Welcome i-Home: Personal Pages on Japan's Mobile Internet
By Jane Pinckard and Justin Hall, Mon May 05 10:00:00 GMT 2003

Historically new mobile technologies have been marketed to businesses, but i-mode homepages prove that people want to create and not just consume mobile culture.

The World Wide Web was hand-built by amateurs - pages and pages of personal reflections, family photos, weblogs, and restaurant recommendations. People are passionate to share their hobbies with friends and strangers, and despite the commercialization of the Internet, the core philosophy of freely sharing information remains a guiding principle of the development of web technologies.

The growth of personal content on the mobile Internet, on the other hand, has had obstacles to overcome. Particularly in Japan, mobile content has been defined by corporations like DoCoMo and their "walled gardens", webrings of carefully monitored official sites. Dating services and the like have had a tough time earning official status, in part because of the unsavory hints of mobile-enabled prostitution.

But as it turns out, most of DoCoMo's traffic these days doesn't come from within their walled garden, but from millions of unofficial sites maintained by individuals. And their concerns are social, not business. Historically new mobile technologies have been marketed to businesses, but i-mode homepages prove that people want to create and not just consume mobile culture.

Thumb Tribes

The "thumb tribe" of Tokyo teenagers have no problems reading content on their mobile phones. In fact it's not unusual to see a whole subway car of them checking their email and checking in with friends after school. They've been the poster children for the wireless revolution - a phenomenon now recognized as "keitai culture" in Japan ("keitai" being the Japanese term for the mobile phone). Each day hundreds of millions of messages are exchanged by these busy socializers. And many of them now have signatures which include a link to a home page.

"Most people live life by hiding their intentions," writes one i-mode user named "Dolphin Masanobu" on his i-mode page, "Dolphin Song". "But I take as my theme the variety of the mundane. To write about human emotions is to feel gratification." His latest essay is a long, evocative musing on empty symbols of happiness, sparked when he bought a blue lighter as a good luck charm. Another writer who calls himself "Nobu the Second Son" explained the possible origins of the western tradition of April Fool's Day, drawing references from the Bible and from the court of King Henry the Eighth. These pages are called "diaries", but they are clearly much more than "What I did at school today."

These keitai essayists are using tools such as IBM's Homepage Builder, or the even more easy-to-use hosting service, Mahouno i-Land (Magic Island). Magic Island provides free hosting for over 2.1 million individual pages, with 840 million hits in the last month. The website philosophy is published on the front page: "Anyone from small children to older people to people with disabilities can use this site comfortably and safely. We build a system to share beneficial information, make the world richer, and let each person contribute to society." The advertisement copy is the language of empowerment. And indeed the interface, which can be accessed from mobile phones and PCs alike, is extremely simple: log on, fill in the text boxes with your thoughts, upload a picture or two, and you too can own a little homestead on the mobile internet.

Professor Jeffrey Funk studies the business models of mobile services at Kobe University in Japan; he points out that there has been no money made from pure page hosting. "These sites are not official, so they can't use micropayments. Docomo wouldn't let them because there's porn and prostitution." But i-Mode home page sites have a place in the economy, as Funk reports: "Magic Island gets the red carpet treatment at DoCoMo though, because they generate so much traffic."

These companies have been using personal pages to push other services. The Magic Island site began advertising their ring-tone business throughout their hosting business and now they have over one million registered, paying ring tone users. Another site profiting off i-mode homepages is Girls Walker, a guide to hot spots and trends for young women. They have created an emailing service where users can subscribe and get latest home page entries sent to their mobile phones. Each of their content emails contains a link back to the original site, which advertises fashion accessories for sale.

Both these emailed entries and long posts like those of Dolphin Masanobu point out the distinction between i-mode home pages and weblogs popular in the west. Weblogs traditionally trade links at a great velocity - many sites seem comprised almost entirely of "have you seen this?" with a link to another web site. Mizuko Ito is a professor of anthropology who has studied modern keitai culture among teenagers for the last few years. She says: "It's hard to think of a blog working fully on a keitai." Since people often read during a subway commute, over a narrowband platform like a mobile phone, they can be guaranteed content from a long downloaded text home page, or a home page emailed to their phone. Much of what is written on these sites might seem trivial, personal matters, the "variety of the mundane", but there is an audience. These i-mode sites are like open letters to friends, or in the Japanese tradition, a shared diary.

The semi-public diary has a long history as a medium of communication in Japanese society, and they are still popular among school children. Often diaries would be circulated among groups of friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. Unlike many weblogs, which can be more informational and political, the diaries are inherently personal and reflective in tone. They suffer in comparison to weblogs if one is looking for signs of political protest, social activism, or alternative news sources. "If America had a recession for 10 years, and there was record unemployment for young people, there would be protests in the streets," Funk noted. "There have been mild demonstrations in Japan against the war, in spite of survey results showing widespread opposition. Young people are more apolitical here."

But the value of maintaining personal contacts in a potentially alienating environment may have quieter ways of revolutionizing society. There are a fair number of hobbyists, of course, collecting pictures of motorcycles or listing CD collections, but there are also people like "Ami". On her site, "The Light-Blue House", she confesses that she has been suffering from depression for many years. "I am longing to return to society!" she writes. "I am sure that there are others like me, suffering, worrying, wanting to talk to someone. Let's fight illness together. That's the kind of homepage I want to build."

One Japanese journalist we spoke with about diaries and personal content in Japan said, "Oh, those are just diaries." But for Ami, and people with similar depression, her keitai diary is a critical link to the world, and a sign that people are using personal i-mode pages for more than idle banter.

Jane Pinckard studies the social worlds built by technological tools, especially in that mysterious space between the east and west. She is personally involved in media culture through www.umamitsunami.com, and writes about video games for www.gamegirladvance.com.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site Links.net. He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.