Social Currency

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 12 September 2006

No matter how colorful you make it, content will never be king in a wireless world. It’s not the content that matters – it’s the contact.

Wireless providers are busy investing in content. Or, more accurately, in deals with content ‘partners’ who can provide data with file sizes huge enough to justify the industry’s massive expenditure on multimedia-ready platforms and networks. Cart before the horse, as always, the cellular industry may have just speculated itself off yet another cliff.

Like the lunatics responsible for the boom and bust, these entrepreneurs still don’t get it: in an interactive space, content is not king. Contact is.

What made the internet special was not the newfound ability to download data from distant hard drives. No, none of us were so very excited by the idea of accessing Newscorps’ databases of text, for a fee. What made the internet so sexy was that it let us interact with one another. First asynchronously, through email or bulletin boards, and then live. It was the people.

Content only matters in an interactive space or even the real world, I’d argue, because it gives us an excuse to interact with one another. When I was a kid, we’d buy records not solely because we wanted to hear whoever was on them; we wanted an excuse for someone else to come over! “What are you doing after school? I got the new Stones’ album…”

In this sense, our content choices are just means to an end – social currency through which we can make connections with others. Jokes are social currency. They help break the ice at a party. “Hey, let’s invite Joe. He tells good jokes.” We’re not even listening for the punchline – we’re busy memorizing the joke so that we’ll have something to tell at our next party.

Or consider the history of bubblegum and baseball cards. When my dad was a kid, a clever bubblegum card company decided to give themselves a competitive advantage by offering a free baseball card inside each pack of gum. That’s how baseball cards started. The cards did so well, that by the time I was a kid, a pack of ten baseball cards would only have one stick of gum. Today, baseball cards are sold with no gum at all. The free prize has replaced the original product! That’s because, to use industry terms, baseball cards are a stickier form of content than bubblegum.

Meaning, they are a better form of social currency. They can be traded, played for, compared and contrasted. They create more opportunities for social interactions between the kids who buy them.

As the wireless industry begins on its long, misguided descent into the world of content creation, it must come to terms with the fact that the main reason people want content is to have an excuse – or a way – to interact with someone else.

Ideally, this means giving people the tools to create their own content that they can send to friends. Still cameras is a great start. Some form of live digital video would be fun, too. (“We’re at the Grand Canyon, mom, look!” or “Here’s the new baby!”)

But elaborately produced content – like prepackaged video shorts, inscrutable weather maps, and football game TV replays – are not only inappropriate for a two-inch screen, they are inappropriate as social currency. Sorry, but people won’t use their cell phones to buy content any more than they used their Internet connections to buy content – unless that content is something that gives them a reason to call someone else.

And that kind of content better be something that can be translated into simple mouth sounds – meaning spoken language, the natural content of telephony. Movie schedules, restaurant addresses, stock quotes, sports scores. No, it’s not sexy. But data never is.

It’s time for the wireless industry to come to grips with the fact that no matter how sleek the phones or colorful the pictures on their little screens, nobody wants to have sex with either. They want to have sex with each other. Either help them, or get out of the way.