Sunday, January 4, 2009

Looking over 2008

What’s new with communities on mobile is the convergence (arguably in 2008) of three conditions.

I am always distilling what I read and learn. In my mind, the changes in 2008 can be boiled down. The triumvirate is composed of (1) ease-of-use for much richer services, (2) business models and (3) critical mass/the network effect.

For the ordinary user of mobile data--the “early majority” of people using mobile who inhabit a space to the right of the technophiles and geeks on the bell shape curve of technology adoption—the barriers to entry into virtual community services while on-the-go are lower than anytime in the past and still falling. Today anyone who is comfortable using a browser can access the services in a matter of seconds using a PC or a mobile. But that’s only part of the first key. The second component is that the return on this little investment to get “into” and engage with a community is greater than it was a year or even six months ago.

Condition two: companies recognize that engagement on mobile is more easily translated to revenues than engagement on PC connected to the broadband, flat-rate Internet. Whenever a message is sent/received and people “connect” in their communities via mobile, the cash register is making its familiar noise. In addition, the premium services business models are expanding rapidly (a good topic to explore here in the future). To sum up this condition, unlike the case with PC-based users, people on mobile platforms are aware that there is a billing relationship so the mobile community twist carries this very important “added advantage” that permit businesses to cover more of their operating costs as well as to (at some point) make a profit.

The third important condition which emerged in 2008 is that of critical mass. By any metric one chooses to use (and there are many to be studied), 2008 was a pivotal year for social networking at large. It was an explosive year for mobile. I estimate that there are nearly 100 Million registrations (fewer people) now using community services on mobile.

This, when I boil it all down, is what I believe really happened in 2008 in the mobile community sector. These three conditions—metaphorical keys to a kingdom—are now being used to rapidly unlock the well-recognized community potential on mobile platforms and, with these conditions met, the industry will be able to tackle remaining missing elements.

Looking way back

Communities are as old as humanity. There’s nothing particularly brilliant about recognizing that the human animal, with some exceptions, seeks the company of others like it.

Although I can’t seem to put my finger on one now (when I want to re-read an article written by someone else on the topic), it seems that many headlines in 2008’s final days reminded readers that Virtual Communities grew and might, in retrospect, be “the next killer app.”

Can anyone recall or find such an article I can read and to which I might point? Please post in comments.

To give these bright people (whom I seem to have imagined) the benefit of the doubt, I’ll refine the comment I believe these writers and thinkers were making into a simple declarative statement with the minimum of buzzwords: virtual communities are hot attractions. The digital broadcast channel has evolved into millions of conversations.

Some may have forgotten or not been aware that the virtual community phenomenon was detected as an emerging trend on the Internet at least 15 years ago. Barry Wellman published many academic and popular works on the topic for nearly two decades. Howard Rheingold’s 1993 book Virtual Community documented it and, some say he coined the term. Writers for technology audiences have been aware of this for a long time as well. In mid-2000 WirelessWeek ran a short article with the headline “Community-the Killer App?” Five years ago, in 2003, Rheingold wrote an update about and expanded upon the topic in Smart Mobs. Around the same time, Tomi Ahonen and Alan Moore took the concept much further and examined how communities would change the way companies communicate with their customers in their book Communities Dominate Brands.