Social networking and the mobile context

Nov 30, 2009
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There's a growing call to deliver desktop experiences on mobile devices, and in general that's a good thing. I don't want to be limited to cut-down, plain-text "mobile" versions of websites when I have a large smartphone display and speedy 3G connection that could readily handle the full version, and the push for full-HTML browsers (and things like Flash support) has already trickled down from a must-have on smartphones to a common feature-phone element. What's lagging behind, it seems, is an understanding of how mobile device use differs from desktop use, and nowhere is that more evident than in social networking integration. Several devices promise to bring your online social life to the screen that's always with you, but the experience is patchy at best.

I've been playing with the Motorola DEXT for the past couple of weeks, the European version of the CLIQ (you can read our review here) and the first device to feature MOTOBLUR, the company's attempt to corral social networks into one easily-consumed stream. Unlike HTC Sense, MOTOBLUR keeps network updates - which it calls "happenings" - front and centre, with a main feed of news together with individual widgets and inboxes for consuming them separately.

MOTOBLUR's strength is its integration and breadth, or at least the promise of it. Like Sense, contacts using various different networks are combined into single address book entries - either automatically or manually - but there are far more platforms supported and Motorola are promising to add further networks (such as LinkedIn) as the system matures. Conversations started via one medium can, in theory, be continued from any other, and the record of "recent contact" for each person is carrier agnostic.

Unfortunately, there's a feeling that the people who designed MOTOBLUR aren't heavy users of the various services. Take the two networks probably most commonly used, Facebook and Twitter: any updates - including profile photo changes, status changes and new galleries - are thrown into the happenings stream with no thought about their relative value. Only the most obsessive of users will keep up with all the new news, and there's no way to prioritise certain people or themes. MOTOBLUR pulls out direct messages (DMs) from Twitter to include in its "universal inbox" - which also features regular email, Exchange account messages and Facebook messages - but treats @-replies, more frequently used than DMs, just the same as regular tweets. Given how most people use Twitter, that means it's all too easy to miss replies from the people you follow, and since there's no searching across the rest of the Twitterverse for mentions of your username (as even the basic web UI offers) you'll definitely miss comments from people you're not following.

There's also no thought to the relative load of each network. Sticking with Twitter and Facebook as our examples, there's no way to tell MOTOBLUR that you're more interested, say, in Facebook updates than you are tweets. I follow a few hundred people on Twitter but have kept my Facebook friends more sparse; it's pretty easy for a status change from the latter to be lost among the flood from the former, when arguably it's the close contacts on Facebook that I'd be more interested in hearing about. Other people might have the ratios reversed, or use other networks, but the overarching problem is the same: MOTOBLUR only uses time to organise content.

To be fair, it's a problem shared by pretty much all of the "integrated" social networking aggregators on smartphones right now. Palm's webOS and HTC Sense each deliver some degree of the same functionality (only Motorola attempt to throw everything together in one stream) but haven't addressed the relative value issue. I raised it - separately - with Motorola at the launch of the DEXT and with HTC CEO Peter Chou at the launch of the HD2 (the first Windows Mobile device to feature HTC Sense), and their responses were pretty similar. Motorola pointed out that MOTOBLUR is a first-generation attempt at the mobile social networking issue, the undertone being that, like further platforms, they'd look to add in better handling of news later. Chou, meanwhile, admitted that the issue was something HTC engineers were aware of, and that iterations of Sense down the line would look to more intelligently manage social networks.

Neither could tell me exactly how it might be achieved, however, and in fact the most promising attempt I've seen so far has been from Nokia. Tucked into a corner of the Nokia Research showcase at the company's The Way We Live Next 3.0 conference a few weeks ago was their Linked Internet UI Concept, a prototype software platform which attempts not only to funnel in social networking content but to recommend the information most relevant to the individual user. Running on a modified N900, the system both forms contextual links between content - so photos taken by, or featuring, the same person will be linked to the appropriate individuals, as well as geographically with other images taken in nearby locations - as well as learning the user's habits and, over time, percolating the information it believes will be of the most interest to the top of the homepage.

Guido Grassel, leader of Nokia Research's Web User Interface and User Experience team, explained that there are two main types of usage paradigm: either users take the time to flag up or "favourite" their key contacts, or they simply leave the system to handle them themselves. The Linked Internet UI Concept can cope with both: starred contacts are automatically given higher priority, or you can leave the device to learn what sort of information is of most use. Status updates from my Facebook friends, therefore, would gradually be given more priority than tweets; however the phone might also learn that certain people I follow on Twitter, or certain hashtags or geographical locations mentioned, are also of greater importance to me, and so make those more visible too.

Unfortunately there's no real timescale to get the Linked Internet UI Concept off the prototype and into a shipping device. In the meantime, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that manufacturers and software developers realise that just because users demand the desktop experience on their mobile devices, it doesn't mean a straight port across is sufficient. At the very least we should be able to flag up keywords - whether that be our own username, the name of our employer or the blog we write for, or the school or college we attend - as something we want highlighted. I want to be able to weight certain people or companies - either manually or, preferably, automatically - the news from and about which I'm most interested, and I don't want to have to consciously shift between applications to consume, save or share that information.

MOTOBLUR - and HTC Sense, and webOS, and the rest - will get better, and platform developers themselves are learning that social networking integration is of growing importance to device users; Android 2.0, for instance, links address book entries with Facebook profiles, functionality that Google seems to have learnt from HTC and the rest but which now is baked into the core OS. What's important is that while we use the same networks while mobile as we do while on our desktops and laptops, we do so in a different way. A straight port across isn't good enough, and if we want use of these tools to spread beyond the power-users and the social-obsessed, they need to better cater to the bite-size demographic who aren't willing to invest hours of eye-time into their phones.


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