Forging connections with others is at the core of what makes us human. When e-mail largely replaced letter writing, our connections became more immediate, informal, and abbreviated. Texting has made it even more so. One recent study showed that a third of U.S. teenagers send more than 100 text messages per day. In parts of the world where feature phones predominate, texting is the de facto e-mail and a low-cost substitute for voice communications. It can even be used to shop.
Social networking may represent an even more significant change, compacting our missives into blurbs that are sometimes directed to everyone and no one at the same time. Consider that the world’s major social networks (Facebook and MySpace based in the United States; Orkut in Brazil; CyWorld in Korea; Bebo in the UK, Mixi in Japan; Tencent in China; and others) collectively have nearly two billion users—nearly a third of the world’s population.
Mobile makes social networking even more compelling, as it enables us to share what we see and do in our daily lives in real time. Twitter’s meteoric rise has been inextricably linked to users’ ability to “tweet” from mobile devices, and it imposes an especially draconian compression of social expression, with posts limited to 140 characters. Meanwhile, the world’s largest social platform, Facebook, has introduced a “one-click” form of expression: the thumbs-up icon, otherwise known as the “Like” button. Yes, it’s compelling on the Web, but it’s more powerful still on the small screens of mobile devices. What better way for a brand to find a willing consumer than by linking back to someone who “likes” you? Companies are already creating new products and marketing them in a way that maximizes the value of their “likes” in social media.
The ability to record memory has played a crucial role in human existence since the dawn of our species. Long before the invention of the written word, humans used cave paintings and pictographs to store information that would benefit future generations. Writing—first on stone, then on papyrus, and, after Gutenberg, in print—became the ultimate storage medium. Now most of us can no longer remember our friends’ phone numbers, let alone any sequence more complex than 911.
Our mobiles remember more than just numbers for us. We’re outsourcing memory to our devices. Google Maps will “bookmark” places we’ve visited or intend to visit, remembering not only locations but also their context—like work, shopping, or friends’ houses. Combined with cloud-based storage on remote servers, mobility places in our pockets an infinite reach and infinite capacity for remembering. Some large corporations are stepping into radical new territory by relying on cloud-based servers to store all of their mobile applications and databases.
The outsourcing of memory also extends to the images we see, as we use camera phones to capture special moments and even to record our daily lives. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 76 percent of Americans now take pictures with camera phones, up from 67 percent a year ago. About a third of Americans record video from their mobiles, up from less than 20 percent a year ago. Users are uploading video to YouTube at an average rate of 35 hours of footage a minute.
One pundit has called our era “The End of Forgetting.” We’re perhaps more accurately living through an era when we’re exploring radically new ways of remembering. While we offload details (meaningful and mundane) to our mobile devices, we may also be freeing up our brains for new kinds of information, such as complex social linkages and social sharing. If so, psychologists and sociologists as well as leaders and managers will be dealing with these ramifications for years to come.
As empowered consumers, we like to think we make all the choices. As business people, we in theory are paid to make intelligent decisions. But the reality is that mobile computing provides countless ways for smart devices to decide for us. True, some automated decision making is a byproduct of our own initiatives. Yapta, an iPhone app that tracks airline flight availability and pricing, gives frequent travelers a means to buy airline seats only when their decision criteria are met.
But smart phones can also make their own decisions, without our having to think about them at all. Start with the basics: Give a phone appropriate authorizations and it will “decide” what service to use when connecting with local WiFi networks. Use Foursquare or Venmo to check in at various real-world venues and your mobile will “decide” what local retail offers you get. Because privacy considerations are increasingly mandating opt-in services, the future is likely to bring us a hybrid of conscious and unconscious decision automation.
An instructive example is Pandora’s iPhone app. It pleasingly streams the music it decides a given user will like based on information the person gives when opting into the service. Users continue “educating” it about their preferences—by clicking on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button as Pandora serves up selections across dozens of genres from its seemingly infinite play lists. Yes, the user picked the genre; yes, the user expressed the preferences. But now, the question becomes: can Pandora’s decision engine remain pure of any commercial considerations?
For marketers seeking the holy grail of brand “lock in”—especially brand loyalty sustained over time—a smart mobile phone could become the key, the gatekeeper, and even the purchasing agent for the consumer.