Locative Lab

researching locative media

Research Insights: Social Networking and Mobile Communities

Social networking and user-generated content are, without a doubt,
hot topics in the mobile sector right now. The marriage of social
networking and mobile phones seems logical: our mobile phones are
always with us and keep us connected to our networks all day, every
day. We currently use our mobile phones to create and share content to
a limited degree, and as our devices become more and more sophisticated
the kinds of user-generated content we create and the means by which we
share them will only increase. In anticipation of this wave, Web-based
social networking sites like MySpace are moving into mobile
hoping to increase their reach and popularity, while the ranks of
startups are swelling with developers of wireless social networks or
tools that facilitate mobile social networking. 3’s See Me TV in the UK has already shown that that video created and consumed on the mobile phone can be a popular proposition.

Despite the growing numbers of players in the mobile social
networking space, questions abound about what constitutes a successful
mobile social networking experience. What form will social networks
take in the mobile context? How will desktop-based and mobile social
networks co-exist, or will they? As a San Francisco-based interface
strategy, design and development consultancy with a specialization in
mobile, we at Punchcut spend a
great deal of time pondering these questions and envisioning
future-forward solutions for our clients. In order to inform our design
efforts, we recently conducted a qualitative study of the social
networking behaviors of 11 young adults living in the San Francisco Bay
area. The purpose of the study was to gain an understanding of why
young, socially connected individuals engage in social networking
behaviors and how the use of a mobile device supports and fosters these

// Study Overview and High-Level Findings

We collected our data through one-on-one observation/interview
sessions and an online questionnaire in which the study participants
reported their daily social networking activities over a 14-day period
in January 2007. The information supplied touched on:

  • The frequency with which the participants engaged in social networking activities
  • The triggers and circumstances under which the participants engaged in these activities
  • The nature of the participants’ relationships with the people with
    whom they engaged in these activities, and how behaviors were affected
    by those relationships
  • The degree to which social networking activities were accomplished
    via mobile phone versus personal computer, and the circumstances under
    which one method was used over another.

Analysis of our results showed that social networking activities
form an ecosystem that crosses device or channel. All methods were
brought into service in order to meet the goal of creating and
maintaining relationships, but those methods were not interchangeable.
Study participants used all of the tools available to them in
performing their social networking activities and chose a method –
mobile phone or PC – based on the context and the appropriateness of
the tool to the activity in question. In fact, most our participants
networked via PC and mobile phone at the same time, but for different
purposes. The PC was chosen most often by study participants for
content creation and access but their mobile phones were more suitable
for keeping them abreast of real-time developments in their network.
The most compelling social networking experiences were those that
supported the use of a variety of tools on the mobile phone and PC yet
took advantage of the strengths of each.

The choice of activity and method were determined by a number of factors:

The nature of the relationship

The closer the relationship, the more likely our study participants
would use their primary communication tool, be it mobile-based SMS or
PC-based IM, to interact with those individuals frequently throughout
the day. Voice calls, it should be noted, were considered a more
“formal” method of communication, and tended to be reserved for family
members and business contacts. The more distant the relationship the
more likely the participant was to use secondary or more public tools
to engage with those individuals. Web-based social networking sites
like MySpace provided study participants with a convenient way to
maintain or rekindle relationships with friends and family who live in
other parts of the world, as well as former co-workers and other
friends with whom the participant had lost touch over the years. These
sites appealed to participants because they required a minimal time
investment beyond creating a basic profile yet delivered high value in
the sense that participants prized knowing they belonged to a
community, a sense that was reinforced every time they visited the site.

Desired level of engagement

Our study participants had a well-honed sense of the social
expectations associated with the different social networking tools they
used. Voice calls were “formal” and required our participants’
undivided attention, whereas instant and text messaging were “informal”
and allowed participants to engage in other activities. Participating
in Web-based social networking sites required the least attention since
they were asynchronous communication vehicles. The net result of the
range of levels of engagement afforded by these tools is that our
participants communicated more often, simultaneously carrying on
several exchanges using a variety of tools requiring differing levels
of attention. The more proficient the social networker, the more adept
he or she was at maintaining these exchanges at a level of engagement
that was acceptable to the people with whom he or she was interacting.

Lifestyle or stage of life

Our study suggests that social networking behavior is less a factor of
age and more one of lifestyle. Study participants with lifestyles that
were socially-focused were more likely to be mobile, thus mobile
phone-based social networking tools were best for engaging with their
equally mobile network of friends. Participants with lifestyles that
were professionally-focused were more likely to be in a fixed location
for much of the day as were the members of their network, thus PC-based
social networking tools suited them best. Lifestyle changes did not
affect the participants’ innate desire to engage in social networking
activities, only the means by which they did so.


Our study points to the single biggest predictor of social networking
behavior being the participant’s personality. The greater the need to
socialize the more likely that person was to engage frequently in a
multitude of activities on their mobile phone and PC, even when doing
so was implicitly frowned upon or explicitly forbidden. Being connected
to their networks to this degree was seen as both positive and
negative. Our most proficient social networkers enjoyed being able to
communicate as frequently and efficiently as they did yet felt obliged
to be available to their networks all the time. Even the most social of
social networkers appreciated those times when they were compelled to
be “off the network”.

// Keys to Successful Mobile Social Networking Experiences

Punchcut’s study findings suggest that successful mobile social networking experiences will:

  • Build on the strengths of mobile personal communication devices –
    that they are personal, always available and always connected – rather
    than duplicate a PC-based social networking experience on the device.
    These experiences will enhance aspects of relationship building and
    management that result from mobile context because they understand the
    spectrum of communication from one-to-one, one-to-some and one-to-world.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of people’s social networking
    “ecosystems”. These experiences will support the myriad relationships,
    levels of engagement and lifestyles that people now have.
  • Provide people with the tools to create their own experience.
    Individuals frequently use tools to unexpected ends. This often signals
    an untapped or previously unknown need. As designers we need to create
    tools that allow a certain amount of freedom to create and then monitor
    the results for potential future opportunities that will evolve the

Mobile social networking on a large scale will soon be upon us and
we have no doubt there will be several “misses” on the road to success
and profitability. We believe that user experience, from primary user
research and experience strategy through to detailed design and
usability testing following launch, will be key to minimizing the
missteps along the way.



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Cityscape LocativeLab.org is Ronald Lenz's research website on locative & mobile media. This is mostly an archive of blogposts I find inspiring and interesting and an overview of my work. I'm a strategist, technologist and researcher in the field of Location-Based Mobile Services and work at Waag Society, a medialab in Amsterdam, The Netherlands where I head the Locative Media research program and at 7scenes, a platform for GPS games and tours as creative director. Picture 4 Find me at Twitter, LinkedIn or via ronald [at] waag [dot] org.

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