Approaching the Mobile Culture of East Asia

1What are commonly perceived as ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ cultures differ greatly from food to communication, including the way one’s postal address is written, as aptly described by Uh-Ryoung Lee in Digilog Manifesto (89). In the West, one’s name comes first, followed by the street address, city, state, and the country; in contrast, in the (North-) East, one needs to write their address in the completely reverse order, starting with the country name and ending with the person’s name. Yet, Lee further asserts, such disparity is annihilated in the World Wide Web, as each individual must uniformly write their address in the form of id@domain. However, such uniformity and/or convergence cannot be applied to the Internet as a whole; in fact, the situation is the opposite of that. Cultural traits of offline environments to which each user belongs affect those online and the reverse process occurs simultaneously; in other words, society develops technology as much as technology develops society. From a geographical perspective – although this is not the only and entirely valid way of cultural classification – there are qualities that are unique to East Asia, and this is true for each sub-geographical component of the region.

2Convergence is a term that has been gaining increasing attention across the globe. Conceptually situated between technological and socio-cultural domains – as has been intensely debated between the technological and social determinists since the birth of computer mediated communication (CMC) – mobile culture is no exception. It is powered by inter-operable and multi-functional mobile telecommunication technologies, which are also becoming increasingly high functional especially via fixed-mobile convergence, interconnecting fixed and wireless broadband networks. Wide diffusion and convergence of digital communication technologies – wired and wireless – in recent years have resulted in the emergence of two key paradigmatic convergences: between technology and sociality, and between productivity and play. I will first elucidate these convergences; I will then discuss cultural characteristics of specific East Asian cultures, focusing on South Korea, China, and Japan.

3I would like to clarify at the outset that it is not my intention to essentialise or generalise about a pan-East Asian culture. I believe that such an attempt is an unproductive and misinformed generalisation. This is especially so in the lexicon of today’s transforming global culture with the rising notion of networked-identity (see Boyd and Heer) and transnationalism. Instead, my general statements about cultural characteristics of East Asia derive from the results of my study on Cyworld, the most popular social-networking service (SNS) in Korea, in 2004. The study was inter-disciplinary in nature; it involved a quantitative analysis of one hundred randomly selected Mini-Hompies (Cyworld blogs) and twenty hybrid email questionnaires, which included a mixture of closed and open-ended questions. The results confirm that the basis of Cyworld’s success is not only in its accommodating newly forming individualistic predispositions of Korean youth, but also in its appeal to traditional attributes of collective Korean culture. From the initial motivations for joining to interactions within and attitudes toward Cyworld, users utilise and seek the existing and potential ways to communicate themselves in a traditional cultural context; for example, amalgamations of multimedia elements are used as a form of high-contextual social cue provision to express the user’s current status as the interdependent self within collective in-groups.

4These findings can be further extrapolated to other East Asian cultures as evidenced not only in comparable traditions but also in some of the recent parallel techno-social developments in the region. Examples include the Korean Wave that has swept across Asia in recent years (see Shim on the Korean Wave and Chua Beng Huat on the emergence of East Asian identity through consumption of popular cultural products); and flourishing of SNSs that are based upon offline social networks – such as Cyworld and Mixi – showing strong collective in-group tendencies in the region. In this article, I conceptually base the findings from my earlier study to contextualise the mobile phone use in East Asia and conclude with an emphasis on three crucial elements of consideration in understanding mobile culture(s) of today.


5Though not designed purposely for computer-mediated or inter-cultural communication, one of the most frequently cited theories in the field of communication is the two communication models suggested by James Carey in which he proposes the transmission and ritual models of communication. According to the former model, communication is defined by such terms as imparting, sending, transmitting, and giving information to others, projecting communication as “the transmission of signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control” (Carey 15). The latter model, in contrast, is described by terms such as sharing, participation, association, fellowship, and the possession of a common faith. Unlike the former, this model is “directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs” (ibid. 18). At this point, however, it should be reminded that these two models are not to be perceived as opposing modes but rather as views neither of which “necessarily denies what the other affirms” (ibid. 21). Just as “a ritual view does not exclude the processes of information transmission … even writers indissolubly wedded to the transmission view of communication must include some notion … of ritual action in the social life” (ibid. 21).

6In the domain of digital communication, Leaning (22) suggests that CMC entails participation in a social unit in which information (meaning) is constantly recreated, and thus the Internet should be “regarded as a social area or messages.” Consequently, online communication highlights the ritual view of communication, and functions as an extension of existing offline social networks, which supports Matei and Ball-Rockeach’s (410) claim that differences in social connection on and offline can be influenced by social contexts and by value orientations inherent in the individual’s cultural background. Conversely, because computer-mediated communication occurs in a “technological system,” technology reflects the social aspects of both the individual and community. This clearly demonstrates that researching digital communication should focus on techno-social contextualisation: the interplay between technological and social development, rather than the differentiation.


7Carey’s communication models can also be applied to the productivity/play concept. Initially, the main use of CMC technologies was to efficiently facilitate and coordinate emergency tasks among geographically distanced individuals or groups (Liu), which corresponds to the transmission model of communication. In this case, the communication is initiated and conducted for a specific goal or a task, which is to share particular information. On the other hand, with an increased level of interactivity via multimedia communication, CMC has been proving to be more and more a social activity, involving the user as both the producer and consumer in a loop of distributed information construction process (see Jenkins; Rheingold; Mann and Niedzviecki). In particular, Mann and Niedzviecki (181) describe the effect of this process as “an entirely different kind of synergy between the individual and the community,” which emphasises the socio-emotional dimension of distributed digital communication.

8Furthermore, such a process is clearly evident in the decreasing use of the term “media consumer” in today’s society, as the audience now acts as an active participant in the media production cycle in which the desired object of consumption is not only the product itself, but also, and more importantly, the experience. Bruns aptly frames the phenomenon as “produsage.” This term, according to Bruns, differs from Alvin Toffler’s now commonly used idea of “prosumers,” which denotes the advanced knowledge of consumers yet without altering their status as consumers. The most active produsers today, or “digital natives” in Prensky’s term, are undoubtedly the youth. Currently, and more so in the near future, these digital natives will be further empowered by the advancement of mobile network technologies, which allows ubiquitous multi-modal communication amongst individuals. Such mobile communication takes place regardless of, yet paradoxically in relation to, the user’s current spatiotemporal and social contexts as the communication concurrently takes account of the virtual – created in and through the mobile device – and the physical – where the user is physically located – realities. Reality construction, as proven in various fields of research, differs procedurally and configuratively from culture to culture.

Cultures of East Asia

9Korea, China, and Japan share a traditionally collective (Hofstede), interdependent (Markus and Kitayama), and high-contextual (Hall) culture, as opposed to individual, independent, and low-contextual cultures, which are predominantly evident in the West. As East Asian nations, they are heavily influenced by Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideologies and therefore often embrace rigid social hierarchy or class distinction, conformity, and dedication to one’s duties within one’s own position (study for students, for example). An illustrative case of this is the intense social focus on the university entrance exam in these countries. The most important cultural value is in keeping the harmony within one’s in-groups, in which the self is defined in relation to one’s significant others, or in-group members, and communicate in an implicit non-verbal manner. This is a more textual – and also ritual in Carey’s definition, as alluded earlier – way of communication, which assumes more demands on the listener to actively infer social cues implied in the message, as compared to explicit low-contextual, and transmissional communication. The following three cultural characteristics play particularly crucial roles in making East Asian culture unique:

Polychronic Perception of Time

10According to Hall, low-context cultures focus on explicit linear communication, so time is managed and rationed through the use of schedules (Smith and Bond). On the other hand, a polychronic tendency is evident in many high-context cultures, in which harmonious maintenance of selective relationships is more valued over prompt time management. This temporal dimension becomes even more substantial when applied to the everyday context of mobile phone use. The mobile phone acts as a “remote control” that allows the user to switch from one reality to another by connecting the user to other people, applications, or contents. The omnipresent mobile phone embodies perpetual identity management. Clearly, this is a polychronic way of life. East Asian users’ familiarity with polychronism, therefore, is expected to lead to forms of interaction that are eminently dissimilar to those that occur in monochronic societies.

Interdependent Self-Definition

11In most cases, it is possible to say – at least in theory – that each individual exists as a physically separate entity in society, yet retains their rights as a human being. This is to say that the significance of an individual, or a node in the human social network, is automatically accorded to the individual from their existence as a human being. However, the system of digital networks does not allow such automatic awarding of meaning to a particular node unless the node is “alive,” or “active,” in the network that it constitutes. The Internet consists of individual nodes interconnected in “an unconstrained, weblike way” (Berners-Lee 3).Therefore, nodes that are not in interconnection with other nodes within the network are considered not in existence from the network’s perspective, and “thus must be ignored (if it is not relevant to the network’s task), or eliminated (if it is competing in goals or in performance)” (Castells 15). This view of digital network configuration shares fundamental similarities with the concept of interdependent self-construals. In interdependent cultures, the self is primarily formed and sustained by its social environment (Kim 73). This is the fundamental aspect that is analogous to digital network systems. Naturally, implications regarding the acceptance and utilisation of digital communication are expected to be different in cultures with different predispositions within the independent – interdependent dichotomy.


12As has been discussed in this article, Western and non-Western cultures can be fundamentally distinguished by applying the dialectic dimensions of collectivism–individualism, which subsequently relate to the interdependence-independence and high context–low context dimensions. Across these three key dichotomies, a disparity is found in the way self is defined in different cultures. Ting-Toomey and Kurogi’s face-negotiation theory highlights this phenomenon. While every individual endeavours to keep a relatively positive and respectable face in society, the key distinction lies in the objective of the maintenance of face, or in Toomey and Kuroi’s term, “facework” (188).

13In individualistic cultures, the self remains the predominant focus of facework over others; therefore, the nature of facework is self-oriented in most communicative situations. Conversely, in collectivistic cultures, focus exists in duality: firstly to maintain one’s face as an appropriate member of the social network; and secondly, to save the faces of the significant others in a similar manner (Gudykunst and Matsumoto; Ting-Toomey and Kurogi). This particular aspect is manifested in many different customs of East Asia. In Chinese culture, this dual facework functions as one of the cardinal element of guanxi (关系), a central concept of social relation; in Japan, it is socially expected of a mature individual to have honne (本音) – true feelings that one is expected to keep inside only – and tatemae (建前) – socially expected face; in the case of Korea, nunchi (눈치) – ability to interpret others’ social cues – is an essential social component. What needs to be emphasised here is that the self that is constructed, sustained, and distributed via network technologies – the mobile phone provides a more immediate means than wired devices – is consequential to the user’s facework strategies. Hjorth and Kim’s study on young people’s performative gendered representation of the self on Cyworld is an exemplary case of such virtual facework.

Digital Youth of Asia

14Youths have always played a significant role in the reception and production of new technological phenomena. In many cases, it was young people, especially females, who transformed the pragmatic purpose of the technology to essentially social purposes and avail themselves to new technologies as seen in the evolution of the mobile phone from a business technology to social necessity (see Matsuda; Miyata et al.; Okada). A tendency for value transformation is also evident in their increasing individualism and capitalist ideologies, as reported in Tesoro’s article. Na and Duckitt’s study on cultural consensus and diversity shows similar findings, but some traditional values such as conformity and benevolence are mutually shared across generations and genders. This indicates that traditional collectivist and interdependent qualities still remain inherent in Asian youth culture.

15My study of Cyworld shows that technological innovations are built upon existing social values, and further developed by youth to tactfully project both traditional and new facets of their identities. A similar observation is made in Weber’s analysis of identity negotiation of urban Chinese youth – “functional coexistence of individualistic and collectivist values systems” (347) – through Wei Hui’s semi-autobiographical novel Shanghai Baby. In the case of Japan, escapist and social deviance are found to be predominant results of youth’s struggle at the nexus between the traditional and new individualistic social values. Examples include Aoki’s photographic depiction of youth identity negotiation through Shibuya street fashion in Fruits and Fresh Fruits; Ito and Okabe’s study, in which students are found to use their mobile phones to create virtual layers of reality separate from the traditionally rigid social hierarchy apparent in the physical reality; and Hikikomori phenomenon, a mental affliction affecting over 1 million young Japanese, of which sufferers typically lock themselves up in their rooms and only interact with digital media such as television and video games (Jones; Ogino; Murakami).

Mobile Phone: Access and Uses

16According to a recent press release from Nokia, the global penetration rate of the mobile phone is expected to grow to three billion by 2008. Eighty percent of this growth will come from new growth markets, particularly China and Asia-Pacific region, which are expected to make up 50 percent of the next billion subscribers. These statistical data clearly confirm that the mobile phone is clearly now the most prominent universal form of wireless communication technology, especially with the global diffusion of 3G contents and applications.

17From a macro, statistical perspective, each of the three nations shows a high level of technological access and presents unique areas of strengths in the sphere of mobile use. Japan, one of the global frontiers of technological developments, has been one of the most successful countries in mobile data penetration, especially since the introduction of i-mode by NTT Docomo in early 1999. Korea is catching up fast with an increasing 3G penetration rate, which currently exceeds 40% (3G). Considering the synergistic potential of national mobile phone manufacturers such as Samsung and LG with the nation’s high broadband penetration rate – one of the highest in the world – Korea presents an exciting research case as evident in recent technological developments such as DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) and WiBro (Wireless Broadband). China’s strength, on the other hand, lies mostly in the enormous number of mobile phone subscribers, which currently exceeds 400 million, making the nation the world’s largest mobile market (Gonsalves).

18Low technological barrier of the mobile phone allows for no noticeable divergence in access to the multi-functional mobile technologies amongst many countries around the globe. This has been evidenced in the UN’s wireless universal connectivity initiatives to reduce the global digital divide in recognition of the mobile phone’s cost-effective deployment and hardware distribution (Wireless Internet Institute). Therefore, the uniqueness of East Asia in mobile access comes from the social access rather than technological; more specifically, it is in the robust social motivation and acceptance of the technology that distinguishes the region from the others. The mobile culture of Europe and the “keitai culture” of Japan, for example, do not only differ in names. Ericsson’s senior market analyst Atsuhiko Ohkita puts it this way: “In Europe, a mobile phone is still a phone … In Japan, the ke-tai means web access, e-mail, games, and so on – that’s the definition. Voice is just a very small part of the handset’s function” (Ericsson). Therefore, interpreting experiences that occur through the mobile phone necessitates a significantly increased focus on individual-level communication that takes account of socio-cultural and cognitive contexts.

Emergence of Mobile Media

19Previous studies on the uses of the mobile phone showed proclivity to place a focus on empirical research on youth’s mobile use in various cultural backgrounds, including Japan (Ito and Okabe), UK (Berg, Taylor and Harper), and Finland (Oksman and Turtiainen). These studies present a surprisingly large number of similar (if not identical) findings, particularly in the magnitude of text messaging practice as compared to that of voice call. This provokes two assumptions: firstly, the cost of mobile messaging is generally lower and more controllable than voice calling; and secondly, factors such as lifestyle, established social norms and regulations make the act of text-messaging more appropriate than the act of making and receiving voice calls. A point that should be emphasised here is that mobile text messaging normally takes a form of linear interpersonal communication between two participants. However, rapid developments in wireless network and multimedia technologies – mobile Internet and DMB, for example – present additional dimensions to mobile communication beyond such communicative linearity. In a pragmatic sense, the era of mobile media has truly begun at least in some countries such as Korea, Japan, and the USA.

20Two emerging areas in the growing mobile media research are personal identity formation and location-based applications. With the proliferation of social network sites – such as Cyworld and MySpace – and media sharing sites – such as Flickr and YouTube – came an escalating interest in research on visual self-projection online. Much of the literature on Korean mobile media is found in gender-related issues, with most of studies examining the young women’s use of camera phone (see Hjorth; Hjorth and Kim; D.-H Lee; Yoon). This frame of analysis then bifurcates into the gendered technology discourse and the male gaze in relation to feminine beauty.

21Kim (Cited in Hjorth and Kim 51) claims that although the initial take up of the mobile phone was led by males, its flourishing, especially through social convergence via social network sites like Cyworld – was and still is pioneered by young females. Lee and Sohn (cited in D.-H. Lee) provide empirical support for Kim’s standpoint by showing that women are more active in adopting multimedia functions than men. Lee states that there is evidence that women are aware of the male gaze and conform to gender roles by means of performative identity presentation through digital imaging. However, the fact that women do not passively consume culture but actively participate in production, Lee asserts, signifies an optimistic start in gender equality in traditionally patriarchal Korean society. The issue of gender performativity in Korea has been discussed in various contexts, ranging from plastic surgery (Woo) to mobile photography (Hjorth) in which women are found to actively perform their gender identity through aesthetics – physical alteration or creating the atmosphere of “cuteness.” Paradoxically, women were also found to be more comfortable with and actively engage in projecting their individuality through mobile photography than men. Okabe and Ito’s ethnographic study on camera phone use in Japan also demonstrates more individual or “intimate” approach to mobile imaging. They attribute this propensity to the portable, ubiquitous, and private/selectively shared quality of the mobile phone.

22The freedom of mobility afforded by the mobile phone did not nullify the spatial dimension of its use. Instead, it brought about an increased attention to and attempts for connecting mobility and space and objects within the space. In his presentation “Pervasive Mobile Gaming,” Julian Bleeker argues that pervasive games can invoke increased awareness to objects and subjects that are often ignored, and thus provoke new social perspectives (Cited in Harvey 2). One example of this development is Silverstone and Sujon’s Urban Tapestries project, which explores the inter-relations amongst the human, technology, and space. Using a wireless location-based application called Urban Tapestries, the user is able to embed textual or audio narratives to places that inspired them. The user can also view and interact with other users’ narrative trails on the map, thereby creating a multi-layered shared history of the city. The noted findings of this project are as follows:

  1. Human-technology relationship is both liberating and constraining.
  2. Technologies as extensions of the self are now crucial parts of one’s identity.
  3. However, humans still desire control over technologies.
  4. Creativity emerges from playing.
  5. Urban Tapestries is one way to create cultural “meanings” through the mutual relationship amongst people, technology, and place.

23In a different context, following their previous work on mobile camera use in Japan, Okabe et al. present another anthropological study that is ostensibly counter-conceptual to the former: investigation on the location-specific photo taking and modding culture of Japanese youths, at the centre of which is Purikura, the sticker photo booth. The studies of Silverstone and Sujon and Okabe et al. are inventive and up-to-date empirical efforts to examining playful interactions connecting the human, technology, and space, in relation to (or in contrary to) mobility. They also address an important role that sociality and pleasure play in user-led cultural productions. However, they do not – as is the case with the current literature in general – offer much needed insight into some fundamental questions: what does “mobility” and “playfulness” mean to the user? What is the motivation for participation? How is the participation negotiated in every context? And what are the implications of such participatory culture for technological and socio-cultural domains?

24These are some of the questions that need to be answered in order to understand and construct the future of the multifarious mobile culture(s), which is found in the area of convergence amongst multiple layers of virtual and physical realities. These realities can be constructed and entered into via a network device – both wired and wireless – on a voluntary basis. Here, the two converging dichotomies of technology/social and productivity/play become unequivocally explicit. By entering the mobile media network, the user automatically turns into an active node of the network society, a participant in transforming the ever-evolving media ecology of various strata. As Jenkins et al. assert, “it matters what tools are available to a culture, but it matters more what that culture chooses to do with those tools” (7). In studying transformations of contemporary society, there are at least three fundamental elements of consideration stemming from today’s prevalent and expanding mobile interactivity: mobility, playful participation, and techno-social contextualisation. The intersection of these elements is precisely where the fundamental sources of future socio-cultural transformations can be found, and therefore where rigorous inter-disciplinary explorations must take place.