28 April 2008

Madonna Mobile Music Makes Me Move

“I’m on Vodafone, so lucky me, I’m one of the punters that this week can download a new track from her album every day. Yeepee-Hey. ‘Candy Shop’ is the first available jewel, and it’s not bad, so I set it as my ringtone of choice. Tomorrow, we’ll see what we get. Am I not going to buy the album? Oh no. The album will be bought, and downloaded to my iTunes, and then onto my iPod. So why did I pay £1.5 for the priviledge? Because Mobile Music is Marketing Magic Moves these days. I basically paid to sample the music. Of course, I could do that on the Radio, but it’s not the same. I got the track First. I got the ringtone First. It’s all about the NOW.”

[Inma Martinez on her shift6 blog, 21 April 2008.]

24 April 2008

The music industry finds its own solutions

In my previous post, I talked about the new threat of ‘illegal downloading’ (colloquially termed ‘piracy’) which is changing the business of music, globally. For one thing, most music lovers are switching from buying CDs to digital music, downloading them piecemeal (i.e. track by track) from the Net onto their personal computers.

Of greater concern is that most of this downloaded music is not paid for. It is passed on by friends, or downloaded from peer-to-peer music/video sites (known as ‘illegal file sharing’). The music industry is losing sales and, therefore, unhappy. So, how is the music industry responding to this new threat?

Well, most recording companies are worried, being slow to embrace the digital technology as quickly as their consumers have. However, according to the industry representative, the IFPI, the music industry has not been left behind:

“Music sales via online and mobile channels have risen from zero to an estimated US$2.9 billion – 15 per cent of industry sales – over the last five years, making music more digitally advanced than any entertainment sector except games.”

Online retail music stores like Amazon.com or Apple’s iTunes Store have been sampling and selling music in digital formats for a while now. According to the IFPI report I quoted from earlier, “There are more than 500 legitimate digital music services worldwide, offering over 6 million tracks – over four times the stock of a music megastore.” According to an IFPI survey, legal digital music sites (e.g. iTunes Store) offer a wider choice of music/tracks per artist and better quality music than illegal sites.

At the moment, the music industry’s strongest initiative seems to be talking to Internet Service Providers and governments of individual countries for cooperation – to put an end to illegal downloads and copyright infringing services (e.g. Limewire).

This apart – and to answer a query raised in the comments to my previous post – the musicians themselves are innovating ways to reach their fans online – and on mobile. Here are some examples from a recent article on BBC news:

“Bristol band Portishead will release their new album on a music streaming service a week before it goes on sale in the shops. All 11 tracks from the album, Third, will be available from 21 April on Last.fm. It will be free to listen to the tracks online, but users will have to pay to download the tunes to their computer or digital music player. The music industry hopes free streaming will cut illegal downloading.

REM launched their new album, Accelerate, on the music streaming service iLike last month.

Madonna has signed a deal with Vodafone to make her new album, Hard Candy, available on mobile phones from 21 April, a week before its official launch in the shops.”

I’m sure we’ll see more innovations in the future. For the time being, digital technology and mobile communications have come to the musician’s rescue. And, the music industry seems to have entered its second life.

R.E.M. iLike page here.

Portishead ‘Third’ Last.fm page here.

Madonna-Vodafone story here.

[Citation: 1. IFPI Digital Music Report 2008. 2. Portishead launch album online, Jim Reed, BBC news, 14 April 2008.]

23 April 2008


The demand for, and consumption of, digital music is going through frantic change. Digital technology may have made distribution of music easy, through online and mobile channels, but unfortunately for the music industry, most consumers have opted for a free download rather than a paid one. According to a recent IFPI report, “Tens of billions of illegal files were swapped in 2007. The ratio of unlicensed tracks downloaded to legal tracks sold is about 20 to 1.”

In the 15 April 2008 issue of The Moment, Rosecrans Baldwin reports in The Digital Ramble: A Tour of Art and Space, “In an interview in Wired, David Byrne foretells the future for the music business, and perhaps all media, when he says the artists and the audience are now in charge, and everybody’s cyber-frantic.”

There’s wisdom in David Byrne’s words, for the music industry, globally, has indeed turned topsy-turvy. The recording companies and their labels have lost their hold on the market and the consumers. It looks like nobody’s buying CDs/albums anymore, preferring to go digital, downloading music piecemeal in MP3, iTunes, Real Media or other digital formats – mostly without paying for the music.

[I had blogged about this a year ago.]

Illegal downloading is rampant. Just download Limewire or a similar software (available free on the Net) onto your computer, choose your music, and download for free from your peers across the world. Millions of music enthusiasts are doing exactly this every day (or night), helping to bring the legitimate music business crashing down.

Would this mean the end of the music business? Perhaps. Perhaps not. David Byrne explains the situation rather lucidly:

“What is called the music business today, however, is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over. But that’s not bad news for music, and it’s certainly not bad news for musicians. Indeed, with all the ways to reach an audience, there have never been more opportunities for artists.”

[Citation: 1. IFPI press release, 24 January 2008. 2. The Digital Ramble: A Tour of Art and Space, Rosecrans Baldwin, The Moment, blogs.nytimes.com, 15 April 2008. 3. David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars, Wired, 18 December 2007.]

21 April 2008

Personal and private

I can think of only one reason for this recent surge of personal interaction/communication between youths – both online and on mobilephones. The reason is the personal and private nature of the interaction/communication that today’s technology allows.

When my generation was growing up during the seventies and eighties, the address for any communication – letters, postcards, telegrams (remember those?) – was the home address. It was the only address we had – and it was shared with the whole family. When the postman delivered the mail, everyone in the family came to know what arrived, and for whom.

With telephones, it was the same story. There was only one telephone at home, and when calls came in, whoever was nearest to the phone picked it up and then passed it on to whoever the recipient of the call was. There was no privacy. The home address and telephone number were ‘public’ as far as the family was concerned.

In fact, our parents warned us about giving away the home address and/or telephone number to strangers. So, we were both cautious and reticent in offering it to others. When it came to socialising with friends, particularly with friends of the opposite sex, we preferred to meet them face-to-face, and would find opportunities to do so. For, that was the only way we could have personal and private interactions.

Today, emails and mobilephones have changed all that. We have our own personal and private email addresses and mobilephones through which we interact/communicate with our friends… in a very personal and private manner. And, we certainly don’t need our parents’ permission to share these addresses and numbers with others. Wherever we go, our email addresses and mobilephones travel with us.

If our email addresses and mobilephone numbers were ‘public’ in the sense that our home address and telephone number were ‘public’ thirty or forty years ago, how would we behave today? Would we interact/communicate/socialise as frequently, as heavily or as randomly as the youths do today using the new technology? I think not.

19 April 2008

Mobilephone relationships

The new relationships that we – or, at least, the youth today – are establishing using the latest mobile, telecom and Internet technologies are quite fascinating. My personal knowledge in this field is limited, but I’ve learnt a lot about the impact of technology and social media on today’s youth from reading published papers of Danah Boyd. Although most of her work concerns the American youth, Ms Boyd recently posted a story on her blog on how teen Palestinian girls are maintaining clandestine relationships with their boyfriends through mobilephones.

Ms Boyd’s post is based upon a published paper on this very subject, Playing With Fire (October 2007), by two scholars, Hiyam Hijazi-Omari and Rivka Ribak, from the University of Haifa, Israel. She states that the authors of the paper “examine how the mobile phone alters social dynamics, relationships, and the construction of gender in Palestine. In short, they document how culturally specific gendered practices (not technological features) frame the meaning and value of technology.”

The following quote from her blog tells the story in a nutshell:

“Palestinian boys give their girlfriends phones for the express purpose of being able to communicate with them in a semi-private manner without the physical proximity that would be frowned on. At the same time, girls know that parents do not approve of them having access to such private encounters with boys – they go to great lengths to hide their mobiles and suffer consequences when they are found out. While the boys offered these phones as a tool of freedom, they often came with a price. Girls were expected to only communicate with the boy and never use the phone for any other purpose… These girls develop fascinating practices around using the phone, hiding from people, and acquiring calling cards.”

You can read Danah Boyd’s blog post here. And, if you can spare the time, read the entire published paper, Playing With Fire (PDF version), by Hiyam Hijazi-Omari and Rivka Ribak, from the link provided on Ms Boyd’s blog.

[Citation: Palestinian girls, dating and the mobile phone, Danah Boyd, 14 April 2008.]

18 April 2008

Changing the way we live our lives

Most of my friends have given their children – particularly adolescents and teens – mobilephones to stay connected. For emergencies. The logic behind this gesture is simple: should the child be in difficulty, he or she would be able to contact the parent quickly and easily. Of course, the mobilephone is used more often for casual talk than emergencies. And thank God for that. The fewer emergencies in our lives, the better.

However, the parent is aware that the child is using his/her mobilephone for purposes other than calling the parent. For instance, contacting friends, playing games, listening to music, taking photos/videos (and exchanging them with friends). When it comes to specific use of airwaves for calls, sms-es, downloads, and other paid services, the parent normally puts a cap on the child’s usage amount, limiting his/her usage on a monthly basis. Even then, the child finds ways of bypassing such restrictions – typically, resorting to using landlines and the Internet for communication.

What I find fascinating about this behaviour are three things: (a) the inventiveness of the children, (b) the convergence of technologies to offer better connectivity, and therefore (c) the social implications of the use of (in this case, mobile) technology in our lives. Not only is the technology – its features and advantages per se – important to us. What is also important is the influence it has in the way we communicate, build and maintain relationships. In other words, how the technology is actually changing the way we live our lives.

No longer is this technology only a business tool; it is now embedded in our culture.

15 April 2008

Our nomadic future

Here are some excerpts from another recent article from The Economist, Our nomadic future, which make insightful reading on what may be the future of our digital lives:

“Ancient nomads went from place to place — and they had to take a lot of stuff with them (including their livelihoods and families). The emerging class of digital nomads also wander, but they take virtually nothing with them; wherever they go, they can easily reach people and information.”

“Will it be a better life? In some ways, yes. Digital nomadism will liberate ever more knowledge workers from the cubicle prisons of Dilbert cartoons. But the old tyranny of place could become a new tyranny of time, as nomads who are ‘always on’ all too often end up — mentally — anywhere but here (wherever here may be). As for friends and family, permanent mobile connectivity could have the same effect as nomadism: it might bring you much closer to family and friends, but it may make it harder to bring in outsiders. It might isolate cliques. Sociologists fret about constant e-mailers and texters losing the everyday connections to casual acquaintances or strangers who may be sitting next to them in the café or on the bus.”

“As for politics, the tools of nomadism — such as mobile phones that double as cameras — can improve the world. For instance, they turn practically everybody into a potential human-rights activist, ready to take pictures or video of police brutality. But the same tools have a dark side, turning everybody into a fully equipped paparazzo. Some fitness clubs have started banning mobile phones near the treadmills and showers lest patrons find themselves pictured, flabby and sweaty, on some website that future Google searches will happily turn up. As in the desert, so in the city: nomadism promises the heaven of new freedom, but it also threatens the hell of constant surveillance by the tribe.”

[Citation: Our nomadic future, The Economist, 10 April 2008.]

12 April 2008

Family ties

Our recent achievements in technology and the growth in social media have influenced our behaviour, redfining the way we gather information, communicate and interact with each other, and do business. Although this phenomenon has affected a portion of our population, it has attracted criticism from many quarters.

I’m not surprised. After all, since the Industrial Revolution, people have cried foul of the negative effects of our technological achievements. One topic of concern has been the weakening of ties between family and friends, claiming that ‘the new technology culture’ has actually isolated people when it should have connected them.

Family Ties, an article in the latest issue of The Economist discusses this very issue and presents several points of view. Here are some excerpts:

In the 1990s, as the internet came into widespread use, sociologists, never an upbeat bunch to begin with, became decidedly pessimistic. Some observed a “loss of social capital” as people spent their time transfixed by screens rather than other people. Others saw the (real-world, as opposed to online) social networks of Americans shrinking, with ever more people feeling that they were intimate with nobody at all. Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon University argued that the internet causes social isolation and depression. Norman Nie at Stanford University believed that “internet use at home has a strong negative impact on time spent with friends and family as well as time spent on social activities.”

But most of these observations, made in a rich country at the height of the PC era, focused on the wired and stationary kind of communications technology rather than the wireless and mobile sort. Now, as mobile communications are becoming the norm, a new generation of sociologists is scrambling to update all these theories. So far, most of them agree that nomadic technology, far from isolating people, brings them closer to their families, friends and lovers — their strong ties. But they still disagree on what that means for weak ties with strangers, and thus society at large.

Nomadic technology deepens family ties because, as another sociologist, Christian Licoppe, puts it, it enables “connected presence”, which is new in history. In the era of stationary communications technology, people used landline phones that belonged to a place rather than a person. In that communication culture people talked infrequently and viewed a conversation as an occasion. Typically, they would plan the call for an appropriate time, such as a Sunday. Both sides would introduce themselves with a greeting — i.e., a ritual — and then take time to catch up.

With mobile phones, on the other hand, people call, text or e-mail one another constantly throughout the day. Since they are always, in effect, contacting a person rather than a place, and since the receiver can see the caller’s name, and probably his picture, they often dispense with greetings altogether. The exchanges now tend to be frequent and short. People expect less content but instead a feeling of permanent connection, as though they were in fact together during the entire time between their physical meetings.

The article, Family Ties, also presents an interesting example of the use of mobile technology in Japan and how the Japanese have embraced it behaviorally and culturally:

Mobile technology also tethers couples, especially young ones, but in a different way. Mimi Ito, an anthropologist who studies the effects of mobile technology on youth culture in Japan and America, has found that Japanese lovers send constant text messages to avoid parental rules and to stay connected emotionally when they are physically separated. Every nomadic culture has its idiosyncrasies, and the Japanese speciality is a rich vocabulary of “emoticons”: “I really want to see you (>_<)”; “I feel like I am going to be sick (;_;)”.

This steady stream of emoticons and photos in between physical “flesh meets” amounts to “tele-nesting”, says Ms Ito. It also spices up and prolongs the flesh meets. Young people in Tokyo, she has observed, will start their date by exchanging text messages all afternoon as they do homework or take the train to the rendezvous. At night, on their journey home after the actual date, they use messages again as “fading embers of conversation”, sometimes continuing for days and turning little memories into the couple’s “lore”.

Often entire cliques do this sort of thing, creating, in effect, their own tribal medium and narrative. Ms Ito has noticed a new genre of photography on the rise as young people use their phones to snap photos of everyday situations — the view from the escalator on the way to school, say — which mean a lot to their friends and nothing to anybody else. They especially love photos that capture “dumb things that their friends do”, such as getting drunk and falling into puddles, which collectively amount to “everyday, casual documentaries” for a circle of friends.

[Citation: Family Ties, The Economist print edition, 10 April 2008.]

11 April 2008

Social networking was what our parents did

The detractors of online social networking are many. Their point of view being, since (a) genuine friendships require face-to-face contact, and (b) it’s easy to be deceptive on the Internet, building genuine online friendships are hard to achieve.

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s an excerpt from an article by James Randerson which appeared in The Guardian’s online edition not too long ago:

“Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace do not help you make more genuine close friends, according to a survey by researchers who studied how the websites are changing the nature of friendship networks.

Although social networking on the internet helps people to collect hundreds or even thousands of acquaintances, the researchers believe that face to face contact is nearly always necessary to form truly close friendships.”

The article quotes Dr Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University as saying: “People see face to face contact as being absolutely imperative in forming close relationships.”

If you ask me, the last sentence is a real no-brainer. If close friendships can be defined by, say, the relationships that exist between husbands and wives, or parents and children, it goes to prove that physical proximity and face-to-face interaction are two vital factors in human bonding and building relationships.

In the virtual world of the Internet, such human interaction and bonding do not occur. What occurs online is a sharing of likes, dislikes, feelings and ideas – a presentation of profiles and personalities – in order to find a common ground for a friendship. A distant meeting of minds, so to speak.

A rough equivalent of today’s online friendships would be the concept of pen-friends we used to have when we were children 30-odd years ago. With our pen-friends, we exchanged letters, greeting cards, photographs, gifts… all by snail mail… without meeting each other face-to-face.

Snail mail is not the only difference between then and now. In those days, (a) we would have just one or two pen-friends, not hundreds or thousands as is the practice with online friendships today, and (b) pen-friendship was considered a hobby or recreation, mainly for children (although my father had a Hungarian pen-friend for a while), practised in order to learn about different people and their cultures.

Pen-friendship was not looked upon as social networking then. Social networking was what our parents did: mixing and mingling and communicating and sharing with relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues at work and business associates. Albeit, the numbers were small: their network would comprise of 50-60 persons, if they didn’t count the obligatory relatives, with a dozen or so close friends with whom they enjoyed genuine relationships.

Today, the Internet allows a much greater reach... and almost-instant connectivity. So, perhaps, the younger generation has become a lot more social... building their network of friends enthusiastically.

[Citation: Social networking sites don’t deepen friendships, by James Randerson, science correspondent, guardian.co.uk, 10 September 2007.]

07 April 2008

Virtual friendships

A couple of days ago, over email, a software engineer ‘friend’ I had ‘met’ on a social network mentioned that he has included me in a special list he keeps of ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ people. I was delighted and honoured, and emailed him to tell him so.

We’ve been exchanging thoughts, ideas and opinions on literary fiction, films and life in general for over a year now, over emails and chats, and now our ‘friendship’ had reached a certain level of recognition and respect for each other. Since we live in different cities in India, we have not met yet. You see, from day one, our ‘friendship’ has been virtual, made possible by the Internet.

I share similar ‘friendships’ with others I’ve ‘met’ online: a history Ph D student in Australia, a corporate lawyer in Brazil, an HR management consultant, a market researcher, an electrical engineer from India… to name a few. Apart from the HR management consultant whom I met on a blind date in Bangalore last year, and have been in touch ever since, these online ‘friendships’ have remained virtual.

Today, there are many people like me who have embraced the Internet and the revolution it has brought in... in connecting people; in helping people make virtual ‘friends’ through online social and professional networks. Some ‘friendships’ have moved further to phone conversations and face-to-face meetings. A few friendships have even become close. Within my larger circle of friends, I know of two marriages which had begun with introductions on the Internet.

As you can guess, I’m an advocate of online social networks and virtual friendships. I believe online social networks connect people. Or, at least, help connect people. The rest is left to specific individual ‘friendships’... to develop or be destroyed… just as things are with relationships in the real world.

01 April 2008

Secret world

My nephew sms-ed me the URL of his new website yesterday. His website had a wonderful introduction by a friend of his, a girl in her late teens, who provided her full name, email ID, and links to her Blogger and Flickr accounts below the introduction. Her blogs featured her photo and some intimate thoughts.

This made me wonder about the ease, and courage, with which youngsters shared their private information on the Internet (see my previous post). Oblivious of stalkers and Internet-related crimes that we read about almost everyday (perhaps less so in India), youngsters today feel free about making their private information public. Some even display risqué photos of theirs on social networking sites.

It’s universally accepted that young people – particularly women – are prime targets of crime. Numbers vary from country to country, and although in most cases young women do not report the crime, giving away too much personal information online exposes these young women and makes them vulnerable to stalking… and harm. So, what makes them divulge personal information publicly?

It seems to be peer pressure, as I found out after talking to several of them. Most teenagers believe that since everyone is doing it (a) they should too, and (b) it is safe to do so. After all, it’s only their friends who are looking at their photos and reading their stuff. So confident are they in what they are doing that there are competitions among them to make their profiles more and more ‘colourful’ to attract friends.

So engrossed are they in their online preoccupation that these youngsters are oblivious to the fact that the friends they attract online may also include stalkers and sexual predators. To them, these crimes don’t happen often enough – so it’s a risk worth taking. Fearlessly, they pursue their online lives, hiding away in a secret world their low-tech parents and teachers are afraid to enter.