We all remember the slogan well, having had it tossed at us from every media outlet over the past few years. Yes, “There’s an app for that” might be the web equivalent of “Can you hear me now,” but more and more we’re beginning to realize that yes, there is an app for that, but no, people don’t really care.
A recent study published by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, found that 68 percent of smartphone users report using five or fewer apps at least once a week. While roughly 82 percent of U.S. adults are active cell phone users, and 42 percent of those users have cell phones with apps, it seems the appeal of most apps wears off quickly.
The apps that do tend to have the longer shelf lives however, are those of social media companies. Facebook, Skype, and Twitter make up the number 1, 4, and 12 most downloaded apps of all time from the Apple App Store respectively. According to the Pew study, 81 percent of mobile users report consistently using their devices for social media while only 61 percent of overall internet users claimed to do the same.
So what is it that gives social media apps the staying power other apps can’t seem to find? The answer is not necessarily set in stone, however a few crucial factors certainly play into the equation.
Technology evolves at an incredible rate, yet it is human nature to lean on the things we are familiar with. As mobile devices have now made all types of operations as simple as a tap of the finger, we still seem more comfortable using phones primarily as a means to connect to each other (which may also explain why Facebook is by far the top download on smartphones while Angry Birds is at the top of the list amongst iPad users). While the actual programs we use to connect are changing daily, the impulse to do so is not going away anytime soon and mobile devices allow us to connect no matter where we are. Standard apps provide services or entertainment, but those functions are specialized and dry up quickly, whereas communication is an ever-present entity.
Mobility means users operate within a changing landscape, and so too should the devices and programs they use. Game apps and specialized apps (such as flashlight apps or recipe apps) feature limited content and are only relevant in certain situations. News apps are always updating with new material, however the material always comes from a single location. Social media apps update constantly as well, however they have the benefit of being populated with content from many users versus just one company or source. The constant changing and addition of new content keeps social media apps relevant at all times, giving users access to interesting and important information regardless of their location.
Social media shortens the distance between users to next to nothing no matter where they are in the world. While we see people using devices to avoid eye contact with strangers all the time, that doesn’t mean we no longer want to connect with people and the faster we can the better. If you need proof of that all you need to do is look at the spike in downloads of user-to-user games like Words With Friends and Draw Something. While they don’t technically count as social media, they work in a very similar way by shortening the distance between users and helping them interface immediately. Since these games still have the handicap of serving only one function, their popularity will likely not be long-lived (relative to social media apps), but they have and will continue to outsell other game apps.
The web has evolved to the point where social media really does mirror life. These technologies allow you to tell your story to the world and to do it however you choose. The internet used to be an escape from real life, but social media has transformed the web into an extension of reality instead. This is why Facebook’s CTO Bret Taylor said recently that if the technology existed at the time, Mark Zuckerberg would have created Facebook as a mobile web app (now he’s forced to simply buy the effective ones for a billion dollars at a time). The mobile web allows you to interact with social media while operating within normal day–to-day activities. By contrast, desktop platforms literally pull you away from whatever it is you are doing in order to sit and engage. Mobile devices alert you instantly who is talking about you, what is near you, and what is going on around you, no matter where you may be.
So, while Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja may linger around for a little while longer, I venture to predict their best days are behind them. Native apps still have their place, but most of them will go the way of the VHS or compact disk soon enough. While much debate has sprouted about the battle between native and web apps, I believe the future of mobile lies in web-based apps working in conjunction with mobile-optimized sites, and there’s no place more perfect for that relationship to begin than the world of social media.
I spend a good chunk of every day of my life touting the importance of going mobile, and major social media networks all over the web are hearing the same message. I for one am excited to watch this love affair sprout some wings, and I hope you’ll all join me.