Will Mobility Revolutionize Social Networking?

By Jason Ankeny Just because you are not on MySpace does not mean you are not part of a social network. While the concept and nomenclature behind social networking is relatively new, the core behaviors are anything but: By definition, anyone communicating with the world around them is an active participant in the social networking phenomenon. As Nancy Broden, interaction design director with user interface design and development firm Punchcut, says, “All we’re doing is talking about what people did naturally and putting a name to it.” So in one sense, social networking is the very essence of mobile communications—always has been, always will be. But at the same time, the emergence of messaging, multiplayer gaming and video sharing has infinitely expanded the parameters of what mobile communications constitutes. In addition, the popularity of online social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook has created an entirely new venue for personal expression, enabling users to upload blog entries and photos while connecting with like-minded individuals from across the globe. MySpace dominates According to a recent study issued by market research firm Telephia, MySpace is the most popular mobile social networking site among U.S. consumers: 32 percent of respondents who upload content captured via mobile phone do through MySpace accounts, with rival Facebook capturing 13 percent of users and Windows Live Spaces following with 11 percent of the market. Not surprisingly, Telephia says mobile social networkers are significantly younger than the average mobile user population: For example, 69 percent of respondents between the ages of 15 and 17 share photos, videos and personal details on MySpace. But the user experience on MySpace Mobile is far different from its web counterpart. “There are a number of technological limitations on mobile. For example, unless you have a [T-Mobile] Sidekick, you’re less likely to spend time browsing and reading social networking sites,” Broden says. “People do the online portion of their social networking in the morning or in the evening—mobile is for the in-between moments. The mobile device is about immediacy, but it’s much harder if you encounter a barrier. MMS is a good example of that—those technologies are still quite difficult. We have to remove those user interface barriers.” The scope of the mobile platform is also far more intimate. Consumers are interfacing with a much smaller group of contacts, comprised almost solely of family and friends. “We believe that mobile is moving beyond communication and becoming more about community—it’s about relationships,” says Ken Olewiler, Punchcut founding partner and user experience director. “Community is not a destination, but a mindset. The way someone communicates with other individuals indicates the nature of their relationship with that person. When you consider social networking in the Web environment, your list of friends is larger, but your communication with them is much less frequent. Mobile is a much more personal environment.” Adding presence & availability The biggest advantage of mobile social networking is…well, mobility. “From a handset perspective, we can extend the social networking context beyond ‘Who am I?’ to ‘Where am I?’” Olewiler says. “The handset can provide and extend the social networking experience into a dimension that’s more relevant when you’re on the go.” Adds Broden, “Location-based services are becoming much more popular—services like [social networking and microblogging platform] Twitter have even answered the question of presence and availability, and added the dimension of ‘What am I doing right now?’” But the same challenges face both online and mobile social networking: Neither one is generating much revenue, at least not yet. “Most social networking sites are not monetized—MySpace is still free,” Broden says. “On the mobile platform, people are at least charged for airtime and messaging. But some sites are making money through advertising, which seems like the logical step. But advertising and marketing must be done in a creative way, especially in a mobile context, where we have that much more information about consumers.” UI obstacles Perhaps the biggest obstacle hindering the growth of mobile social networking is the same user interface issue that hampers so much of the mobile data ecosystem. “Social networking is most successful when the user interface is the same at different points in your experience,” Olewiler says. “The industry needs to work more collaboratively to create a more unified experience, because that’s the way people live.”