Information Management, What the Tech Industry can Learn from History about Public BacklashFrequent the mainstream media and you may have noticed occasional snippets about our growing fascination with mobile computing, digital cultures and social media.

Twenty seconds here about diners stacking their smart phones, the first to reach for his unit getting stuck with the bill; a quick headline there about studies highlighting the growing propensity of social media users to check in at odd or even embarrassing times; even passing mention of the fact that of the several recent mass killers, many were obsessed with violent video games, spending up to 18 hours per day playing. 

But with everything else going on these days you could be forgiven for missing the fact that there is anything here worth following.

Dig a little deeper, the mobile computing professional blogs and zines for example, and you uncover another layer of information, this time using the term “social media addiction” (SMA) and describing a growing proportion of mobile and social media users finding themselves tied to their magical screens.

You’ll find statistics indicating that growing percentages -- like 15, 25 and 49, depending on age -- find themselves checking their Facebook or other social media pages in the middle of the night, in the bathroom, in school, at dinner, during conversations, even during intimate moments. With social media users in the billions worldwide, even small percentages here translate into real numbers. There are even websites acknowledging SMA and offering to “use social media addiction to maximize your marketing effort.

Finally, drill all the way down to sites representing the human behavior counseling and research world and you find real concern that social media and other elements of the mobile computing landscape may be providing a growing outlet for a variety of potentially debilitating behaviors. For many users, while there may be no controlled substances involved, these behaviors rise to the level of clinical addiction. Indeed, it appears that social media addiction is on its way to inclusion as a recognized clinical disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the “Bible” for clinical practitioners worldwide. Taken together, these realities constitute a growing set of problems exposing the underbelly of the mobile computing world.

Something this way comes, and it ain't beanbag.

Clouds on the Horizon for Mobile Computing Industry?

So what does this mean for an industry that stakes its future on a constantly expanding and enthusiastic marketplace for mobile devices, accessories, software applications and participation sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like?

At first look, it might appear that the two aren't connected. But this view may fail to recognize that health of the mobile computing market depends on public embrace of the next great new device or software applications for themselves and their children, and that public has a way of reacting -- and over-reacting -- to things they come to view as threatening. There are a number of ways this reaction has manifested itself, any of them potentially spelling trouble for an industry finely tuned to expect large volume sales of each succeeding release or new model.

It doesn't much matter what the cause, the effect can still be dramatic.

Microsoft, for example, sold nearly two million of its recently released Surface RT tablet computer, yet faced a US$ 1 billion dollar write down and the end of its CEO’s career. Admittedly, the reasons were different in Microsoft’s case, but the impacts show us the potential effect of shocks to any part of the mobile marketplace.

Big Brother… er, Government Regulation

There is another cloud on the horizon whenever the public perceives threat: government intervention.
Governments often react to complaints from key segments of their voting constituencies by:

  1. Holding hearings, often driven by interest groups and skewed to produce a specific result.
  2. Demonizing industries they are targeting, deserved or not, to ensure that the government appears to be the good guys.
  3. Frightening the public into fearing some not fully explained consequences if the government doesn't act.
  4. Drafting legislation and/or regulations to address the source of the complaints, often without input from all parties to the situation and imposing often quite onerous restrictions on the freedom of industries to conduct their business.
  5. Resist revisiting their actions even in the face of new facts: sometimes for many years.

In some cases, motion pictures in the latter 1960s for example, industries establish voluntary restrictions to avoid formal regulation. In other cases, however, the industry cannot avoid government action, as in the case of the now moribund high-end American yacht industry, after imposition of a “millionaire’s tax” on vessels costing more than US$ 100,000, much of which either failed or moved offshore to avoid the tax.

The move to require passenger side air bags in all vehicles was, as well, instituted after a major promotion campaign by such groups as Public Citizen, demonizing the “heartless” automobile manufacturers as interested only in cost. Following the air bag mandate, a number of studies by the pediatric medical community suggested that children in front seats were being killed by the devices, hence another promotional campaign aimed at putting children in back seats.

The story of the sweetener Cylamates in the 1960s is so similar; it need not be detailed here. The process, however, was almost identical to other government intrusions based on flawed and later reversed evidence, but with lasting effects -- the ban on cyclamates, reversed in most countries, is still in effect in the United States.

Whatever the details, most industries fear government intrusion, and the same could well be true of the mobile computing industry, especially with low cost foreign suppliers ready to take the domestic market.

Don’t Anger the Marketplace

Although less defined, there is also the prospect of market overreaction and a corresponding partial boycott of entire portions of the industry. This usually starts with kind of action and publicity from some segment of the non-government public watchdogs, usually targeting an industry that supposedly does damage to the most vulnerable among us. Details aside, and even if the government does not step in, the impact of public and public-service organizations’ actions can be damaging for any industry responsible for products and services capable of being abused.

People remember the ALAR apple (and grapefruit) scare of the late '80s and early '90s, in which, after hysterical reports, corrupted evidence and TV programs about this plant growth and preservative chemical sprayed on some apples, the public reacted by shunning the entire apple and part of the grapefruit industries, injuring even the vast majority of growers that had never used ALAR.

In this instance, the damage was done without the government ever stepping in. After extensive studies, the EPA classed ALAR as a potential carcinogen, but determined that the exposure required to be dangerous was literally thousands of times what any human is likely to consume. Despite these new studies and results, the affected industries still suffer.

So what can an industry faced with the potential for market or government reaction do? While, as you might expect, the specifics are different in each case, the need for appropriate and timely action is near universal. There are a number of options:

1. Watch, Wait and Hope

Though it sounds shortsighted, just holding on, doing your best to be a good corporate citizen, monitoring events and hoping that negative effects, if they come, are manageable is a popular option; after all, when the market or government punishes an industry, usually only the weaker players are mortally wounded and the market leaders can sometimes profit over time from a thinning of the competitive landscape.

But, as the examples above illustrate, this is a risky strategy, especially when the negative factors driving market reaction are widespread among the most vulnerable, as in the case of mobile computing and social media addiction. Firms taking this approach should carefully monitor the growth and nature of response to these negative factors, planning for market shocks should the response become explosive.

2. Accelerate Changes to Head-off Reaction

In some cases, making changes that, while not required or deemed critical by the involved firms, demonstrate response to growing public or government discomfiture, are an effective way of heading off market or regulatory intrusion at reasonable and acceptable cost. Some cases, however, especially where product use is involved, don’t lend themselves to product changes -- mobile computing included -- preparation for the response may be the only path available.

3. Minimize the Impact

Where a situation does not lend itself to pre-emptive action, industries looking at potential market shocks can act to make themselves part of the “good guys” when shocks come. For example the video gaming industry can, as it has, institute a rating system to inform buyers of the nature of games and the age appropriateness. As addiction to video games, especially those with extensive violence, has become more public, the industry might go further in controlling who can play certain games by instituting a parental approval system of passwords built into games and known only to adults who purchase them -- admittedly a stretch, but probably not prohibitive if things escalate.

Social media companies (most of them flush with cash) could initiate or increase support of peer-reviewed research, helping to understand why so many people, especially youth, find themselves obsessed with connectedness and how that obsession can be ameliorated or prevented… and of course build some public good will in the bargain.

Whatever the Strategy, Benign Neglect Probably Ain’t It

It’s fair to say that the explosive growth of mobile computing and digital society will continue unabated and with it the growing nature of the problems associated with it. Along with that growth will likely be challenges to the involved industries, and while the best strategy for each case is as yet unknowable, if the history related above teaches us anything, it is that ignoring the problems and trying to do the right thing, while laudable, may not be sufficient.

Title image courtesy of ostill (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more of Barry's thoughts in The Growth of Wireless Data: We are Heading for a Wall