Will digital addiction clinics be big in 2013?


Mobile and social media are the driving forces of the next wave of digital change. But these advances are reducing our attention spans and creating new dilemmas for the way we live and work, says Nic Newman.

It used to be the case that British people had a reputation for buttoned-up restraint.

Today we are some of the most active social networkers in the world - sharing our party pictures, our music playlists and our deepest secrets with hardly a moment's thought. More than 60% of online users actively maintain a Facebook profile, and social networking is our favourite activity online in terms of time spent.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's tweet to the world at the Olympics opening ceremony was a reminder that social networking is now a key part of our national culture. Twitter usage has jumped rapidly again this year to about 10 million active users, with David Cameron, Hugh Grant and Gary Lineker among the new recruits.

And in terms of mobile, the UK now leads the world in its use of data. It overtook Japan in 2012, according to Ofcom.

There is, of course, a link between the two. More than 40% of that mobile activity is driven by social networking, in addition to downloading videos, shopping and consuming timely information such as news and sport.

With record smartphone sales in the run-up to Christmas and new 4G services launching in the UK by the summer, the stage is now set for faster and more reliable connection speeds and a new generation of mobile products and services.

So what will the potent combination of social and mobile bring in 2013? Here are seven trends to watch out for:

1. The mobile wallet

Increasing amounts of our life will be controlled with our mobiles in 2013. One by one, bank cards, loyalty cards, travel cards and boarding passes are being sucked out of our physical wallets and becoming integrated into smartphone software.

On the one hand this is driving convenience and greater transparency. On the other, the implications of losing your mobile have never been greater - and smartphone theft is on the rise.

Expect a new wave of sophisticated apps that can locate your phone even if on silent - complete with James Bond-style capabilities to destroy your device while protecting your passwords and identity.

2. Stand by for mobile ads

More than 10% of consumer time is spent with the mobile phone but only 1% of advertising is spent this way. This gap will close in 2013 but the results may not be pretty.

Watch out for intrusive new advertising formats on mobile and social websites, text and other push advertising, location-based special promotions linked to shopping in particular, and a growing number of sponsored messages.

Expect some kind of backlash against commercial activity in this most personal space with new rows over privacy and the selling of personal data. There'll be a new breed of mobile ad blockers and at least one social network will offer a premium service with an ad-free experience this year.

3. Celebrity spam

It's not just advertisers trying to make friends. Recording artist and talent show judge Will.i.am broke a taboo in 2012 by using his mobile to tweet during a live edition of The Voice. He later posted this message: "It may seem odd me tweeting... but trust me... this will be the norm one day & people are going to copy it."

Celebrities are increasingly setting up their own direct routes of communication with fans and will be looking to exploit these further with social media messages, mobile apps and text alerts.

Instead of fans hounding celebrities, this year could see the opposite phenomenon in the digital space. Broadcasters are already enlisting stars to send "in character" text messages before, during and after television dramas to give true fans an extra dimension of experience.

4. Global megaphone for gossip

The combination of mobile and social media has increased the speed with which both genuine news and malicious gossip can spread around the world.

Lord Justice Leveson has called for new laws to end what he calls "mob rule" and "trial by Twitter". Expect to see more unsuccessful attempts by politicians and lawyers to tame the internet but also a gradual realisation that what is said on social media is not beyond the law.

Look out for high-profile Twitter and Facebook prosecutions along with new social media education programmes in schools and workplaces.

5. Mobile and social news

About a third of all traffic to leading news websites such as the BBC now comes from smartphones, and this trend is beginning to change the type of news we are consuming and the rate at which we do it.

Live blogs - short updates that incorporate the backchat from social media - are becoming increasingly popular for news and sport but younger people in particular are increasingly ignoring traditional sites and getting their news directly from links in their Twitter or Facebook streams.

A trend to watch in 2013 is the growth of social video services like ThisNewsNow - a mobile-first service with a focus on short viral videos and a new informal style.

6. Digital addiction clinics

Related to the above, you may have noticed that your partner has been checking the football scores at the dinner table or sharing a joke on Facebook with friends half the way across the world.

More and more of us are becoming addicted to the real-time stream so that we are losing the art of conversation and quiet reflection.

This year brands and phone manufacturers will find more and more ways - buzzes, shakes, pokes and vibrates - to interrupt your train of thought. New opportunities, then, in 2013 for internet-free rural retreats or sessions to relearn the art of conversation without interruption, hesitation or deviation.

7. Mobile controlled accessories

image captionModelling a pair of internet-enabled specs

This year the phone will start to control what we see and what we wear. Google Glass and Vuzix (available this year) are essentially mobile computers that take augmented reality to the next stage.

Now you don't even need to look under the table to get the football results - they can be beamed directly to your eyes. Face recognition linked to Facebook or LinkedIn can provide an instant biography at a party, saving much embarrassment or providing useful lines for a potential business opportunity.

And for the more flamboyant, there are dresses implanted with electronic displays that project your latest social media updates onto the fabric.

Social and mobile will be at the heart of digital innovation this year. And yet, most companies continue to underestimate the speed and impact of these changes. They remain locked in a desktop mentality, leaving their products and services in danger of becoming irrelevant to a new digital savvy generation.

But institutions and governments are also lagging dangerously behind, not least because mobile and social undermine traditional hierarchies and decision-making processes. More flexible thinking, more flexible content that works with these trends needs to be embraced at every level and 2013 is the year when that will seem more obvious than ever.

Nic Newman is a digital strategist and former BBC Future Media executive. He is also a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

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