February 2, 2009

Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions

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kiwanjaA couple of weeks ago – in “The long tail revisited” – I briefly touched on the topic of “myths in the social mobile space.” It wasn’t the major focus of the post, but as is often the case it kicked off a completely separate discussion, one which took place largely off-blog in the Twitterverse and via email. I’ve been thinking more about it since, particularly as the social mobile space continues to hot up and people begin to face tools and projects off against one another – sometimes for the right reasons, more often for the wrong.

So, here’s my current “Top Ten” myths and misconceptions in this emerging field. Feel free to add, remove, agree, disagree, debate or dismiss. In no particular order …

1. “High-end is better than low-end”

Firstly, one mobile tool should never be described as being better than the other – it’s all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for a $1 million server-based, high bandwidth mobile-web solution as there is for a low-cost, SMS-only PC-based tool. Both are valid. Solutions are needed all the way along the “long tail“, and users need a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. Generally speaking there is no such thing as a bad tool, just an inappropriate one.

Server Farm - via Flickr (Jemimus)

2. “Don’t bother if it doesn’t scale”

Just because a particular solution won’t ramp-up to run an international mobile campaign, or health care for an entire nation, does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a high-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small rural communications network. Let’s not forget that a small deployment which helps just a dozen people is significant to those dozen people and their families.

3. “Centralised is better than distributed”

Not everything needs to run on a mega-server housed in the capital city, accessed through “the cloud.“ Okay, storing data and even running applications – remotely – might be wonderful technologically, but it’s not so great if you have a patchy internet connection, if one at all. For most users centralised means “remote”, distributed “local.”

4. “Big is beautiful”

Sadly there’s a general tendency to take a small-scale solution that works and then try to make a really big version of it. One large instance of a tool is not necessarily better that hundreds of smaller instances. If a small clinic finds a tool to help deliver health care more effectively to two hundred people, why not simply get the same tool into a thousand clinics? Scaling a tool changes its DNA, sometimes to such an extent that everything that was originally good about it is lost. Instead, replication is what’s needed.

Toolbox from Flickr (_sarchi)

5. “Tools are sold as seen”

I would argue that everything we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is “work in progress”, and it will likely remain that way for some time. The debate around the pros and cons of different tools needs to be a constructive one – based on a work in progress mentality – and one which positively feeds back into the development cycle.

6. “Collaborate or die”

Although collaboration is a wonderful concept, it doesn’t come without its challenges – politics, ego and vested interests among them. There are moves to make the social mobile space more collaborative, but this is easier said than done. 2009 will determine whether or not true non-competitive collaboration is possible, and between who. The more meaningful collaborations will be organic, based on needs out in the field, not those formed out of convenience.

7. “Appropriate technologies are poor people’s technologies”

A criticism often aimed more broadly at the appropriate technology movement, locally-powered, simple low-tech-based responses should not be regarded as second best to their fancier high-tech ‘Western’ cousins. A cheap, low-spec handset with five days standby time is far more appropriate than an iPhone if you don’t live anywhere near a mains outlet.

kiwanja Mobile Gallery

8. “No news is bad news”

For every headline-grabbing mobile project, there are hundreds – if not thousands – which never make the news. Progress and adoption of tools will be slow and gradual, and project case studies will bubble up to the surface over time. No single person in the mobile space has a handle on everything that’s going on out there.

9. “Over-promotion is just hype”

Mobile tools will only be adopted when users get to hear about them, understand them and are given easy access to them. One of the biggest challenges in the social mobile space is outreach and promotion, and we need to take advantage of every opportunity to get news on available solutions – and successful deployments – right down to the grassroots. It is our moral duty to do this, as it is to help with the adoption of those tools which clearly work and improve people’s lives.

10. “Competition is healthy”

In a commercial environment – yes – but saving or improving lives should never be competitive. If there’s one thing that mobile-for-development practitioners can learn from the wider development and ICT4D community, it’s this.Ken Banks is founder of kiwanja.net, a site that helps nonprofits use mobile technology to serve their communities’ information needs. See his profile page, visit his blog, contact Ken or leave a comment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kiwanja.

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