By Tim Cole
While the digital world around us is changing at Internet speed, there are still those among us who are blissfully unaware of what’s going on. Certain regions even in the developed world still lag far behind.
Germans, for instance, are real digital slowpokes when it comes to using social media. Unlike the majority of Americans and Brits, at least 35 percent of all Germans refuse to use Facebook, as a study by ING Dipa Ipsos in 2014 revealed. One third of all Austrians mistrust social media in general. In Europe as a whole the rate is one in five.
Turkey, it turns out, is the leading country in Europe as far as social media usage goes: Half the population regularly uses Facebook, Twitter & Co, as became apparent in Mai 2014 when then premier Recep Erdogan threatened to shut the servers at Twitter and YouTube because embarrassing videos about corruption in his government and even in his own family circle went viral.
Why are Europeans less enthusiastic about social media than Americans or, for instance, South Koreans where the number of Facebook users is expected to reach 13.6 million by 2016? A possible reason appears in a survey by Accountemps, a U.S. temporary employment agency, which found in late 2012 that 51 percent of the 1,400 top financial managers polled believed the productivity of their workers would decline if they allowed them to access their social media accounts during working hours. Many worried that their people could act “unprofessionally” on Facebook or Twitter, for instance by revealing company secrets or disparaging the competition. Around the same time an organization in the U.S. called Learnstuff published a report entitled “Social Media at Work” which claimed that social media was costing America $650 billion a year in lost productivity, though it does not detail where the productivity drop occurs.
The data may be soft, but the message itself caused lots of heated discussion, both online and off. Headlines proliferated in the old paper-based media, news anchors frowned. What does one expect: these people are engaged in a struggle for survival with the Web. And of course nobody reports on how much it costs the economy when employees read newspapers or watch TV on company time.
There are signs, however, that social media are in the process of mutating from time killers to time savers. And this would seem to be part of their growing up.
Facebook’s business model, to name just one example, consists in luring users into their system and spending as much time there as possible. The longer a user stays on the platform, the more chances Facebook gets at displaying paid ads. This, incidentally, is something that analysts and investors worry about, because it requires users to be sitting in front of a big screen if the ads are supposed to work as they are intended.
However, at least half of all users now routinely access the Web through mobile devices such as smartphones or iPads where screen size is limited. Facebook hasn’t really found an answer to this problem yet, as anyone knows who has ever tried their mobile “app” which is, not to put too fine a point to it, pitiful.
Mobile users, it turns out, are very different, and this has to do with the circumstances under which they are using the Internet. Instead of leisurely “surfing” the Web, they are usually under pressure to find a certain piece of information “right now!”: a telephone number to call, a price quote for a product they are standing in front of the supermarket shelf looking at, a train or plane arrival time or the weather forecast for this afternoon.
If this information is only displayed for instance if I watch an ad first, chances are I ‘ll lose patience and go somewhere else. And besides, since I’m accessing the Internet through my phone or tablet, I’m in effect paying my mobile operator for the privilege of watching somebody’s advertisement? No way!
Mobile marketing, just like the platforms that form the social web, needs to grow up fast if it wants to fulfill its promise of huge profits for businesses and operators. First-generation social media platforms are unsuited to this kind of use (and marketing strategies). They are essentially tied to the time-waster model: whether Twitter, YouTube or Pinterest, all need to keep their visitors captive in order to make money.
The next generation of applications for the social web are already on the horizon, and their model is very different: Instead of holding us hostage, they want to get us out and back to real life as quickly as possible. But before we go, they want us to stock up on some essential bit of information that will make life easier or more enjoyable.
Foursquare is the quintessential player in this new social media game. Thanks to a smartphone’s ability to pinpoint our location, the system can provide helpful tips or user-generated information about, for instance, nearby restaurants or hotels, cultural attractions like museums or concert halls and of course promotional offers from vendors or service providers based on where I am at the moment.
Its twelve o’clock, so how about a nice pizza? Luigi’s around the corner is offering a special discount for Foursquare users. Just click here and show your friends where you are and what you’re doing (thus in effect making a recommendation), and will give you two toppings of your choice for free! Tell your friends that you have checked into our hotel and we will upgrade you to a junior suite!
The author and consultant Clay Shirky who also works as an assistant professor at New York University where he teaches media theory, believes that the next big thing in social media will be platforms that present themselves as extensions of and not alternatives to life in the real world. Instead of holding us up they will aim at enriching our lives with useful and finely targeted bits of information that are instantly useful.
Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab in Boston, compares Facebook and other time-wasters to parasites as well as cast-off lovers. Both keep trying to insinuate themselves into our lives and feed off of us, in the first case by sucking our blood and in the second by whining in our ear. Both can detract or harm us, and in the end the parasite may kill us, while the former girlfriend will smply cause us to change our phone number or possibly move away. “Facebook tries to hook us”, he says. “It wants to dominate our lives, just like a demanding lover or spouse.”
At Foursquare, developers spend their time dreaming up new ways of reducing the time users have to spend on their platform, its founder Dennis Crowley once said in an interview. The goal is to limit the time of an average stay to less than 20 seconds. That’s time enough for normal users to tell the world (or at least their friends and followers) where they are and what they’re doing.
Future social media apps will act as bridges between reality and virtuality; they will be like our toothbrush which is useful and makes us healthier but doesn’t require us to think about or use it more than a couple of times a day.
This post is also available as an audio podcast