We keep tossing around this idea that mobile means “personal” and that there is a greater level of intimacy to these devices, and on some abstract level that is true. But I still am not sure we fully grasp the depth and implications of this. The Supreme Court of all things helped underscore the special status of the cell phone last week in its Riley v. California decision requiring search warrants for perusing a citizen’s phone. The court carved out a definition of this new medium, akin to a PC or even one’s home. “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person,” the opinion stated. It went on to note that modern phones store millions of pages, and enough pictures, apps, search history, messages and more to piece together a deep and intimate look into a person’s life. It is equal to searching a house. “Many of the more than 90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.” Even the Supreme Court gets it.
But how that level of intimacy with the device actually translates into new forms of media consumption is still an evolving issue. What does “personal” or “intimate” media really mean? Obviously, wearable media and the quantified self have captivated some unclear segment of the population. We know that the health and fitness category of apps is the fastest-growing category on mobile. One explanation is that people are starting to discover this very personal utility for phones and so are experimenting with all manner of health-monitoring and tracking apps. But it is also noteworthy that the apps in this category are among the most engaging for users. According to recent stats on evolving app engagement from Localytics, mobile users have been engaging with apps more deeply in recent years. The share of apps that are opened only once has declined while the share of apps opened more than 11 times has mushroomed. While social and weather apps lead among those apps less likely to be opened only once, the health and fitness category is close behind, with only 15% of apps in this category having been opened only once. Typically, app categories like entertainment, food and drink, and news are at the 20% average.
Health and fitness apps are at the nexus of personal technology and personal media; they embody the ways in which bringing the mode of media consumption ever closer to our bodies perhaps favors types of media and communication that are suitably intimate. Of course, these apps measure increasingly intimate aspects of ourselves. We are tied to them for natural and understandable reasons. WebMD just took the hint. They issued a major upgrade of the traditional health information app that now folds in connections to your activity tracker and even higher-level health monitors like glucose meters and wireless scales. Again, this is an obvious extension of WebMD’s basic legacy symptom checking into a hot area. But it speaks to how all media, even advertisers, may need to think harder and more creatively about how their apps can become “wearable” media -- media that has everyday functionality or is tied into the rhythms of everyday life.
For instance, the always-there, alerting, and screen size aspects of my phone have made it possible for Yahoo to find its way into my daily routine. Their excellent News Digest product pings me with two daily editions of the top handful of stories each day. They gamify it a bit by showing me a circle of dots representing how much of the content I have read each morning. They have found a way to insinuate themselves into my personal routine in much the way the daily newspaper or nightly news had for previous generations of media consumers. On some subconscious level, now I understand I will be brought up to date on the breaking stories at given times each day. It informs me in some subtle way how I consume other media throughout the day. But in this case the app is leveraging the unique tools of mobility and intimacy to bolt itself onto my routines.
Health apps are just the obvious expression of the true implications of “personal” devices and “intimate” media. They signal the ways in which all apps have to think outside the media legacy box where forms and formats were born in an age when media consumption was tethered to very specific places and moments in social life. Prime-time, drive-time, breakfast and commute newspaper reading time, movie night -- consider how much of mass culture in the twentieth century (and the forms they left us) were tied to temporal, predictable rituals. Media were tied in some way to specific times and spaces. That is why in my mind the untethering of media from circumstance is the deeper shift mobility represents for both media makers and advertisers. The intimacy and persistent presence of this device now makes you the media. Your everyday life -- the full range of your movements, rituals, routines -- becomes the target. Health and fitness apps may offer some clues to what all apps need to aspire to. They acknowledge those rhythms and often show they are situationally aware. They work with personal rituals rather than merely interrupt them. They tell you something about your own activity and make your life itself part of the content. And they ultimately give a user a sense of mastery and control over that everyday life the apps strive to be part of. Sounds like an agenda for any forward leaning app.
A century has seen communications technology move from massive theater screens to immovable radios to klunky TVs that anchored us to rooms. Computers introduced both interactivity and some measure of portability, but they remained generally screens that we needed to go to. In bringing the technology to the pocket and now the skin itself, it is hard to imagine such a leap does not require a rethinking of the forms, formats, voice, and functionality of content at a fundamental level. Life is the new media.