Someone put it like this: “Mobile is the needle, social is the thread.” Smartphones lend themselves to apps, and some of the most popular apps are created for social media. Plus, if you’re using a smartphone, Twitter and Facebook are convenient ways to get information. Facebook has its “news feed,” which streams posts from your friends and company’s you “like,” while Twitter’s “timeline’’ streams tweets posted by those you follow. Both are like modern-day ticker tapes, constantly rolling out timely information in easy-to-consume bites.
Couple this convenience with access, and you harmoniously marry mobile and social. If you’re low on cash, how do you get access? Mobile. A smartphone with a data plan, in most cases, is more affordable than a laptop or desktop computer with high-speed Internet service. According to the New York Times, less than half of American households with incomes below $25,000 have broadband connections, compared with 93 percent of households earning $100,000 or more. Undoubtedly, difficulties in expanding fiber optics into rural and tribal communities factor in, too.
Meanwhile, mobile carriers are rapidly expanding 4G service into these same areas that have lacked broadband support due to economic and/or geographic constraints. Based on last year’s data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 49 percent of blacks and Latinos own smartphones, compared with 45 percent of whites. About 40 percent of people in households earning less than $30,000 say they go online mostly through their phones.
Internet access is growing thanks to mobile access and smartphones. It’s growing across all income levels and ethnic groups and, most importantly, it’s changing how messaging is received. Nothing makes this point stronger than the acquisition of Instagram, a social platform featuring only pictures and captions. This application is exclusive to mobile. You can’t access Instagram through the Web, yet Facebook acquired it for roughly $1 billion in 2012.
Perhaps they made the acquisition because they understood the migration to mobile and its empowering effect on apps like Instagram. Forty-five percent of American adults are using smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center, and that means mobile apps too. In addition, the number of Americans owning at least one digital reading device — ebook readers, tablets — jumped from 18 percent in December to 29 percent in January.
All of these factors — the social craze, mobile adoption and mobile applications — signal a major change. That is, we no longer cater to a tribe of searchers. Our online audience used to sit at a desk and pop open a Web browser. They searched the Internet for information they wanted, or they typed in a url and went directly to a company’s website. Now, we cater to a tribe of getters.
I wake up in the morning and open Twitter, using my smartphone or iPad, which generally stays in the kitchen. Recently, Pat Forde, a sportswriter at Yahoo Sports, sent a tweet with a link to his latest story about March Madness. USA Today sent a tweet about North Korea’s latest threat. Both appeared in my timeline because I follow them. I get news this way when I’m waiting for my coffee to brew. After my coffee is poured, I check the weather on my Weather Channel app and check in with friends and family via Facebook’s app.
I don’t go online in the traditional sense until I Google information for a story or a work report. I’m getting, not searching. Consider your own day. You might be doing more searching than getting but, chances are, the information you gain via searching is dwindling each month.
No doubt, mobile is changing how our audiences get information and that’s likely to sustain social media’s relevance well into the future. It’s a publishing tool that specializes in brevity, perfect for smartphone consumption. But, if we lose our way and make this tool the story, social sighs. It knows better. And so does our audience.