Can Mobility Jumpstart Social Habits of Digital Natives?

Kids today. They don’t get out. They just sit in front of the TV or computer, playing games, surfing the web, and IMing their friends. What’s happened to the vibrant social life us non-natives to this digital world enjoyed when we were their age? I remember spending hours running around the neighborhood from backyard to basement to treehouse, often creating make believe worlds and practicing different forms of social interaction, many of which would never become part of our real world (thankfully), but developing adaptation to changing social settings that would serve us the rest of our lives. I also remember when my sisters became teenagers and, in a pre-call-waiting world, my dad decided to invest in a second phone line so his calls could get through as they too worked hard at developing those all important social skills.

Many claim that today’s kids, sitting emotionless behind a computer keyboard, are failing to develop the skills that will be critical to a vibrant, interactive, caring society of the future. Others claim that social development has just moved online, with online communities providing even greater flexibility in taking on alternate personalities and creating even more dynamic social situations. Of course, that invisible, unsupervised social world creates its own scary scenarios that should frighten every parent.

This past week, at the LBS World Forum, Jonathan Spinney of OpenWave asked if I thought mobility would finally reintroduce real, human-human, in the visible and physical world social interaction to digital natives.

It’s a great question. It’s a complex question with both positives and negatives.

On the positive side, remember that I believe context is what will ignite the mobility revolution beyond our current view of mobility as merely an extension of the current Internet and voice networks. In other words, mobility will enable new uses that are only possible because they operate and interact with the physical world. Where am I? What’s the temperature? Who am I with? How’s my blood sugar? What’s my heart rate? How loud is the environment? How good is my network connection? What’s on my schedule later today? What’s the score of the football game? Is my flight on time? How’s the traffic to the airport? Is Al also running late? Some of this information already exists in the network and for any given activity, they may or may not be part of my context. Others can only factor into how I interact with the world and with information if mobility really happens in a way that unleashes my personal context into the equation.

So what does any of that have to do with kids and social skills? I really believe that new uses will be developed that leverage this context. This week I learned about undersound, an example of a new use for mobility that creates connection between people based on the physical world and enabled by the combined computer, Internet, and mobility revolutions. If you follow the above link, you’ll probably find, as I did, that it sounds a bit cumbersome and I rather doubt that it will work out quite as well as its inventors imagine, but it’s a great first step. Others are also working on ways to use location to get people out and interacting with each other (e.g. mologogo, SLAM, Loopt, and PhoneTag come to mind).

Of course, as you’ll often hear me say, success in the mobility revolution does not just require capturing the power of mobility, but also managing the danger. Bringing the realities of online social interaction into the physical world brings dangers with it. I want to believe that mobility itself will provide us with many solutions to managing the danger, but most of all, let us move forward with our eyes open to what the future will bring.

So what do you think?  Will mobility jumpstart social skills?  Will it bring more blessing or curse?

2 Responses to “Can Mobility Jumpstart Social Habits of Digital Natives?”

  1. Dad says:

    I got the second phone after the girls quickly figured out how to beat my “10 minute limit” by telling their friends to call right back after they huung up.

  2. I think, in terms of “Will mobility jumpstart social skills?”, the answer is inherant in your earlier statement of “Context Matters”.

    In the larger context of an ever changing world, “social” itself takes on a different meaning — for all generations past, a “social” setting meant the backyard, the school hallway, the vegetable aisle in the supermarket. And from the middle of last century, the voice from the chorus was one of concern that we were increasingly a culture “bowling alone” — stuck as the end point of a one-to-many form of mass media, from movies, TV, glossy magazines, and even console based video games.

    But today, with the growth of the internet, and user generated content, a new sense of “social” is growing — boundless of physical geography, bringing together groups large and small. I needn’t spread the sunshine of the glorious promise of the internet here; however, the fear changes from not being isolated and alone, but instead worrying about the dangers of privacy and identity and authenticity.

    Mobility, especially as a part of the context of social software (i.e., not merely the gee-whiz factor of sending mass-media to the handset), empowering consumers to not only access information from anywhere, especially at location-based, context critical moments — but also to communicate, to, in-effect, “publish” from their phone to their family, friends, their “virtual” community online. Not an end point, but a node, in the larger network — and ideally, a network of people and information of their own design.

    So, then, “Will mobility jumpstart social skills?” — my answer would be “Yes”, but “social” is an ever changing concept, and humans, as always will adapt to the best of the situation.

    “Will it bring more blessing or curse?” And here — the answer is also “Yes”. :-)

    Favorite vaguely-relevant reading:

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