Metacommunication: Defining the “mobile Internet”
Overwhelmingly, when asked if they use the term “mobile Internet” interview participants said no. Of the 21 people we interviewed, only six said they had ever used the term and five of them were German college students. The remaining 15 participants said they had never used the term before. A couple participants even laughed when we asked if they had used the term, saying that neither they nor their friends and family had used the term.
Most of the students did not specify mobile Internet, but instead just used the term “Internet” to describe their mobile Internet use. There was no need to differentiate between the Internet and the mobile Internet. For example, Florian simply referred to it as the Internet:
Interviewer: Ok and have you ever used the expression mobile internet, if yes, in which context?
Florian: No, never. [laughs]
Interviewer: What do you call it?
Florian: I mostly say to go on the internet with the iphone.
Interviewer: OK. And have you ever personally used this term, speaking to other people or anything?
Ydal: Mobile internet. No, not really. I mean I usually just say, ““I'll just Google it,” or something.
Interviewer: OK, so you never really used the term “mobile internet”?
Ydal: And I never specify the medium.
The above participants simply refer to the Internet on their smart phones and do not specify ‘mobile Internet.’ All of the participants were able to understand the term mobile Internet when we asked them to describe it, but they do not necessarily use it in everyday conversation. Despite the fact that Drew could perceive a difference between the Internet and the mobile Internet, his metacommunication did not necessarily reflect this distinction. That said, the need for Florian to specify that he is on the Internet with his phone suggests that for some this is still a relatively special medium for accessing the Internet. The fact that Florian and nine other respondents, specify the medium at all suggests that this is not the norm for accessing the Internet. That said, other respondents like Ydal do not specify the medium when accessing the Internet suggesting that it may be increasingly commonplace. Whether participants used the term mobile Internet, specified the medium, or simply referred to it as the Internet, most study participants were nevertheless able to articulate characteristics unique to the mobile Internet.
Metacommunication: Characteristics of the mobile Internet
When we asked participants to describe the mobile Internet, most people said that it was Internet on a smartphone. Several people described the mobile Internet as “flexible” and “on-the-go.” One German student said, “It gives me a certain freedom, I am no longer tied to a fixed location.” For these participants, the salient characteristic of the mobile Internet was—unsurprisingly - its mobility. The importance of mobility is similar to findings from early uses and gratification studies of the mobile phone (Leung & Wei, 2000).
Another commonly described characteristic of the mobile Internet was specifically web access on a mobile phone. Four of the participants described the mobile Internet as the world wide web or web browser on their mobile phone. The availability of the web on the phone was the first thing to come to mind as representing the entirety of the mobile Internet.
Interviewer: What do you think when you hear the term "mobile Internet?"
Ariana: I guess I think of on my phone I just click Safari and it's just like my laptop. So I guess I just think about that. I know a lot of my friends have Blackberries and they have a really hard time getting on the Internet on their phones, like this web page doesn't look right.
Seth: Mobile Internet, I think about, a more, I guess, restricted Internet…
Seth: Yeah. In terms of, some websites, they'll load like a mobile site, and it's just less --you can't access as many things, you can't do as many things with that website as you would the normal website.
For some of these users, the mobile Internet was not only just the browser, but as Seth pointed out, the mobile Internet can also seem restricted. When Internet content providers optimize their mobile interface it sometimes limits the offerings of the website. For people like Seth, the optimization does not outweigh the limitation of mobile devices not having access to everything on the “normal website.” For these participants, the mobile Internet was conceptualized as the web browser and not necessarily the other Internet features on the mobile device including e-mail or applications such as Facebook or Google Maps. This is not surprising as the web is often mistaken for the Internet despite being only one specific application running on the Internet (e.g. see Klang, 2008).
Mobile Internet usage & handling
All of our participants in the study had personal mobile devices that could access the Internet. Of the American students, four had iPhones, five had Blackberries, and one had an iPod Touch. Of the German students, seven had iPhones, two had iPod Touches, and one did not disclose what kind of smartphone he had. Of the American students, all of them also had laptops to access the Internet. Of the German students, eight had laptops or netbooks with which they also accessed the Internet. The remaining two German students had desktop PCs at home with which they accessed the Internet.
Immersive and extractive usage patterns characterized the way participants in our study use the mobile Internet on their mobile phones and laptops. Most often both German and American students used their smartphones for extractive mobile Internet use. The most frequent activities they reported involved “checking” e-mail, weather, and maps. The term “checking” is important here because it reflects the extractive nature of the usage. Smartphone users were looking for specific information from the Internet. Did they have new e-mail? What is the weather going to be today? How do I get from here to there? What is the sports score? For example, an American male student, Lester, will only check his e-mail on his iPhone, but would “walk down the hallway to a computer” to type a response rather than respond on his phone. For Lester, the phone is just for checking to see if he has mail. Another American student describes the kinds of things she “checks” on her phone:
Adrienne: Yeah, I look at the weather on my phone, always. Everyday. [laughs] You have to here. And I pretty much always check my email on the computer, and on my phone. And so I think email, Facebook, and weather are probably the biggest things I check… My mobile internet use probably differs from my computer internet use because I check the weather. And I do things that I couldn't do if I had my computer there. Like, I figure out directions for something, or I Google search something. So like immediate gratification kinds of things.
Adrienne describes using her smartphone extractively to get information, particularly about weather. She even goes on to say that a smartphone is “like having an encyclopedia in your pocket.” Similarly, Seth, an American student, suggests that the best thing about the mobile Internet is its extractive nature:
Interviewer: What do you think is the best thing about the mobile internet?Seth: Just that you're able to find out things at the drop of a dime, you know? Whenever you need to find information quickly, or know how to find a word or something that you didn't know, or you need to look something up in the dictionary, you can find it very quickly.
Similarly Tobias, a German student, describes his mobile Internet use as purposeful:
Well, as already mentioned, I'm often checking my mobile phone [laughs], my email. This I do concerted… it depends on the situation. Well, sometimes I'm also looking concerted for information, when I'm in town at night and I want to know, if I should take subway n°7 or n°6, then I'm searching for it with the aid of my mobile phone, which is faster. Something like this, or, for instance when I'm at a shop and I see a 100€ digital camera and I already want to buy one anyway, then, I look for other prices in the internet with my mobile phone, for example. This would also be well-directed.
Tobias describes using his mobile phone to specifically look for information about the subway and prices on cameras. He uses the term “concerted,” suggesting that these are focused and extractive uses of the mobile Internet. Extractive mobile Internet use is often prompted by contextual issues in their environment, which lead both American & German students to want to retrieve or get some kind of information with their devices.
Unlike mobile Internet use on the mobile phone which tended to be extractive, laptop mobile Internet use tended to be more immersive. This is not to say that all laptop Internet use is immersive, but for those participants in our sample who owned both laptops and smartphones, the laptop tended to be used more immersively. Several of the participants were quite thoughtful about the differences between extractive mobile Internet on their phones and immersive mobile Internet on their laptops:
Seth (American student): When I'm on the iPod Touch, I'm more focused on what I want to look at. When I'm on the computer, it gives me more avenues to just kind of wander off.
Ariana (American student): I use my laptop more for work. And then, I use my phone more if I need to check up some quick information.
Drew (American student): I use my phone more than my laptop if it's just a simple search or a rudimentary task. If it's a more involved thing where I'll need to use Flash Player or intense applications, I'll use my laptop.
Anna (German student): I believe the use of mobile internet is much more targeted, so there I know, I have something to do or I know I'll get an email, or I know, it is probably something important there. I then really look when I know that there is something to see and at home [on my laptop] it is more just a leisure activity, that I sometimes jump on without a reason or I stay longer or something like that.
These students each suggest that their phone use is much more purposeful and extractive than their laptop Internet use. Often participants would also suggest that extractive use would be quick and immersive use would be longer. One participant said that he checked his mobile 50 times a day but was ultimately on the Internet longer with his laptop than with his phone. Even though he might check his e-mail multiple times per day, these episodes are very brief, whereas he may use his laptop to be on the Internet 2-3 hours at a time in the evening. This longer usage also tends to be immersive. Immersive use here is not a motivation but a description of use. That is, sometimes immersive use is purposeful such as sitting down to do work and other times it is less purposeful such as surfing online. As described above, immersive use may not demonstrate a clear linearity of thought or progress, but nevertheless, involves getting caught up in the activity of being on the Internet, which occasionally means getting lost or wandering off.
An important point is that sometimes participants used the mobile Internet on their smartphones immersively. Often they would describe scenarios where they were “bored” either in class or in transit and just got on the phones to “surf.” This often involved using a social network application like Facebook or StudiVZ (a popular German social network site). Lena, a German student, describes using the mobile Internet in this way:
For example, if I'm sitting in the bus and simply just have free time or even more so when I do a news search about weather or of nothing precisely of particular concern. If I do not think, I just want anything, then I am researching fast online. This can also be time at the seminary (laughs), or even sometimes at home when the notebook is already down, then I'll just use the iPhone still to close the gap and watch quickly (Lena).
Her use of the iPhone to look for news or when she's bored suggests that while the device is well suited for extractive use, that is certainly not its only purpose.
Sometimes students described going online to “check” something and getting caught up in reading status updates or looking through photos. For example, Dyna, an American student, uninstalled Facebook from her phone because it had become too distracting.
I don't have any type of social media application on my phone just because of that. Because you would get some kind of signal or whatever or vibration and then in the middle of class you pull it out, and then you start browsing. That is one of the reasons why I decided to uninstall it. (Dyna)
A couple students suggested that the worst thing about the mobile Internet was its addictive nature. For example, Lela, an American student, describes her constant need to check her phone for new messages, “If you're bored in class, you'll look [at the phone] until you got something new and you'll check every 10 minutes instead of paying attention in class.” Sebastian, a student from Germany, suggested that one can become so immersed in the Internet that one becomes distracted and loses track of time.
Sebastian: The biggest disadvantage [of the mobile internet] is just really, that you sometimes really partly waste time on it, so you just know that when you are sitting at your laptop at home, and then you are getting from one page to another page, and then there somehow as well and then you are around at StudiVZ, and looking around there on the profile, and suddenly, somehow half an hour has passed, and then you are wondering where the time went.
Interviewer: And that happens to you with mobile internet as well?
Sebastian: Yes unfortunately that does happen to me too. Like I said, so now really in situations, where I actually should pay attention, but they just don't make it that thrilling.
Sebastian suggests that what previously only happened on his laptop can now happen on his iPhone. He recognizes that he should be paying attention but indeed gets distracted by the immersive nature of the mobile Internet on his phone. The mobile phone was not only used for extractive purposes but sometimes immersive as well.
One of the interesting distinctions between immersive and extractive Internet use on smartphones was how they were evaluated. Often extractive usage was identified as one of the things students liked best about the mobile Internet whereas immersive use was sometimes identified as one of the negative feature of the mobile Internet. Both American and German students thought extractive uses were an important and positive feature of mobile Internet access. The negative impacts were either the addictive or distracting nature and were mostly mentioned by American students. The common complaints about the mobile Internet by German students were the high cost and the poor network service of the mobile Internet on their phones. For some American students, the immersive nature lead to a kind of addiction where one student felt she overly relied on her phone:
Interviewer: What do you think is the worst thing about the mobile internet?
Ariana: It's addicting. [laughter]
Interviewer: What do you mean by that?
Ariana: I feel like I really rely on it. I'm relying on it now, you know what I mean. If I forget my phone somewhere, I freak out.
While a couple of the participants in the study used the term “addictive,” we don't want to suggest that this kind of distraction or addiction is necessarily pathological. Based the interviews, it seems that the use of this word reflects a heavy or intense reliance on the phone rather than a true pathology.
Another American student was particularly thoughtful about how he saw the mobile Internet negatively impacting student life:
Interviewer: What do you think is the worst thing about the mobile internet?Seth: Maybe the fact that people are too focused on their phones some times. You lose a lot of maybe human interaction. Or skills, such as research skills, where you go to the library, you know you used the Dewey decimal system. You used a lot of different old fashion techniques for research. Now it's all becoming, "Oh, let me Google this," or “let me go to like JSTOR or something”. Whereas the traditional methods of really scrolling through and reading books, you don't get the same, I guess, feeling out of that, that you would when you use just the internet.
Seth's quote suggests two interesting opinions. First, he feels that people are mis-prioritizing communication through their mobile devices over and above face-to-face communication. The mobile Internet distracts them from their physical environment. While this is a common critique of mobile phone use more broadly (e.g. Gergen, 2002), Seth feels that mobile Internet access through the phone further exacerbates this problem. Second, Seth suggests despite its addictive or immersive characteristics, fundamentally the experience of the mobile Internet retains elements of its extractive nature. Thus research becomes superficial and not as in-depth as when one had to go to the library and actually read through books and journals.
While the major differences between extractive and immersive mobile Internet use fall along the mode of access (i.e. extractive use was primarily on the smartphone and immersive use primarily on the laptop or netbook), these differences are not completely mutually exclusive. There was evidence that immersive mobile Internet use can occur on smartphones particularly when people are bored or filling time; and extractive mobile Internet use can occur on laptops where quick answers may be sought through the Internet, particularly when and where mobile coverage is unavailable.