Untangling the Web: Micro-journalism & my smart new toy

Smartphones are playing a middleman, micro-computer role, but not yet replacing the computer as the Internet’s main home.

By ELANA KIRSH
September 19, 2011 13:52
A Motorola Droid phone in New York

Motorola Android smartphone 311. (photo credit: Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

A few months ago, I wrote about how I’d been blown away by smartphones in Australia, that they were compromising conversations and destroying my peers’ attention spans. I theorized that the attention deficiencies that seemed linked to these new gadgets were actually the result of the Internet, which smartphones merely make portable.

That was BMS. Before My Smartphone.

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Last week, I bought myself a Samsung Galaxy S II, and I’m not going to lie; the world looks a little different, and I have been known to play with it absentmindedly in the middle of otherwise engaging conversations. In a couple of weeks the novelty will have worn off, but while it’s all still fresh, the changes in the way I’m using the Internet for both business and pleasure cast some light on the smartphone phenomenon. So, how has my new phone changed my life? Has it changed my work in online journalism? And moving on from there, are these genius little devices changing the news industry, and if so, how?

I’ll start with the fact that this particular paragraph, along with a few others, was written while waiting at the bus stop on my way to work. This little guy is a massive time-saver. It’s also a space-saver, having replaced the paper diary, digital camera and mp3 player that I used to schlep around with me everywhere.

Naturally, I’ve also downloaded a sizable selection of apps. WhatsApp and Viber are great for staying in touch with family and friends abroad; I’ve downloaded a ridiculous amount of camera filters and bombarded various social media sites with the results: I have a sleep monitor app which wakes me up when my sleep is at its lightest and a meditation gong app which sounds at the beginning and end of sessions, Dropbox, a digital scanner, IMDb... the list goes on.

And then there’s news apps. I have, well, all of them.

I’d been holding out on getting myself a smartphone out of the fear that I would become completely incapable of placing boundaries between work and personal life - that I’d walk around with a touchscreen device stapled to my hand, flipping through news sites non-stop like a zombie. A valid concern, to be sure, but at some point all of the materialistic urges and impulses I’ve been programmed with by mass media took over and I gave in.

And the truth is, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I think that contrary to my fears, this sexy little piece of equipment might actually be freeing up some time for me, rather than filling every spare second with work.

How? By making everything just that little bit faster and more accessible. While I have a decent Dell on my desk at work, and a fairly fast Compaq laptop at home, both take about two minutes to turn on, connect to the Internet and pull up a Web page. On my new smartphone, it’s a matter of seconds, no exaggeration. This means - and here’s the interesting bit - my techno-ADHD doesn’t have time to kick in. While the functionality is there, it’s not as comfortable to flip from page to page, app to app, on a phone as it is on a computer, which means I do one thing at a time. I check the JPost site, another Israeli site, and then another. I move through a couple of international news apps. I do a quick edit, reassure myself that nothing massive has happened in the news since I put the washing on, and I put the phone down. I couldn’t run the news desk from it, but it seems that I’ve equipped myself with the perfect tool for hour-to-hour monitoring when I’m not in front of a computer.

So what does this all mean for the news industry then? Are most Internet users having the same experiences as me? Are smartphones changing the business, and if so, what do we need to do to keep up with the times?

My immediate assessment is that the micro here largely reflects the macro. Despite my current infatuation, in reality my new toy has brought nothing new to my life - it has merely pulled things together, and made them small and close-at-hand. The same seems to be true for the impact of the devices on the news industry. I've now got news at my fingertips 24/7, but in reality I always did. Everything is just a bit smaller and quicker now, which means that I’m using the phone to quickly look at a little bit of news, rather than reading through a series of articles at leisure.

On JPost.com, for example, 10 percent of our readership viewed the site using a mobile device in the past month. That figure is not so surprising, but what’s interesting is that computer users spent an average of 13 minutes on the site, whereas their mobile counterparts spent just three minutes. This seems to indicate that users are doing the same as me on their mobile devices - looking over headlines, but seldom reading full articles, in an exaggerated form of what Nicholas Carr dubbed “the power browse.” That is to say, these figures reflect the natural evolution of Internet usage for news rather than an entirely new trend.

Now, this doesn’t mean that smartphones have had or will have no resounding effect at all. To the contrary, they are a new sub-medium with which to engage online news consumers. People are using their phones both to keep in touch, and to keep themselves updated on news and social media during in-between times, rather than as a computer replacement. This means that as well as developing clean, engaging apps to present content which suits the ways that people are using their smartphones, news organizations need to branch out.

More and more, members of the younger generation are using their smartphones for tweeting, posting on Facebook, and “plus one-ing” on Google+, and indeed news sites are seeing an increasing number of referrals coming from social media. To get read, news organizations need to ensure that their social media integration can keep up with the current trends of online sharing.

I realize that I’m coming to the smartphone party a little late here - many news organizations got straight onto developing apps and mobile sites as soon as the iPhone was released in 2007. Surprisingly, however, many are still riddled with bugs, and don’t seem properly suited to the devices and the way they are being used. Other organizations have developed iPhone apps but seemingly stopped there, which I hasten to point out is a mistake that could be losing news organizations smartphone readers. While three-quarters of the JPost.com readers who access the site using mobile devices are using iPads or iPhones, the majority of the remaining 25% are using phones running on Android operating systems. According to 2010 data from the Nielsen Company, US sales of Android phones have now overtaken both iPhone and BlackBerry.

As always in both the tech industry and the news industry, nothing is static, and both these figures and the way people are using their smartphones are going to change. Who knows, maybe as I get used to it I’ll start using my smartphone more and opening my computer less. In the meantime, it appears that smartphones are playing a middleman, micro-computer role; filling in time with information, but not yet replacing the computer as the Internet’s main home.

Now, while smartphones may be too mini to affect serious change, the same may not be true for the tablet. With the increased size and comfort, along with sheer processor power and hardware options such as click-on keyboards, the device could well be the happy medium between the notebook and the smartphone which forces industries including online journalism to adapt, yet again. iPad users on JPost.com spent almost two full minutes longer on the site than iPhone users, which suggests that tablet users are behaving more like computer users than smartphones users. Many news providers have already set the wheels in motion by developing specifically tailored apps, rather than leaving the increasing masses of tablet users to view regular sites, designed for full-size computers, or mobile sites, designed for smartphones.

Either way, the full effect of the smartphone on my life is yet to be seen, and likewise the jury is still out on how they will impact the online journalism industry en masse. Smartphones could be the next step on the path of human evolution into bionic beings, and they might be just a flash in the wider technological pan. What’s sure for now, though, is that more and more people are using this technology, and the online news industry needs to keep up with the times, and develop apps, mobile sites and social media integration to facilitate the continued delivery of fast, accurate and reliable information to the public, in mini touchscreen form.

The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager


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