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Understanding the Design of Mobile Social Networking

The Example of EzMoBo in Taiwan

Introduction

1Exhausted after a working day, a fatigued New Yorker may be desperate to find a place to relax and meet friends. With the help of Dodgeball and a series of text messages back and forth on his mobile phone, he immediately knows that two of his buddies are in a pub three blocks away from his office. Across the Pacific Ocean, in Tokyo, Japan, a group of twenty-something girls may be also exploiting the similar service, ImaHima, to check out their friends’ location, activity and mood while they are arranging a spontaneous meeting on their way out. In Taiwan, a large number of mobile users, young and old, are involved in EzMoBo’s EzDating and EzFriend to express themselves and make acquaintances via texts, pictures and video clips. Aggregately, this is how the emerging mobile social networking service works.

2Given the relative youth of mobile social networking, and the fact that few extant studies are dedicated to this subject, a case study of exploratory nature is deemed a preferred approach in order to understand its use. There are several reasons explaining the selection of the Taiwanese case-EzMoBo. In terms of evidence, Taiwan’s mobile penetration rate was 97.37% in 2005 and the SMS volume reached 2,796 million in the same year (“Penetration Rate” 1; “SMS Volume” 1). In addition, 36.4% of all Taiwanese mobile phone users have used the mobile phone for non-voice services, such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) and SMS (“Proportion in the Number” 1). These figures generally represent mature mobile culture in Taiwan. In other words, the mobile use in Taiwan has played a role in human communication in various aspects. This fact makes Taiwan a perfect social setting to observe the adoption of mobile social networking and extrapolate it to the explanation of similar cases in other cultural contexts. Particularly, EzMoBo was selected due to its large user base of 400,000 as well as its relatively developed mobile social network application since 2001.

3As the enquiry unfolds, four major components are found to be associated with the use of mobile social networking, which are Taiwanese cultural contexts, personalized mobile communication, the formation of unique mobile community and the value of visual content and texting. When it comes to the adoption of a new communication technology, a connection should be made to users’ existing and typical media uses. In Taiwan, media culture is characteristic of highly popular uses of mobile phones, BBS (bulletin board system) and online gaming. Through contextualization of these three aspects of Taiwanese media uses, a better understanding of EzMoMo’s design can be achieved. It is also reasonable that, due to this consideration, the local contextual associations occupy a relatively large portion of the analyses.

4Meanwhile, in order to provide explanations of this observation, a number of academic studies are referred to. First, Barry Wellman’s study of cyberspace has provided insights into the effects of mobile communication and subsequent social changes (“Physical Place” 227). Among several aspects he mentioned, two of which, wireless portability and personalization of technology, are germane to the topic of interest in this paper. Considering the important feature that mobile social networking serves to enable people to manage community on the go based on their common interest, therefore, the third part of the analysis is focused on the formation of mobile community. The investigation will include the characteristics of the mobile community and its relation to the design principle as well as cultural factors. Lastly, in the technical aspect, the role of Short Messaging Service (SMS, or text messaging) and Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) is discussed regarding their functional and symbolic contribution in achieving human interactions. SMS is the main technical standard of text message transmission between mobile devices whereas MMS is the upgraded version of SMS by incorporating image, video, picture and other forms of messages.

Case Study of EzMoBo

5The data is obtained from a semi-structured interview with Irene Liu, senior project manager of EzMoBo, as well as from the relevant documents provided by EzMoBo. As the first inter-operator mobile community service, EzMoBo started business in September 2002 and positioned itself as a content platform provider. Featuring various forms of mobile community services, such as social networking, mobile online games and picture/video albums, EzMobo’s most popular services, EzFriend and EzDating, are considered to be composite mobile communities. Applying multiple interfaces, such as SMS, MMS, location-based service (LBS), Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), avatar and RPG, EzFriend and EzDating make good use of user-centered contributions in various forms. In other words, without directly providing contents, EzFriend and EzDating relied on users to generate the content and share it among the entire community. For example, users can participate in writing entries in the blog area, posting messages in BBS, joining chat rooms, and communicating with personalized pictures and video clips.

6EzFriend, launched in September 2002, is EzMoBo’s first generation of mobile community service. Compared with less sophisticated EzFriend, EzMoBo later introduced the second generation mobile community-EzDating, which incorporates the concept of role-playing game (RPG) and avatar. According to EzMobo’s estimate, the user base of these two community services has reached 400,000 as of July 2006, which crowns EzMoBo’s success as the largest mobile community service in Taiwan. Furthermore, its service map has expanded to China and Singapore in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

7Similar to web-based instant messaging, in EzFriend and EzDating, once users are logging into the portal, their online status will be updated. The only difference is that this mobile community is a public discussion forum without a separate conversation window for the pair-based discussion, as in the web-based instant messaging. In terms of community interface, as shown in Figure 1, each user is generally presented with their nickname, mood status, the number of e-coins, their level (EzDating), the number of online users and online friends, and the number of new messages. The level, ranging from one to twenty, represents the overall evaluation of one’s appeal index and force index (see Figure 2). For example, if users receive a mail, they will be able to gain ten points. If they use real-world money to purchase accessories for the avatar, their appeal index will increase by 300-1000 points.

8According to EzMoBo, the presentation of one’s level is an incentive for users to be more actively involved in various mobile community activities, including sending and receiving messages, creating a message board, initiating a vote topic and sending a gift. For instance, every time one’s picture is downloaded by other users, they will get 10 e-coins. Alternatively, this mechanism encourages users to make efforts to strengthen their currency stock as well as monitoring other users’ level. There are some cases that users complained to EzMoBo about other users’ abnormal level presentation and the number of virtual currency revealed.

9Investigating further, EzMoBo’s large user base is ascribed to its creation of a competitive and playful environment, which encourages users to vie with each other to accumulate virtual currency and use it to exhibit one’s appeal and force ranking as well as purchase virtual gifts. For example, users can spend virtual currency they earn on staging a promotion show. In the case of EzDating, there is evidence showing that many users tend to user real-world money to purchase expensive avatar accessories and send them as virtual gifts to their friends. The recipients then will get a MMS notification, which inquires them whether to wear the new accessories received. If the recipients deem the new gift redundant, they could pawn it to get virtual currency in return. This mechanism has delicately rendered the separation of the virtual world and the real world indistinguishable. It is not surprising to find that users are accustomed to the use of virtual currency as part of gift exchanges, especially on the occasion of making new friends and making impression on people they admire.

10In the aspect of user demographics, the users cover a wide range of ages, from 15-year-olds to 70-year-olds. Those 21-30 years of age are the major user group, followed by those ages 31-40. Approximately, 38.8% of EzFriend users and 20.1% of EzDating users are 21-30 years of age while those ages 31-40 occupy 12.8% and 6% of these two services, respectively. Nonetheless, those in their 60s or 70s are found to be the highly loyal users of these two services. In terms of gender differences, males dominate the usage with the ratio of six to four, as compared with the female users. Geographically, the usage of these two mobile community services is still ahead in the northern metropolitan areas, with roughly 35% of users concentrating in Taipei and other northern developed cities. Lastly, another aspect concerning user category is intriguing. According to EzMoBo’s investigation, army officers, janitors, and 24-hour open convenient store clerks are the chief members of these two mobile communities.

Analysis of the Case

1. Cultural Contexts – Mobile Phones, BBS and Online Gaming

11Interestingly, the use of mobile social networking could be better understood by explaining its association with three prevalent cultural practices in Taiwan, which are mobile phones, BBS and online gaming. First, the importance of mobile phones in daily life of Taiwanese people is manifested in several aspects. Wei and Lo’s study on Taiwanese college students revealed that mobile phones have replaced the traditional means of maintaining family bonds and significant relationships (68). In a broader sense, sharing similar national culture background and the Confucian tradition, the use of mobile phones in Taiwan, China, Japan, and Korea are somewhat tinted with entertainment (Ishii and Wu 96). In Taiwan, diverse uses of mobile phones for entertaining purposes are common. For example, college students use mobile phones mainly to chat with their close friends about mundane things (Lin, Cheng and Lin; Cheng). According to a survey conducted by the official research institute FIND in 2005, almost 40 percent of Internet users used their mobile handsets for Internet activities and 35 percent of these uses occurred on public transport, waiting queues or any idle time. SMS, screen graphics and ring tone downloading, mobile games, and MMS were the top popular five applications (“Taiwan Mobile Internet Survey 2004”). What renders these applications popular is attributed to their interactivity, customization and entertaining features. Taken together, these descriptions point out Taiwanese people’s tendency of accepting diverse and entertainment-oriented mobile applications.

12Secondly, the unique element of Taiwanese Internet culture, BBS, is found to mesh well with user practices employed in EzFriend and EzDating. The Telnet-based BBS incorporates multiple functions that have been applied in the web-based instant messenger and online games. Once users register, they are able to create a plain profile and nickname for their identity. Then, they can post messages, participate in a wide range of topical discussions, talk with friends, exchange emails and initiate a vote topic. Evidently, these practices derived from BBS are observable in the use of EzFriend and EzDating. Moreover, in well-established BBS, board masters are required for establishing board rules and maintaining order among the virtual BBS community. In EzFriend and EzDating, similar mechanism is also present, which helps create a coherent spirit among the mobile community. More advanced BBS has already introduced online games and the trade mechanism of exchanging virtual treasure and token (Ishii and Wu 100). Through pure textual communication, BBS users pay attention to their e-signatures and writing styles in order to exhibit their personal characteristics. The influence of BBS on Taiwanese society is notable in that it has become a subculture among the Taiwanese Internet world (Ishii and Wu 100; Hsueh; Fu and Wang).

13The third parallel social factor is related to Taiwanese online gaming culture, which has evolved with the use of mobile phones and BBS. In Taiwan, teenagers are generally constrained by the social rules of pursuing academic achievements. Playing online games with a few friends in a cyber café thus becomes an identifiable vehicle for relaxing (Ishii and Wu 101; Huang; Chai). This background explains why various forms of electronic games easily garnered notable popularity among Taiwanese young people. Particularly, the younger Taiwanese generation is found to have been growing with online games, which are alternatively viewed as a subculture among teenagers (Chen; Pan). In fact, propelled by the high penetration rate of broadband Internet, online game playing becomes the dominant activities among Taiwanese Internet users across all age brackets, with the youngest age group of five (Pan). According to the latest survey on a national scale, 64 % of the Internet population is involved in online games, with students and 15-19 year-olds as the major users (Y. Lin). In the same survey, it identifies that role-playing is the most popular online game categories, followed by action and strategy. Role playing games enable users not only to exercise creative learning but also to make friends and find partners to cooperate and connect with (“From PC to Mobile Phones, Avatar Enables Friend-Making”).

14Among the various mechanism of role-playing gaming, avatar has been widely used, whether in Internet forums or online games. Avatar is the digitalized representation of individuals and is usually denoting the “paper doll” game mechanism (J. Lin). With the aid of avatar, users are exposed themselves to a more intimate environment and are able to express themselves as well as communicate with other people. The popularity of avatar in Taiwan is basically rooted in Korea, where avatar is the equivalent of email communication. Wayi, an online game developer in Taiwan, partnered with Koreas developers and introduced “Noritel” in Taiwan, which won over 50,000 users within two months of its introduction in July 2003. The inclusion of avatar is well accepted among the Taiwanese online game population as well as the mobile phone users. Taiwan Mobile and FarEas Tone both provided a mobile social networking service called “e7Play Love City,” enabling mobile users to participate in the process of making friends through decorating avatars and personal rooms (e7Play Love City). Another mobile social networking service, Pet Sweety, offered by Taiwan Mobile, FarEas Tone and Chunghwa Telecom, has similar functionalities. These are only two of a number of examples of avatar-embedded mobile applications in Taiwan. In general, within this local context of online gaming culture, the successful adoption of EzFriend and EzDating can be linked to its integration of role-playing games, virtual currency and avatar mechanisms since Taiwanese consumers have familiarized themselves well with these online games practices over time. Nonetheless, it is still too early to conclude whether there is any overlapping or migration occurring between the online game and the mobile social networking population.

15According to the foregoing analysis, a majority of online gamers are under the age of 15. In Taiwan, those target groups of teenagers and children are not allowed to purchase mobile phones themselves and thus, they are more likely to use pre-paid cards or financed by their parents. Drawing upon this fact, obviously, either the pre-paid mechanism or the parental control is a barrier of using advanced mobile applications since young users are more inclined to spare the limited minutes for voice communication. Conceivably, in this phase, it is appropriate to state that the feature of online gaming is only one of the many incentives offered to use mobile social networking. Another two contextual factors, the highly penetrated mobile usage and mature development of BBS should also account for the popularity of EzFriend and EzDating.

2. Wireless Ubiquity and Personalization of Technologies

16Mobile technologies, from mobile phones to text messaging, have transformed interpersonal connections, which are independent from the fixed location, and have resulted in the phenomenon of “situated nowhere,” in which communication occurs everywhere (Wellman, “Physical Place” 230). The ubiquitous form of communication allows people to micro-coordinate activities without prearranging an agreed-upon time and space (Ling and Yttri 2). This consideration of ubiquity is evidenced by the characteristics of the main user groups of EzFriend and EzDating. According to EzMoBo’s survey, the major users, such as soldiers and convenient store clerks, are characterized by having inadequate access to PC and web-based social networking. Thus they are attracted by the anytime-anywhere wireless capability enabled by mobile social networking.

17In addition to the wireless aspect, the personalization of technologies plays a role in influencing the way people interact with each other. Specifically, the use of personalized software, such as setting the preference for matching persons nearby and limiting the number of recipients to receive message, is therefore shifting community ties from “linking people-in-places” to “linking people where they are,” or namely personal communities (Wellman, “Physical Place” 238). The emphasis on personalized communication is reflected in the multi-interface design of EzFriend and EzDating, which incorporates multiple modalities of communication, such as verbal communication through voice and text messaging, and non-verbal communication by way of picture and video messaging. Furthermore, users of EzFriend and EzDating are armed with the capability of managing their contextual information through the modification of availability status and of optimizing their competitive advantage through the accumulation of virtual currency. Particularly, the user-generation content is considered as another solution to intertwine the mobile technology with human need to express themselves and communicate with each other. This nicely explains EzFriend and EzDating’s dependence on user-generated content. Whether using it for moblogging, communicating with a large group of community members or uploading personalized picture profiles or video clips, users have relatively more freedom to make use of mobile social networking as a benefit.

3. The Embodiment of Mobile Community

18Technically, mobile instant messaging, text messaging, voice communication, moblogging, and photo messaging are the available means serving community members’ various needs. In a broad sense, mobile social networking can be defined in parallel with the mobile community. Rheingold defined that the mobile virtual community is characterized by blending the features of virtual communities and mobile communication, which are characteristic of affinity-based and local-acquaintance-based social communication (“Mobile Virtual Community”). More specifically, mobile virtual communities are known as a platform for many-to-many communication, a platform for coordinating activities in geographic space, and an arena for gaming and socializing. In the case of EzFriend and EzDating, groups were formed in a spontaneous manner through the cooperation of a few initiators. For example, a group of users once initiated a roll call to encourage its group members to cling to the service, according to EzMobo’s observation. In addition, by incorporating various forms of user-generated content, such as BBS and the decoration of the avatar, the group formation in EzFriend and EzDating makes good use of the value of chat messages. According to Taylor and Harper, the value of chat message lies in its ability to help people establish chat groups, which serves to cement alliances with groups and sustain a sense of place in a virtual space (294).

19In general, reflecting upon these characters of mobile community, a discernible fact is detected as to the difference between mobile-enabled community and mobile community. The former refers to the conventional social networks communicating with each other using mobile phones whereas the latter focuses on the interest-based virtual group mediated through mobile phones. Similar to online social networking, membership of a mobile community, for the most part, is built on the commonality, either expressing oneself or making friends. This observation corresponds to Rheingold’s delineation of mobile social networking. He envisioned that the mobile community, which combines user-controlled social network information, locative media, and mobile telephony, is expected to take shape as the way “virtual communities, online markets, and self-organized dating services emerged from wired cyberspace” (Rheingold, “Mobile Social Presence”).

20In addition to the forgoing BBS factor, the unique spending behavior among the users of EzFriend and EzDating helps to form coherence as a community. According to EzMoBo’s investigation, the users tend to expend a large amount of money on their participation. Unlike the web-based users accustomed to free service, these mobile community users naturally accept the payment mechanism for participation. For example, with the aim to court the admiring girls, some male users are eager to purchase expensive virtual gifts. On the design level, EzMoBo encourages users to be involved in various community activities, such as creating a message board or initiating a vote topic to increase virtual currency, which is viewed as an incentive for the formation of mobile community. In other words, the concept of community underlies the mechanism of EzFriend and EzDating.

4. The Value of Visual Content and Texts as Gifts

21Technically, the main mechanism used across the platform of mobile social networking is messaging, including text, graphic, picture and video. In particular, most of the extant studies concern the influence of text messaging. There are two reasons explaining why the discussion of messaging is important. The first one is in relation to the functional orientations of text messaging. Compared with synchronous voice communication, asynchronous text messaging gives participants more control over the timing and content of their self-disclosures (Walther 199). Moreover, from the perspective of cultural consideration, it is agreed that text messaging is greatly assisting people that are reserved in expressing their feelings, such as Taiwanese people.

22Concurrently, another reason is concerned with the symbolic significance, in which messaging acts as a form of embodying memories and feelings that can be recalled through later readings (Colombo and Scifo 98; Taylor and Harper 275). Not merely an exchange of physical words or pictorial expression, the action of sending/receiving messaging itself also represents an offering of commitment to the relationship (Taylor and Harper 276; Thurlow). Correspondingly, this emotional significance is found in the multimedia message use of EzFriend and EzDating. It is obvious that the rich meaning enabled through MMS constitutes the main reason of the success of EzFriend and EzDating services. This attitude of adoption is also reflected in the user habit. The users of EzFriend and EzDating are characterized by adeptness of communicating with SMS and MMS.

23In addition, the embedded mechanism of gift-giving in EzFriend and EzDating can be associated with Johnsen’s discussion of digital gift-giving. In Johnsen’s argument, the gift in the form of text messages has been observed in playing a role in nurturing social ties and connections (166). In a more materialized manner, the gift performance in EzFriend and EzDating is observed in the exchange of multimedia messages as well as virtual gifts, such as flowers and avatar accessories. With multiple purposes, these gift exchanges allow users not only to manage their social relationships but also to increase their appeal and force index.

Conclusion

24Based on the case study of EzMoBo in Taiwan, four aspects of the use of mobile social networking are discussed, which are Taiwanese cultural contexts, personalized mobile communication, mobile community and mobile messaging. The uses of mobile phones, BBS and online gaming are prevalent in Taiwan society in the past two decades. Relevant users practices acquired through using these three communication technologies are found to extend to the utilization of mobile social networking. For instance, it is observable that the design of EzFriend and EzDating combines virtual currency, role-playing gaming and avatar mechanisms, which fit in with Taiwanese online gaming culture. The fact that users of EzFriend and EzDating are spontaneously forming group-oriented communication provides evidence of the orientation of community in human interaction, be it web-based, or mobile interface. Certainly, this is also related to the dominant user practices and community formation embedded in Taiwanese BBS culture. Finally, in terms of mobile messaging, EzFriend and EzDating are composite mobile social networking mediated through multimedia messaging. In addition to matchmaking, users are primarily counting on this forum to express themselves in text, picture and video forms. The value of visual content and text messaging finds its place in the realization of emotional connection and commitment to relationships.

25Since these innovative services are still in the early-adopted stage, related social issues and consequences might become more evident after they reach the full-adopted phase. Therefore, when that happens, the conclusion derived from the singular case study in Taiwan would be a starting point of analyzing mobile social networking in other cultural contexts, such as those in Japan, South Korea and the United States. It is needless to say that the support from further empirical research is necessary to provide an excellent complement to this exploratory study. In addition, some aspects pertaining to the development of location-based applications, such as emergency services, location-enabled advertising and travel guides, are subjects of interest for future studies. For instance, these topics would deal with cultural dimensions and their relationships with the usage patterns of these emerging services. By this way, the difference in the user interface would be rationalized using a more comprehensive perspective.

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Figure 1: EzFriend interface

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Figure 2: The avatar design in EzDating