Archive for the ‘mobile’ Category

Look at your phone. Go on, look at it. What is it?

It’s a clock. It’s a text-messaging glass slab. It’s a dynamically updating map/tracking device. It’s a ticket. It’s a late-night magazine. It’s an alarm clock. It’s a camera, photo album and publishing platform. It’s a gaming device, newsfeed(s), and a tether keeping work with you 24 hours a day.

Your laptop: it’s forty tabs open at once, word processing documents, music libraries (if you’re old), an EVEN BETTER gaming device, a TV and movie-watching platform, an audio editing suite, and, uh, other forms of entertainment.

You use these devices for dozens of different purposes, out of convenience and functional capacities. What I want you to think about is who you are in each of those purposes, and for whom you are in those purposes.

One of the most intriguing findings from my dissertation research (read it! become a member of a tiny club!) lo these four years ago was the degree to which students segregated audiences by medium. As I put it, they “use different communications technologies in their interactions with social, familial and academic audiences, in part as a manner of combatting the context collapse taking place on social network sites and mediated communications generally.” More directly: they talked to their friends via text message and Facebook message, called their parents on the phone, and only and ever talked to their professors in person and via email. That was, as they say, interesting, and something worthy of further study.

Well: I didn’t. But while the particular practices have shifted in the intervening time, these behaviors are no less intriguing or worthy of study and contemplation.

Cross-medium behavioral research is rare for a number of reasons. It’s expensive, difficult, time-consuming, methodologically fraught, ethically fraught. But I think the main limiting factor is that in any given moment, the incentives for any organization or individual performing research is to answer their central questions, as quickly/cheaply as possible. For an advertising firm: how did a given campaign deliver on KPIs as promised to the client? For an academic researcher: how does X behavior impact on my hopefully-tenure-securing line of research? For a membership organization: what were the A/B test results on a fundraising solicitation?

And to be crystal clear, this is NOT a problem solved by “Big Data.” Few but the most world-spanning organizations have the capacity to iteratively formulate hypotheses, expand data collection across boundaries, and act on findings. And the evidence suggests that even those world-spanning organizations don’t really know what to do with their endless reams of data. But, really, that’s neither here nor there: if you aren’t inside one of the world’s larger walled gardens of behavioral data, you’re still left with the same question. Namely: just who are your users, and who (and when, and how) are you to your users?

One of the foremost issues is attention. There are two ways of looking at attention: as something to maintain, and as something to be acquired. From your perspective, dear reader, you of course want to maintain sustained attention – on relationships, on work, on engaging culture. An advertiser, on the other hand, wants to capture your attention. Chartbeat – which makes a fantastic suite of products for publishers, that I’ve used and enjoyed – is part of a tech vanguard that recognizes this. As they put it:

Online publishers know clicks don’t always reflect content quality.

But research shows more time spent paying attention to content does.

Advertisers know click-through rates don’t matter for display or paid content.

Research shows 2 things matter for getting a brand’s message across: the ad creative and the amount of time someone spends with it.

The Attention Web is about optimizing for your audience’s true attention.

From their perspective, attention equals quality, and a shift to focusing on quantifying attention means better quality content (oh and also more clients). It’s a compelling thesis – but then, it is your attention that they’re selling, to advertisers. Others are more interested in selling your attention to, well, you:

As our computing devices have become smaller, faster, and more pervasive, they have also become more distracting. The numbers are compelling: Americans spend 11 hours per day on digital devices, workers are digitally interrupted every 10.5 minutes, with interruptions costing the U.S. economy an estimated $650 Billion per year. That’s a lot of distraction.

Device makers have largely turned a blind eye to this issue, building distractions in to the very devices we need for work. We address this challenge with tools that simply and effectively reduce digital distractions. Our software interrupts the habitual cycle of distraction associated with social media, streaming sites, and games.

Attention is basically an adversarial dynamic: your devices and the advertiser-supported content therein yelling at you while you struggle to maintain concentration. Many or most of us are in this stage of managing our relationships with digital communicative prostheses – a struggle. It’s not a struggle without benefits, but nor is it one without costs – study after study shows the costs to both productivity and personal health and well-being of a consistently-interrupted existence.

A central part of this struggle is creating a hierarchy – either explicit or implicit – of attention. When do you respond to a text message? It depends when you receive it, and from whom. Do you return an email? Again: who sent it, work or personal, when did it get received? And then: what do you read, or listen to? That also depends – how did you get there? A link from a friend, an immediately-forgotten source on your social media timeline, through a series of unreproducible clicks? The depth, length, and quality of the attention devoted depends on all these factors and more – but I believe it’s impossible to understand the meaning of a given interaction without looking at how these hierarchies are created.


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Following on news from the Guardian that Facebook saw a nearly 2% decline in active UK users over the holidays, I thought I’d briefly cover some of the implications of this news, from my perspective.

  • Obviously this has been coming for quite a while in core markets. As the Guardian notes, in the UK Facebook has 53% market penetration, second only to the US at 54%; in terms of gross users, the US has 169M, Brazil 65M, India 63M. Clearly the play is hoping on further expansion in the latter two markets – but that proposition is tenuous, both because the of the fast-growing but still-smaller middle classes there, and because,
  • Facebook still doesn’t get mobile. Its apps are still only-OK in terms of usability, and as witnessed by the Instagram terms-of-service clusterfcuk – which resulted in more than 50% decline in users – Facebook has a fairly poor understanding of the mobile user. Which is especially unfortunate for its future expansion in emerging markets – e.g., Brazil, India – as connectivity there is primarily through mobile devices, and not desktops.
  • Facebook as public company has always been a questionable proposition, as its whole model of ad-rate-growth-driven-by-traffic-growth-driven-by-user-growth is inherently untenable given that… at a certain point you run out of users. Also, the fact that every social network site so far has seen long-term time-on-site decline from its core users. Basically: if you’ve been shorting $FB, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good right now.
  • Facebook as social utility isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Too many people, content providers, websites, and the general infrastructure of the Web have too much locked in for that to happen. But there are various ways that it can evolve from here. I’m still convinced that long-term there will be a competitive market for identity hosting, and that Facebook’s best move is to get in front of that in both setting open standards and providing a premium service; but we shall see.


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Cell Phones and Polling

As Nate Silver reported the other week:

Pew Research issued a study suggesting that the failure to include cellphones in a survey sample — and most pollsters don’t include them — may bias the results against Democrats. Pew has addressed this subject a number of times before, and in their view, the problem seems to be worsening. Indeed, this is about what you might expect, since the fraction of voters who rely on cellphones is steadily increasing: about 25 percent of the adult population now has no landline phone installed at all.

Clearly, this is a major problem in survey research — and one that, sooner or later, every polling firm is going to have to wrestle with. What isn’t as clear is how much of a problem it is right now.

He goes on to cover several of the key issues that are specific to this case and time. but I’ll focus for a minute on the larger-scale issues. I’ve talked about some of these ideas before, and indeed we were talking about cell-phone undercounting on the Dean campaign in 2003 and Kerry in 2004 (not, as it turned out, the biggest problem in either of those cases). But as Nate says: this is a major problem that sooner or later everyone is going to have to deal with, it’s just a question of when.

Will that be this year? Hopes of Democrats aside, probably not – or at least, not provably, given the substantial problems in constructing likely voter screens this cycle. But when the dust settles and post-election analyses are done, all the pollsters are going to have to take a good, long look at their numbers and at results, and through the lens of Pew’s results, begin to (or further) adjust their approaches. Because by 2012, an even larger share of the voting-age population will be living in cell-phone-only households, due both to continued abandonment of landlines by older demographics and the maturation of millions more who’ve never had a landline (and mostly never will).

This isn’t an impossible problem, but it’s also not solvable with a silver bullet. Polling, like any sort of research, is going to need to become more multi-modal, faster-thinking and -responding, in order to reflect anything like a generalizable sample of the population. This means working harder, thinking more and understanding better the ways in which all different sorts of people use different kinds of communications technologies.

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What’s to Come in Mobile

Planet Money reports:

Phones running Google’s Android operating system outsold the iPhone in the first quarter of this year. What’s more, BlackBerry phones outsold both iPhones and phones running Android.

BlackBerry phones, which run an operating system from Research In Motion, had 36 percent market share, according to NPD group, a research company. Android phones (including the widely advertised Droid) had a 28 percent share. And iPhones, which run Apple’s own operating system, had a 21 percent share.

It was the first time Android phones outsold iPhones.

…and iPhones will never again outsell Android phones, until and unless Google renames Android. Here’s why.

The iPhone is a great tool, and as Charles Stross has been pointing out for a while, Apple is making a big bet that their future is not as a hardware company with ancillary software but as a platform company with ancillary hardware.  Because Apple is Apple, they want to control this platform totally, so this means they make the hardware that runs the platform, and they control the price-point. This works up to a point, but simple economics on both ends (theirs and consumers’) dictates that there’s necessarily a ceiling for both the number of iPhones they can make and the number of people who might buy iPhones. Apple survives by making those numbers as similar as possible, but it’s never going to be approaching 100% – or 50, even. Twenty percent market share is pretty substantial, but I wouldn’t anticipate Apple’s share of any market getting bigger than that.

Research in Motion’s continued dominance of the smartphone market is pretty impressive, and they’ve wisely kept their sights firmly focused on doing one thing and doing it well: making a business- and email-centric device that just plain works, and that its users stick with through multiple generations and structure their digital lives around.  The Blackberry appears to have staying power, but with a substantial caveat: it’s a perfect device for email (and texting) but not for Web2.0 and the social web.  That’s fine – there will always be a business and power-user market – but it’s tough to see RIM’s market share increasing much beyond where it is now (I’d expect it to shrink and stay put at a lower level), because as my research shows, young people don’t really have email as the central communications method of their digital lives.  Phones are central, texting especially so, and the social web after that. Email is for professors and the professional world, so for those that head that direction, Blackberries are in their future.

But Android really is the future of the mobile environment, over the next several years.  Like the Apple ecosystem, it’s an app-heavy and social-web-facilitating environment, but unlike Apple and RIM, Google is happy to let anyone (on any mobile network) make phones that run its OS – and thus experience the mobile web how Google would like you to do so. Which is, for the moment at least, preferable: no censorship in its app store, and a wide (and widening) range of hardware choices on your preferred mobile carrier.  Anything that fights against the Web turning into a set of walled gardens, I can heartily endorse. Android will also push prices down for all smartphones and for access to the mobile web by offering experiences comparable to the iPhone and Blackberry without the single-system lock-in, and that’s (clearly) preferable, too.  While the jury is still out on Google’s entrance into the hardware world, it’s not as important as their introduction and support of an open and high-quality platform for the Web to move to mobiles without intermediation and without sacrificing its values and variety.

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