Social Is Mobile, Mobile Is Social

In many ways the smartphone is the device that social media has been waiting for. It sits at that nexus of media consumption and person-to-person communication. It is not surprising, for instance, that many media companies report to me that the share rates on content are higher on devices than on the Web. There is communications gestalt built into the mobile experience. Even when a smartphone is not being a phone, it still has embedded in it a spirit of personal exchange with one's friends and family.

And so the explosion of social media usage, especially mobile-native and visual networks, is to be expected. According to eMarketer’s latest metrics and projections, Instagram is leaving all other social nets in the dust when it comes to annual growth. In 2014, the visual social net had an MAU of 64.2 million, up nearly 60% over the year before. This year, eMarketer expects the growth to ratchet back somewhat to 20%. But Instagram’s trajectory has it reaching 108 million MAUs by 2018. Already surpassing Twitter last year in U.S. user base, its real rivals in growth on mobile are other visually oriented nets like Pinterest and Tumblr, which are expected to reach 56.8 million and 25.4 million by 2018, respectively.

Instagram has a lock on youth. This year, 26.2% of its users will be in the 12 to 34 segment. I know that my homegrown focus group of one, my daughter, abandoned Facebook eons ago for being too nasty and contentious. And it makes sense. Instagram is much more about inspiration and sharing positive visual moments. Not a lot of fights break out here.

For some segments like teens, Instagram enjoys a phenomenal penetration rate of 62% this year and a projected 75% by 2019.

The natural competitors for Instagram are the messaging apps, many of which are also very visually oriented. But these apps are more specifically about person-to-person or group-to-group communication. Instagram is more of a broadcast platform. The messaging apps are also getting cluttered as they struggle to find monetization models. Many of them aspire to be media platforms now.

As eMarketer’s Debra Aho Williams points out, Instagram’s popularity is tied directly to maintaining its relative simplicity. “Instagram has stayed true to its core mission -- delivering beautiful imagery and videos -- while other services, such as Snapchat, have loaded on lots of new features," she says.

I would put an emphasis on “beautiful.” I don’t think we can underestimate the ways in which a visually oriented social network and the fact that it is exclusively mobile change the dynamic of a social network. As good as touch keypads may be, it is just harder to rant and seethe and insult and spew on a mobile phone than at a desk in front of a keyboard. As the devices weave themselves into minute-by-minute living, perhaps we are compelled to capture and share the moments that inspire and delight. Or perhaps mobility puts the flame wars of Internet culture in a different perspective. And does the intimacy of the device change the way we communicate via social channels altogether? Does the digital realm feel less anonymous when we are on a device that is at heart a phone? It all makes me wonder if the migration of social to mobile and the increasingly social skew of mobile will help create a digital social sphere of a very different sort in the next decade.

These are some of the questions we will engage at the upcoming special edition of the Mobile Insider Summit, by the way. We are calling it “Social Is Mobile, Mobile Is Social” as an exploration of how these two channels are not only converging, but perhaps changing one another. 

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