When I started working at Facebook, I remember being surprised by a sense of absolute urgency. The speed at which things were happening was striking.
I’d go to a colleague and ask for information that I knew would require some effort to compile. I expected them to respond something along the lines of, “Got it. Let me work on it and get back to you in a week or two because right now, I’m wrapping up these other three projects.”
Instead, my colleague would say, “Wow, let me look into this right now. It might take me a couple of hours to compile the results. Is that okay? If that’s too long, just let me know and I’ll get someone else to help out.”
How come people were so excited to work so fast and so hard?
The answer was, in fact, very simple. Facebook connects hundreds of millions of people who constantly share pictures, updates, messages. When something comes up, it needs to be addressed right away.
Most of us want to know immediately if someone tagged us in a picture. But are we becoming too connected to our mobile devices?
Some people (including myself at times) struggle to ever disconnect. We are always on our devices. Because every action on mobile is immediately recorded and broadcast, we compulsively obsess over every signal we get or don’t get. It’s been two hours already and no one commented on my post. Did I say something wrong? Why are people not paying attention? Maybe they don’t like me anymore? Maybe they never did?
It’s almost become cliché to hear complaints about everyone having their faces glued to their screens, stifling meaningful person-to-person communication. But do our smartphones disengage us from those around us, or connect us with them?
Some argue that people who suddenly shut down from a group and pull out their smartphone are detrimental to communities. But most of the time, I see people do this because they want to move the conversation forward, to be helpful. They want to fact-check something, or share a funny video. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
In fact, research shows that mobile products create deeper bonds between users and their communities.
A study by the University of Florida, for instance, illustrates how mobile products make people feel more connected to those around them. A group of 339 undergraduates recently volunteered to answer questions about their smartphone activity. Interestingly, the study shows that heavy smartphone users who use their mobile devices to connect with others and the world around them have stronger social capital. For example, these students were more involved in their local community, had more trusted people they could turn to for advice about making important decisions and knew a greater number of people who could give them access to resources like professional publications.
Here’s another example of how mobile makes us more connected to others.
A group of students was recently invited to participate in a simulation inside the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. The experiment was designed to make people aware of others’ perspectives.
One of them recalls: “I followed this little girl from breakfast with the family, to her classroom, to the computer labs, and back to her tent, along the electrified barbwires surrounding the compound. In reality I was in the comfort of my living room, but my brain was tricked into believing I was in a Syrian refugee camp.”
He was wearing Oculus Rift, Facebook’s new mobile headgear, and wanted to understand the everyday life of these millions of migrants. Other students in the lab saw an alternate reflection of themselves in a virtual mirror. They became someone they’re not: a woman, an elder or a person of color.
The demos include other avatars that throw abusive stereotypes at you. The intent is to make people more empathetic toward others.
The common thread is that, rather than relying on photos or video, the lab uses mobile technology to expand our boundaries and help us connect more intimately and understand each other better. It creates perspective and empathy.
So if, contrary to popular belief, our mobile products make us feel closer to others and our environment, are we then at risk of becoming too close? Are we going to lose ourselves in our mobile products, and gradually be replaced and controlled by them? Advanced AI getting out of our hands is a real and potentially serious threat, according to Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and several other visionaries. They’re concerned that by the time we realize it, it will be too late to take action.
Consider the hyper-realistic robot that was recently showcased at a tradeshow in Japan. The artificial woman was the latest in a remarkable series named Geminoids by their creator, roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. They are a modern version of man-made creatures that aspire to become human, like Pinocchio or Frankenstein’s monster.
Geminoids don’t just look approximately or barely human; they look like actual humans. They have a smooth silicon skin, a friendly smile and natural hair. They come across as empathetic, blinking and fidgeting the way we humans do. They answer questions in perfect Japanese (or any other language).
They have crossed that awkward threshold called the uncanny valley, a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe the revulsion people feel when they interact with something that looks almost but not exactly like a human being.
In any relationship—with our friends and loved ones, our mobile products, smartphones, VR headsets, or companion robots—our bonds are most tested when we go out among other people in the world. Social dynamics can be affected. It’s no different with mobile: Our relationship with our mobile products can be challenged out there in the world and our communities.
Now, what do you do with that, and how does that help you build better mobile products?
One of the most disruptive aspects of mobile products is that they are with us always. To be successful, they need to understand what matters to us and our communities. This comes through personalization first. The more mobile products know about us, the more personalized they get. So people come to rely on them extensively and often become emotionally attached to them. It also comes through community. As our bond grows inside, so does the need for privacy and other social norms outside. And because mobile is still new in our lives, we have not yet established norms and rituals for it.
If you’re building a mobile product, there are two types of filters you can use: internal and external. Internal filters enable personalization by learning about us, who we care about and where we go. Once they understand what matters to us personally, external filters allow the experience to be shared and enjoyed with other people. This is part of what I call the mobile formula, a set of three rules behind all successful mobile products. It is based on human-first principles because mobile products are new extensions of ourselves. What we expect from them is what we wish for ourselves: an attractive body, having it all together emotionally and getting smarter about the things that count.
Book excerpt from mobilized: an insider’s guide to the business and future of connected technology by SC Moatti. Copyright 2016 Sophie-Charlotte Moatti. All rights reserved. Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.