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Smartphones Are Not a Threat to Old Media–Unless They Are

We’ve seen conflicting data concerning the role of mobile media in our lives. So what’s the truth?

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A new study argues that smartphones aren’t posing a threat to traditional media like newspapers and television. Instead of displacing these media, say Ohio State and Rowan University professors, mobile media is mostly used to fill in gaps in people’s days, when older media isn’t easily at hand. The study, “News in the Interstices,” appears in the current issue of the journal New Media & Society.

If true, the researchers acknowledge that this is an unusual pattern. “Typically, what happens with new media is that they compete with and displace older media to a certain extent, like television did with radio,” John Dimmick of OSU, the lead author of the study, said in a release. “But at least early in its development, mobile media isn’t taking us away from older media–it has its own separate niche.”

The findings don’t quite square with other studies that have come out lately. A recent study from eMarketer said that people were spending more time consuming mobile media than newspapers and magazines combined. It’s hard to imagine that kind of time being spent merely in the “interstices,” in a manner non-threatening to old media.

One reason for a behind-the-times feeling to the recent academic study is that its data is a bit old. It relies on data collected from time-use surveys administered in 2007, the year the iPhone debuted, when the iPad was still something like a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye. That’s ancient history for a new media study; and indeed, as a careful academic study rather than one aimed at marketers,  the researchers likely see their paper as a contribution to the historiography of new media. Their paper begins with a brief historical overview of media usage in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dimmick tells Fast Company he would have preferred the paper come out sooner, and that data was presented in a conference paper a year after it was collected. “The lag between the data collection and publication is due to the process of academic publication,” he says. Peer review, revision, publication–it all takes time. (Which leads us to wonder, again, if the scientific publishing process is somewhat outmoded at this point.)

The paper also seems to have somewhat literary theoretical ambitions to define mobile technologies as an idea, to contribute to the cultural criticism of the iPhone, if you will. It quotes one scholar’s notion that “[Mobile technologies] might be said to be a place out of space and time, a placeless place, where the user is taken to be disconnected from the world around them, and connectivity and mobility to be independent variables, experienced not so much elsewhere as anywhere.” A placeless place, a timeless time, the interstices of our lives…intriguing ideas, and a worthy paper–but if you’re trying to figure out where to put your ad spend, perhaps stick to eMarketer.

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Ultimately, though, the broad outlines of the paper’s conclusions seem to square with what we see anecdotally and experience even today, four years after the study. Newspapers still have a place at breakfast, the desktop belongs at the office, and TV reigns after dinner. And mobile technologies–as implied by their very name–give us news when we’re shuttling from one stage of the day to another.

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[Image: Flickr user jordan a. m]

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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