There's lots of talk these days about "mobile social networking," but what does that mean exactly? Does it mean reading Facebook news feeds via a mobile device or updating Twitter, for example, from a mobile phone? Or does it mean using location-awareness on your phone through an application to interact or communicate with people nearby who are similarly mobile? Of course the two are not mutually exclusive -- and Facebook (and MySpace) will evolve over time to increasingly take mobile and location into account.
But there's nothing necessarily "social" about logging into Facebook from a mobile app. (BTW: the Facebook iPhone app has prompted me to use Facebook more in general.) In one sense accessing Facebook from mobile browser or app is really no different than reading the NY Times or getting restaurant reviews from Yelp on a mobile device. For purposes of this post the central difference between Facebook and the NY Times, conceptually, is that others can potentially respond and "interact" with you on Facebook. In addition, this could hypothetically happen in real time. Right now it's largely asynchronous.
With Loopt, Where's Buddy Beacon, Whrrl and other mobile-centric apps that enable people to "see" one another's locations "on the go" that real-time element is even more pronounced. In other words, I see you're nearby, I send you a message and we meet at a coffee house, etc. Alternatively, I send out a message looking for a nearby restaurant recommendation from my mobile device and get real-time responses from a community of users (e.g., Mosio). Those two scenarios, which involve two-way interaction in real time, should define what we mean by "mobile social networking."
Indeed, two-way communication between people using mobile devices, in real-time, is very different than looking at a website (or logging in) via mobile, regardless of whether it's MySpace, Facebook, Bebo or ConsumerReports. And many people use SMS today in precisely this way. That's why, earlier this year, when we explored the subject, texting appeared for many people as a satisfactory alternative to mobile social networking:
Barriers to 'Mobile Social Networking'
Source: Opus Research/Multiplied Media (n=730, Q1 2008)
Texting thus represents a barrier to the growth of true social networking on mobile devices, unless or until those networking tools become easier, cheaper and more convenient than texting. When they do, SMS volumes may diminish (in favor of mobile IM and/or other tools).
This will all likely turn out to be quibbling over semantics in a very short period of time, as the mobile use of Facebook and MySpace grow and people recognize that as "mobile social networking." But I at least wanted to raise the issue of definitions because it's worth being conscious about what we mean by "mobile social networking" and what features differentiate it from simply accessing a website with social elements on a mobile device.