Field Notes from Project Good Luck: CMS in China

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, CMS is experimenting with new ways of opening up our research to the public. This week, a team of CMS graduate students and faculty are traveling to three cities in China — Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen — to learn more about how people are incorporating mobile technologies and social networking technologies into their everyday lives. They have created a website through which they are sharing their observations and continuing their dialogue with the people they meet in China. They are conducting this trip in collaboration with GSD&M Advertising as part of the work we are doing for our Convergence Culture Consortium partners.

I thought I would share with my readers some of their initial observations based on their first few days of visiting in Shaghai. Here’s part of some field notes filed by CMS graduate student Geoffrey Long:

We walked across town down to a shopping district, where we entered into a massive department store. We walked through the men’s floor, up across the women’s floor, and then to the cell phone floor.

Yes, the cell phone floor.

Were I a millionaire, I would go back to the States, go into my local Sprint store, cackle at their meager offerings and then grab the guy at the counter by the ear like some 18th-century school marm. I would haul him out of the mall, onto the T, down to the airport and straight back here, still dragging him along by his ear, right back to this floor of this store, where I would finally let him go. I would dump him unceremoniously on the floor and yell, “See? SEE? THIS is how it should be done!”

In the States, any given cell phone store only carries a paltry few models of phones. This is because so much of the market back home is totally segmented – the carriers try and convince people to switch by only offering particular models. As a consumer, this bites because it absolutely shatters the amount of choices we have, especially when every time we buy a phone we’re basically committing ourselves to a new contract. Ugh. Here, though, you buy a phone and then you insert a SIM chip into it, which contains all of your user information. No matter which phone you buy, most of them will take any SIM chip. This means you can choose from any phone currently being manufactured, and allows for much, much greater choice – including opening up the market to a bunch of cell phone makers that you’ve never heard of. When you walk into this floor of the department store, you are faced with booths from the different manufacturers. Each one of these booths, from Nokia or Motorola or Sony-Ericsson or Anycall or a dozen others, offers more selection than any cell phone store back home. The phones aren’t cheap, but many of the offerings offer seriously tantalizing options.

I’ll admit I was a little disappointed by the lack of anything truly revolutionary – they didn’t have the Nokia videocam-phone that I’d been eyeballing for a while, but they did have several others offering similar functionality. Videoblogging services are going to explode when people can create their own little moblog entries from anywhere, recorded at DV-level quality and then uploaded wirelessly to the web, which their friends can then download from anywhere. Imagine an RSS feed on your phone where you’re sent a text message anytime a friend uploads a new videoblog entry from their phone, and with a click or two you can download that entry straight to your own phone to watch wherever. This is where mobile media is headed, and it seems like several manufacturers are leading the charge. Nokia is right out front – as they are with the design market as well. Motorola has a couple of contenders flitting about the ring as well, but Nokia’s L’Amour Collection is a set of leather-trimmed phones with laser-etched (I think) floral patterns right in the metal. On the store floor these models were being displayed on pedastals with items like a Victorian mirror, a mock Tiffany lamp, and a little Asian treasure box, and they fit right in. These phones may be designed for women, but I want one – it’s refreshing to see a phone design take a new direction than simply painting the sucker pink. As the RAZR proved for Motorola, the market is teeming with demand for great phone design – according to a BusinessWeek article, Motorola sold more RAZR phones last year than Apple sold iPods. Whether or not American cell dealers are being boneheaded and stingy or not, with markets like China opening up the worldwide mobile media landscape is going to become extremely interesting, extremely fast.

And here’s how Beth Coleman, the faculty member who is supervising the trip, describes her experience at that same phone store:

So we are at the counter and I am asked to select the phone number that will go with said phone. There are at least three categories of price ranging from 100 RMB to 300 RMB. I ask, “What’s the difference within the numbers offered,” assuming that access, long distance, something about mobile IT would figure in here. No. the difference is that some numbers, those containing more 8s and 6s, are more auspicious than other, particularly those containing 4s. No kidding. The variable on price of the phone number was determined by some ratio between appearance of lucky numbers and the memorability of the number itself. And it was common enough for people to pay a premium for this god luck charm that it was built into the regular service. I myself went for a modest amount of good luck, opting for the 120 RMB number with three 8s and two 6s over the bare bones luck.

Liwen, who had translated the transaction for me and noted my look of incredulity when it came to the price variance on lucky numbers, had this to say. “Yes, it is true. It’s very old this tradition and it comes from Cantonese where the pronunciation of 8 is “fah,” which means “a lot of moneys” and the sound of 4 means “die.” It is a bad number. Six sounds like successful. Who pays attention to this? Modern young women like herself? No, no really, but people with money do. Also, she let me know astrology is currently all the rage in Hong Kong with the under thirty set.

We hope you will want to follow along their further adventures over at the Project Good Luck website and in the process, learn more about the technological and economic transformations that are reshaping modern China.