Cross MySpace, cell phones – mobile social networking taking off
Ryan Kim, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007
Heather Chan, 24, was at a barbecue recently when the mother of a friend brought out a slab of green Jell-O filled with chunks of vegetables. It was a moment that begged to be broadcast.
“I thought, ‘Gross – I have to share this with everyone else,’ ” said Chan, a bank manager and San Francisco State University student from San Mateo.
But instead of going home and logging on to MySpace to blog and share her pictures, Chan snapped a photo with her cell phone and sent it out immediately to her network of friends on Radar, a mobile social network. Within seconds, she started getting comments back on her cell about the gelatinous monstrosity.
Radar is just one of a raft of new mobile social networking services that are taking the model of Facebook and MySpace and making it more immediate and portable. Companies like Twitter, Zannel, loopt and Jaiku are allowing people to create networks of friends that stay in touch primarily through their mobile phones.
The traditional Internet heavyweights are not conceding the mobile space to the upstarts. MySpace recently introduced a free mobile version of its Web site. Facebook also has expanded into mobile. And Google bought mobile social networking startup Zingku last month.
The trend toward mobile networking is going to be a big theme at the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment cellular conference in San Francisco this week, with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moscovitz delivering the keynote address.
In some ways, mobile improves on a key promise of social networking – that is, it allows you to stay in touch with your friends wherever you go. And these virtual networks are becoming an increasingly popular channel for communication, both for broadcasting and exchanging messages and notes.
Users don’t have to be at home or in front of a computer to flip through profiles and check in on their friends. And they can now blog and livecast their life as it happens.
“What we find so exciting with mobile is that it’s the one device with you 24/7,” said Adam Zbar, chief executive of San Francisco-based Zannel. “You can instantly transmit what you’re doing. You can have a full discussion around that with your friends, and then you can also meet new people.”
Unlike their more traditional online forebears, mobile social networks are even a little more casual and ripe for whimsical interaction and broadcasting. The medium is made for short, offbeat updates about random subjects.
Radar, like Zannel, lets you post pictures directly from your phone to your friends. Unlike Zannel, however, the service is aimed at a closed network, so interlopers can’t stumble upon your musings.
John Poisson, CEO of Tiny Pictures, which operates the Radar service, said because of the personal nature of phones, it makes more sense to limit access to your world to just friends, who can appreciate your little updates and understand their context in your life.
“It’s about giving people something that’s a little more personal than a big social network,” Poisson said. “The mobile phone is a very individualized device; it’s that thing in your hand that connects you to people in your life.”
Analysts said the growth in mobile social networking is relatively small but significant, especially with younger users. Julie Ask, an analyst with JupiterResearch, said 28 percent of teens surveyed are interested in MySpace on their cell phone. It makes sense for social networking to go mobile, especially as many younger people increasingly communicate through these networks, Ask said.
Tole Hart, a Gartner analyst, agreed. “When mobile instant messaging moved to phones, it didn’t have popularity at first – but now it’s growing and you’ll see the same thing with mobile communities,” Hart said.
Amit Kapur, director of business development for MySpace, said the company’s push into mobile is a direct response to its members’ demands. The company has made a number of steps into the mobile space, first launching an embedded service with niche carrier Helio last year and also offering access through AT&T and now T-Mobile Sidekick phones.
With the addition of the new mobile site, accessible through most phone browsers, Kapur said that nearly all members will be able to extend their MySpace experience to their phones.
“If you’re able to extend the experience to allow users to access their account whenever they want it, we’ll see an uplift in usage, both online and on mobile phones,” Kapur said.
For now, MySpace users accessing the mobile site get a trimmed-down experience. You can view profiles, leave messages, update blogs, change mood status and accept friend requests. But you can’t upload pictures directly to your MySpace page.
The most aggressive carrier in the mobile social networking space has been Helio, the startup focused on high-end, tech-savvy users. The company offers an embedded MySpace application that is optimized for Helio and allows for media uploading. More than 70 percent of Helio users access Helio’s MySpace service on their phones.
Helio also offers geo-tagging of Flickr pictures using GPS, as well as a Buddy Beacon service that shows where your other Helio friends are using a map.
The Buddy Beacon is an especially intriguing element in mobile social networking, allowing friends in a network to not only find each other and communicate, but to arrange real-world meetings. Palo Alto’s loopt provides a similar service for Sprint and Boost Mobile users, letting them find each other and leave geo-tagged notes about restaurants or bars.
Helio’s Rob Gelick, vice president for media and community services, said his company has been aggressive in weaving social networking into its service because Helio is finding it’s a key differentiator and a preferred mode of communication for its users.
“We are looking at a unique user base, younger and fluent in technology and making connections. We wanted to change the way people use mobile phones for community,” Gelick said. “We saw text was a good tool, but it’s not enough for users to communicate. To go to a profile and see, to do a bulletin as a multicast out to a trusted network – all on your phone – that’s a whole new paradigm.”
Chan, the Radar user, understands the new paradigm well. She said she checks her account at least 20 times a day, exchanging updates about her life with her friends.
“This is instant blogging, instant conversations,” Chan said. “You get a better feel of what people are doing daily, where they are and how they’re living their life.”
Want to go mobile?
— Facebook: facebook.com
— Helio: helio.com
— Jaiku: jaiku.com
— Loopt: loopt.com
— MySpace: myspace.com
— Radar: radar.net
— Twitter: twitter.com
— Zannel: zannel.com
— Zingku: zingku.com
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