Cell Phone Culture

Thursday, November 17, 2005
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
Bartos Theater


No contemporary 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.”


James 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).

Jing Wang is 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.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

James 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 aesthetic afterlife.

Current 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 phone.

Smaller 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.

Jing 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 a whole.

After the 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 tastes.

Motorola's 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 content.

By 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 clues.

We decided 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” youth.

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 diary.)

Finally, 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.)


QUESTION: 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?

KATZ: 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.

WANG: 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.

KATZ: 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?

WANG: 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.

QUESTION: 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 phone technologies?

KATZ: 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.

WANG: 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.

DAVID THORBURN, Communications Forum Director: The same can be said of Africa, unlike from Europe and U.S., where phones have long been well established.

IAN 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?

KATZ: 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.

WANG: 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.

KATZ: 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.

WANG: What about the future of mobile blogs, or “mo-blogs”?

KATZ: Multimedia messaging is very unpopular so far.

COMMENT: 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.

VANESSA BERTOZZI, CMS graduate student: I was wondering if you could tell me how different cultures use phones as fashion or art.

KATZ: 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.”

WANG: 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.

ENRICO 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?

THORBURN: When you say better, do you mean more civil?

COSTANZA: 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.

KATZ: 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.

THORBURN: 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.

KATZ: 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 mo-blogs won't.

MICHAEL 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.

KATZ: Given the sociology involved in corporate decisions, a reason like “people just don't want this product” simply isn't acceptable.

DAVIES: 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.

THORBURN: Well, if they'd taken classes with Henry Jenkins, they'd know that culture drives technology, not vice versa.

WANG: 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.

KAREN 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.

WANG: Perhaps a better question would be, why don't Americans use text messaging?

KATZ: 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.

SAM 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.

DAVIES: 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


"Forum examines 'Cell Phone Culture'" appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 30, 2005.