Why the Future of Social Is in the Palm of Your Hand

Mashable

When I leave the house in the morning, the first thing I check is that I have my phone with me. It's not my keys nor my wallet, but my phone that I'm most worried about forgetting.

My mobile device has become my lifeline in a lot of ways -- and I know I'm not alone.

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When I walk outside, it seems hard to find someone who's not on their phone. Whether they're looking up directions on a maps app, checking in to their current location on Foursquare or taking a photo with Instagram, many of us rely on mobile devices to get things done efficiently and conveniently -- and to stay connected.

Long before Facebook bought Instagram last month, the mobile social networking boom was upon us. The $1 billion acquisition was just the icing on the cake.

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This was the jumping off point for a discussion on stage at Mashable Connect with myself, Brett Martin, co-founder and CEO of Sonar, Steve Jang, co-founder, chief product designer and CEO of SoundTracking, and Bart Stein, co-founder of Stamped on Saturday. Here's a little bit more about what we talked about and why we're certain mobile social networks are the communities of the future.


Self-Expression in Real Time


Social networks were built on the notion of sharing. Whether we're revealing interests, photos or life moments, these platforms have become the ultimate vehicles of self-expression.

The features built into mobile devices, such as cameras and GPS, enable even the most casual tech user to easily create his or her own media. Mobile editing and social apps help the content individuals produce to be more sophisticated, while remaining personal.

"I think people are excited to take a bit of their everyday life with their phone and augment it toward something beautiful and emotional to share," says Steve Jang, co-founder and CEO of Soundtracking. "As long as there is a captive audience that is responsive to this stream of personal media captured and shared on the fly, then I think we'll continue to see people flock to these mobile communities."

Thirty-eight million Americans use mobile devices for social networking almost every day, comScore reports. It's even surpassed gaming as the most-engaged mobile activity, according to Flurry. Like Jang said, these numbers will continue to rise alongside our desire to produce and engage with personal media.

As more people access social networks from smartphones and tablets, they'll realize these devices do more than make sharing easier and content creation better. They also allow for instantaneous connections.

"It's no longer good enough for some of us to come home from vacation or a night out to post our photos and thoughts," says Brett Martin, co-founder and CEO of Sonar. "We've become so used to real-time sharing that it feels irrelevant to post pictures of and reactions to things that happened mere hours ago."

This real-time self-expression was essentially non-existent before the rise of mobile devices -- and now it's the norm. We've become accustomed to knowing what's going on with our friends and family or favorite celebrities and organizations at the moment it's happening. This allows us to feel as though we're experiencing these activities with them, radically changing how we feel and, ultimately, connect.


Stronger Relationships


This increased connectedness can help us feel closer to our contacts, both fortifying existing relationships and forging new ones.

Apps such as Face Time allow us to stay in touch with friends and family overseas while others, like Martin's Sonar, help us discover new contacts through shared connections. These are the users "that know the value of relationships," Martin says.

But those get togethers with friends where you look up and everyone is tweeting, checking in or uploading a photo instead of talking face-to-face, makes you wonder: Is mobile social networking really helping us make the right connections?

Jang says the stigma of people ignoring their IRL friends to engage on these networks "is outweighed by the benefit of being to stay in touch with a much larger group of friends and family and see, read, and listen to a vivid (albeit fleeting) snapshot of their lives."

For Martin, it's certainly a concern. "But the best apps won't need to hold you hostage to the screen," he says. Rather, they should add dimension to relationships and enable you to engage with others in unprecedented ways, making it "easier than ever to make and maintain real life relationships," says Stein.


Enriched Lives


At the core of any community is connecting people with a passion for a common interest.

When it comes to mobile, the plethora of social apps make it easy for users to connect around any hobby or activity, no matter how niche or mainstream. Whether you're looking for a restaurant or a relationship, apps allow you to do what you want to do better -- right along with your community.

"The best communities being built by mobile app creators today are the ones that already existed offline, but hadn’t been provided with technology and tools to enrich their experiences and relationships," says Stein. "There must be a distinction made between the apps that add utility and improve people’s lives rather than those designed to waste time -- the former actually improves relationships and the quality of interactions rather than diminishing them."

When asked if, as mobile app creators, they consider themselves community builders, Jang and Stein say the goal of each of their apps is to help an existing community build on what it's already doing. For Soundtracking, it's helping the music community share and engage with the songs they already love. For Stamped, it's about providing people who enjoy sharing their favorites with technology that makes this easier.


What's Next?


Mobile social networks are the communities of the future. So, what's on the horizon for this up-and-coming space? Here's what the panelists had to say:

  • "It's all about context, frictionless sharing and push-notification-driven user interfaces. The best apps won't tell you about every random person or restaurant that you walk by; just the ones that will truly matter." -- Brett Martin, Co-founder and CEO, Sonar.
  • "The combination of structured data with your social graph is the next big trend in mobile. There’s powerful structured data around places, objects and things that when combined with a social layer can generate and sustain a whole new class of apps. It’s easier than ever for developers to tap into APIs and publicly available data sources to build new sets of killer applications." -- Bart Stein, Co-founder, Stamped.
  • "Moving forward, the mobile user experience of social networking will become more distributed across multiple apps... When Facebook launched its Messenger app, I loved that. It was a straightforward app that did one thing well and let me re-engage with the FB message feature again. Inside the all-in-one FB app, that feature was more difficult to use quickly and easily... It makes a lot of sense to think about a community's social graph and data as an underlying network upon which you can develop simple, powerful and functionally-specific mobile apps." -- Steve Jang, Co-founder and CEO, Soundtracking.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, TommL


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