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Ambient Virtual Co-Presence through Mobile Devices in Japan

As if there hadn't been enough conferences over the last few weeks: I'm spending this weekend (mostly) at the Australian Teachers of Media conference here at QUT in Brisbane, which was organised by my colleague Michael Dezuanni. I'm also going to be a featured speaker on Sunday afternoon, talking about how to educate the coming 'Generation C' of produsers.

However, the conference starts with Mizuko Ito from the University of Southern California, speaking about the social life of mobile media. Japan is of course one of the key drivers of (3G) mobile media uptake at this point, especially within the younger generation. Mimi has mainly focussed on the use of digital technology amongst young people outside of school or work - i.e. in what are traditionally seen as non-educational contexts. Here, it is important to understand young people's uses of new technologies on their own terms - to regard them as digial natives and study their uses as such. Further, it is important to understand the social construction of such technologies. What emerges here are kid-driven peer-to-peer knowledge economies, from which adults have much to learn. Compared to traditional anthropology, Mimi's work also looks at a hybrid of the real (the physically local) and the virtual (the online and the remote); this can capture everyday action and local knowledge in personalised, non-institutionalised, and fluid settings.

Mobile use in Japan is distinct from PC-based use by its more personal or even intimate nature. Rather than being shared across the family (like TVs), mobiles are truly personal and act as portals to an individual information and community space - it is considered inappropriate to look at someone else's mobile phone screen uninvited, for example. Mobile phones are one of the only unsurveilled private spaces for young people, importantly. Additionally, of course, mobiles are portable, and this is important especially also in the home - it provides always-on connectivity with their peer network. Indeed, older generations describe the youngsters as 'the tribe that does things while doing other things'. Text messaging especially accommodates communication as a layer which can exist effectively even while a person ostensibly does other things at the same time.

Against this, Japan's wired broadband uptake has been relatively slow. Instead, text messaging (initially through pagers) is now very well established, and very stable social practices are in place around it. Especiallty in the late nineties, this moved on to mobile phones: as prices dropped consideraly: keitai or mobile phones became iconic with the young, footloose street culures which also arose arund that time - and consequently were also framed in some discussions as a social threat and a sign of the impending deevolution of humanity. This view assumes that youth cultures are ineffective, immature users of new technologies, of course - but against ths Mimi posits a view that young people are the fluent natives of the digital world; youth practices are not incomplete or immature but fully competent.

Mobile phones are seen as disrupting existing public places or an escape from the 'real' into a disjunctive space of the 'virtual' - but on the other hand they are also about the integration of the 'virtual' as a pervasive presence in everyday practice and place. They combine remote and networked relations as a persistent precence; they seamlessly integrate with the mundane and pedestrian; they present simultaneously the here and the elsewhere; and they turn place and settng into a 'real'/'virtual' hybrid. Keitai uses are technosocial practices, merging remote or mediated relations and physically co-present relations. This is ambient virtual co-presence. Youths in Mimi's studies keep an open channel with 2-5 intimate friends almost all the time - they are always on, never alone (and arouse suspicion when they do switch off their phones). This is not necessarily about contentful communicational acts, but more about maintaining virtual co-presence throughout the day. (Camera phones further add to the possibilities here, of course.) The underside to this story is also that there aren't very many excuses for not replying to such continuing conversation, however. With email the white lie of not having seen the email until a certain time can always be made; with mobile phones' instant communication possibilities this is far more difficult.

Recently, PuriKura sticker pictures have become a key aspect of girls' culture. These are created in multi-person photobooths and allow for a great deal of photo-modding before the set of photo stickers is finally printed. Individual photos are often carried within the mobile phone case or attached to the mobile phone itself. The viewing and exchange of PuriKura photos is also an important social activity - almost similar to the collecting of baseball cards, but far more personalised, of course. Compared to photoblogs, PuriKura photos are far more personal and intimate, and are not shared anywhere as widely as photos uploaded to photoblogs. Together, though, they set up social standards for how personal visual information should be shared.

On to boys' culture, now: Mimi now discusses the post-Pokemon media mix - the variety of media forms related to such phenomena now span film and TV, trading cards, comics, computer games, and various other media forms. One of the key follow-up formats are the Spell of Mask playing cards, sold in small packs for relatively small prices at checkouts. They create an active community of engagement amongst players and collectors, following a complex and locally differing set of rules. Media consumers and players thus build a customised relationship to the content; players remix these media by creating a personal deck of cars, collecting and trading, and identifying with particular players.

Overall, then, such studies show the more pervasive presence of the imagination in the everyday lives of children, There is an explicit recognition of childhood entrepreneurism and connoisseurship. There are increasingly transnational arenas for children's cultural production, distribution, and exchange, and a growing centrality of visual media in ongoing social communicaton. New forms of media literacy that center on social exchange and peer-to-peer learning are emerging - and they need to be addressed by media educators.

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