Locative Lab

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Mobile Messaging Culture Codes

Mobile Messaging Culture Codes

Flying back from San Francisco last week, I read through “The Culture Code” written by French psychoanalyst turned market researcher, Clotaire Rapaille. The premise tapped my personal observations of how mobile messaging has been culturally imprinted differently around the world. Having experienced and analyzed up close individual differences in texting, as well as data mined mass behavioral statistics from 3 billion messages a month running through 300+networks from 135 countries, I’ve always thought that the same mobile device, same action in mobile messaging was actually interpreted differently in various regions around the globe. “The Culture Code” finally provided me the tools to analyze these differences.

First the fundamentals on “cultural coding.” As consumers, we apply rational analysis and emotional resonance creating an individual consciousness when we consume or interact with technology. Rapaille’s belief is that there exists a “cultural collective unconscious”, essentially shared psychological imprints which we overlay on day to day real world interpretations and decisions which influence our personal behavior and thus drive our collective filters. His view, which is the only aspect of his book I gained value from, is that each culture collectively experiences things in different contexts and different interpretations.

Through this framework, he identifies “archetype codes” which distill the essence of a particular people’s innermost feelings about a particular topic. For example, in the US Food equals “Fuel,” in France Food equals “Pleasure,” and from my personal experience I would say in Japan Food equals “little portions” (kuten gwa). Other codes proffered include, in the US a car equals “Horse,” while in Germany car equals “Engineering.” You get the picture.

The essential business message here for global offerings, where we frame sales, marketing and advertising messages for international consumption, is that being “on code” or “off code” essentially determines success. If you get a sense of the culture, not necessarily country, which you’re selling in and you first are able to unearth and then stay “on code” you’ll hit the target. In short you must understand the social, cultural and historical contexts your offer navigates in. A fundamental lesson for global sales specialists such as myself.

The culture code does fly in the face of conventional opinion that the world is becoming homogenized–GAP-ified, Starbucksified–essentially flattening our social architecture, a la, Thomas Friedman. But the code approach resonates with me since cultures give differentiating textures in the way we eat, the way we work, the way we live, the way we communicate and interact with technology. And the way we buy.

So let’s try to apply this to mobile messaging.

Consider the labeling differences between Asia, North America and Europe in the mobile space. Depending on where you’re reading this, it is either a “mobile-phone,” “wireless phone”, or a “handy phone.” Strip off “phone” and what you have is in Europe “mobile” translates to “unteathered.” In America “wireless” describes a “technical infrastructure”, while in Asia–let’s take Japan as an example–”Keitai” translates to “handy” or “snug fit.” Which we can also extend into China where the PHS, or “Personal HandyPhone System”, is marketed by China Telecom’s Xiaolingtone mobile network.

Asian mobile culture is that “Keitai” enables you to do “something else” while engaged on the phone. It reflects a high degree of intimacy and personalization akin to such things as lanyards with cute anime figures. But it goes beyond that. It is as much driven by a youth culture perspective as reflected by so many countries in East Asia that have large percentages of the population under 25 such Vietnam, Malaysia or China. “Handy” conveys intimate portability.

Compared to the Asian tigers, North America has a demographically older society, where wireline telecommunication was universal. As such, initial response to mobiles was that it is a more narcissistic device that invades the communal with the priority and demands of the personal. Eleven years ago when I entered the business we used to distribute “Mobile Manners” booklets in California to deal with the constant media reports on the intrusion of wireless phones.

The US still has lingering unease with mobile technology. Until the last 4 years, mobile messaging has had stubborn uptake, partially due to mobile messaging and web access having been questioned as second rate versions of PC access. Something you still hear often in Silicon Valley where the denizens of VCs detest mobile network operators because they don’t follow the same open and easy access business models as the web.

Europe is the birthplace of GSM. The rationale for the mobile standard was a requirement for a regional, European culturally driven solution. Today, it is in fact the globe’s standard. Hence at it’s inception it was framed by its “mobile” or “unteathered” quality. Europe has had the densest mobile coverage of any region in the world from the beginning and interestingly has the most and largest most mobile conglomerates in the world including Vodafone, Orange FranceTelecom, and Telefonica O2 and Telecom Italia Mobile, reflecting the acceptance of and leadership in the technology.

Given these different imprintings of mobile messaging, how does that then translate to discrete messaging behavior on a culture by culture basis? What, if any, are the essential cultural differences in mobile messaging? These are my first steps in illuminating what I think exists out in the market place: a suspicion that just as the labeling of the device reflects cultural imprinting differences, there are also differences in how we consider and consume mobile messages. I don’t know what those differences are, yet. Help me discover them.

Do you think these three communications cultures have different cultural imprints when it comes to messaging? Do you have a competing assertion than the perspective I’ve put forward? Give me your feedback. Share your thoughts in the comments section. I’ll be returning to this to regularly as I explore to uncover with you the different culture codes of mobile messaging.


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Cityscape LocativeLab.org is Ronald Lenz's research website on locative & mobile media. This is mostly an archive of blogposts I find inspiring and interesting and an overview of my work. I'm a strategist, technologist and researcher in the field of Location-Based Mobile Services and work at Waag Society, a medialab in Amsterdam, The Netherlands where I head the Locative Media research program and at 7scenes, a platform for GPS games and tours as creative director. Picture 4 Find me at Twitter, LinkedIn or via ronald [at] waag [dot] org.

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