.
The methodology was an old one, asking participants for written
reports. Noticeably missing was the consumers' point of view..
At this point, Crystal
is working with artists and media bigshots, while Motorola is
focusing on technology. Nobody was paying much attention to
actual consumers. Whenever “Chinese youth” were
mentioned, it was in terms of the global youth culture. It was
assumed that the preferences of Chinese youth could be predicted
according to norms established in marketing to other parts of
the world. I was assigned to identify elements specific to Chinese
youth culture, and in the process I developed some marketing
to prioritize youth culture in general over music, since music
is not the primary driving force among young people in China..
There are four basic assumptions underlying traditional music
marketing strategies. First, segmentation hinges on the basis
of musical taste. Second, people specialize in terms of musical
taste. Third, music is youth's main currency for self-expression.
These assumptions have worked fairly well for transnational
marketers, but so far they haven't in China. So my assignment
was less about music than about the Chinese “linglei”
Linglei is a word that has come to mean alternative, cool, or
“the other kind.” We needed to know how the youth
lived from day to day, and I designed a project to find out.
We selected five candidates, three men and two women, each a
different age between 16 and 23. All were middle class. They
had eclectic musical tastes, frequently changing their opinions.
Bear in mind that in China, due to the impact of the Cultural
Revolution, youth have had to process 50 years of Western music
in ten years. The candidates were instructed to take 50 photographs
of objects that held meaning for them, things they like and
don't like to create a photo diary. (Wang shows a candidate's
I'd like to show you a commercial that grew out of our marketing
campaign for Motorola. (Wang shows a commercial in which a young
man leaves his girlfriend's house with his mp3-enabled cell
phone and goes into the city, where every face he sees is replaced
by his own, amid many shots of the phone being advertised. Agitated,
he runs back home to his girlfriend.)
Professor Katz, one of my favorite texts on cell phone culture
is George Myerson's Heidegger, Habermas and the Mobile Phone,
which raises the issue of the “value” of mobile
phones. I'm surprised you didn't comment on that. Is the “walled
garden” to which you referred actually deeper, or more
shallow? Will it just insulate people within their own cultures
and prevent them from interacting with the outside world?
I don't think “depth” should be defined in terms
of its political ramifications, such as whether it strengthens
or weakens connections within or between groups. People actually
don't like doing politics most of the time, as strange as it
may seem to us, a room full of professors and MIT students.
The deep intellectual issues just aren't what most people want
to talk about most of the time. What is the purpose of communication?
It's the classic argument about form versus content. In the
Philippines, text messaging is very frequent, usually not saying
anything significant. The value is in the fact that they're
in touch with each other, aware that people care about them.
Super Girl, the so-called Chinese American Idol, is an example
of political implications of Short Message Service-TV (television
that incorporates Short Message Service technology, allowing
viewers to interact with the show via text messaging). Eight
million voters sent in text messages in the first season, and
none of those votes were free. It sparked online debates about
democracy, beauty, and whether the tomboy-ish winner might be
a lesbian. Public involvement was so great that some people
have predicted that the government might try to shut down the
service for political reasons.
In Europe, text messaging is often used for political purposes,
but sometimes for the purpose of spreading false information.
It's used to sabotage opposition as much as to mobilize supporters.
If I could ask Jing, was the advertisement you showed reflective
of your research, or a departure?
I was hoping the audience would comment. It is, however, important
to understand that the star of that ad is a rising music star
and Motorola spokesman.
Well, my interpretation would be that he was looking at other
couples, and hearing the music moving all around him, so perhaps
he was wondering about his relationship, since he goes home
to his girlfriend afterwards. In the research I've done, the
cell phone seems to be just a smaller version of like other
media. Is there anything legitimately new happening with cell
Location-based affiliation is new, since people can find other
people who share their interests merely by being near others
with similar profiles. I find that kids can have more freedom
in the age of cell phones. At Rutgers, students keep in closer
contact with their parents, prolonging the socialization period.
In response to the question about value, remember that in China,
before the availability of inexpensive cell phones, the fixed
phone infrastructure was not well developed. Many people didn't
have phones at all.
THORBURN, Communications Forum Director: The same can
be said of Africa, unlike from Europe and U.S., where phones
have long been well established.
CONDRY, MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures: I carry
out research in Japan, and when I think of a phone, I think
of talking. Now, less than a third use them for talking. Is
the phone evolving away from voice communication? Do we need
to reconceive the phone?
I think of the phone as a mini-human. In Sweden, punk subcultures
like big clunky phones, as an expression of who they perceive
themselves to be in relation to world culture.
I don't know much about the incorporation of Short Message Service
technology into television, but I think business models will
drive cell phones forward, in the form of broadcasters, reality
shows, etc. In Perfect Pair, you can have your and
your partner's names appear on the show.
I still study wired phones, and about 33% of those in the U.S.
are unlisted. But people who currently pay two dollars a month
to be unlisted say they'd be willing to pay five dollars a month
for an individualized listing.
What about the future of mobile blogs, or “mo-blogs”?
Multimedia messaging is very unpopular so far.
The corporations expected huge demand for multimedia,
but so far it hasn't happened. It might be the price, or it
might be the difficulty of visual content on cell phone screens.
BERTOZZI, CMS graduate student: I was wondering if
you could tell me how different cultures use phones as fashion
Fashion is extremely important to young people when buying phones.
Studies have shown that young people prioritize how a phone
looks over its battery life when shopping for cell phones. Artists
are interested in “moblogs.”
In China, fashion, more than music, drives personal expression.
Music is seen as a form of entertainment, not a form of self-expression.
Not much yet about creating new art or new media. The kids we
picked for this project don't have a lot of spending money,
though the girl whose video diary you saw was able to convince
her parents to buy her a new digital camera for this project.
Other kids got less than $100 per month of spending money. Price
is definitely a factor for any cell phone content.
COSTANZA, MIT Media Lab: Mobile phones have always
been peculiar, and now everyone's getting used to things that
would have heretofore been considered annoying. We've all gotten
used to having phones ring everywhere we go and seeing people
with earpieces talking to themselves on the street. My question
is one of interface. To what extent are possible users thwarted
due to the difficulty inherent in typing on a tiny keypad? What
can be done to make usage better, as in, how can we stop people's
phones from ringing all the time?
When you say better, do you mean more civil?
Take it as an open question. The input is also part
of the question. Can it be made easier to input text? Some cell
phones seem to be designed as smaller versions of computers,
but they're not the most comfortable.
People don't like bad interfaces, but they tend to
get used to them. I don't think it's just interface. The video
telephone is a relevant analogy. AT&T tried to convince
people to buy video phones for years, and found that most people
preferred the self-view mode, which defeated the purpose.
Part of the answer to this last question is that the cell phone
is not one fixed thing. Constantly changing usage prevents easy
technical solutions to problems. Raymond Williams made a distinction
between nineteenth and twentieth century technologies that might
be even more apt for the twenty-first century. The defining
nineteenth century innovations were created to respond to specific
needs or purposes. Examples would be the railroads or street
lighting in cities. In contrast, Williams argued, in the representative
technologies of the twentieth century form precedes function
– that is, the technology contains a range of latent possibilities,
many not even imagined when the technology first appears. Television
or the computer are examples. Cell phones seem similar, in that
the object itself was not created to fill a specific need, but
rather has potentialities that are realized differently by different
people or are exploited differently by corporate rivals.
Relating to that point, people are willing to pay for ringtones,
but “ringbacks,” a service that allows you to select
songs for people who call you to listen to instead of a generic
ring, is doing very poorly. Why? Nobody cares what other people
listen to when they call. It's a general move toward privatization,
and it's why I think television on mobiles will succeed and
DAVIES: I've worked for the mobile industry for a long
time. Why has Mobile Multimedia Service (MMS) not been commercially
successful? There's been some resistance to the price, but in
my experience the main reason is that people simply couldn't
understand how to use it, and even when they did, the network
often wasn't working correctly.
Given the sociology involved in corporate decisions, a reason
like “people just don't want this product” simply
People in the industry are just waking up to the fact
that the world isn't one place, and the same marketing and technology
won't work on every continent.
Well, if they'd taken classes with Henry Jenkins, they'd know
that culture drives technology, not vice versa.
Ironically, none of the kids involved in the study actually
wanted the phones. I drew a number of conclusions from the video
archives. One is the double-faced culture of the single-child
generation, in which children are all chameleons. Chinese students
want to be unique, but not weird. Another is the idea of “safe-cool.”
Third, they're all entrepreneurs, which makes them very pious
observers of the golden mean, or middle way. The other conclusion
is the emphasis on pet culture, which demonstrates the loneliness
of the single-child generation.
VERSCHOOREN, CMS graduate student:
Cell phones seem to have different functions over regions. I
come from Belgium, where text messages are far more common than
voice calls. A lot of text messages are “teasers”
that aren't intended to provoke a response. In Boston, it doesn't
seem to be done at all.
Perhaps a better question would be, why don't Americans
use text messaging?
Ethnic subcultures are in important variable. High-context cultures,
where a greater degree of communication is implicit, might take
to text messaging more easily than low-context cultures.
LEBOFF, PhD student: In China, there are only two major
carriers, whereas in the U.S., the carrier tends to drive the
purchase. The brand of phone and MP3 availability seem to be
the only important features in Chinese cell phones, and I think
the ad reflects that. There are two other important things to
remember when discussing Short Message Service use in America.
First, typing with the Roman alphabet is quite slow. Second,
voice communication has traditionally been very cheap in the
U.S., whereas in most of the world it was cheaper to use Short
Message Service for quite a while.
There are two factors in the failure of text messaging to catch
on in the U.S. First, market penetration in the U.S. lagged
behind Europe. Also, Americans paid for incoming calls, while
Europeans did not.
--compiled by Peter Rauch
--photos by Brad Seawell
recording of Cell
Phone Culture is now available.
to listen to the archived audiocast, you can install RealOne
Player. A free download is available at http://www.real.com/realone/index.html.
"Forum examines 'Cell Phone Culture'" appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 30, 2005.