Electronic media emerged as a stationary service. Accessing their viewers and listeners at home, the first generation of electronic media—radio, television, and even the first generation of computers—needed to be at home (or at the workplace), connected to both the communication and electric grids. Indeed, the need to be physically connected and the infrastructure required to build telephone and computer lines made for a slow introduction among the lower socioeconomic classes, first, of the telephone, then of multichannel television, and later of computer communications.
Mobility—the capability to communicate at will from a variety of locations none of which are necessarily a person’s domicile or workplace—is a relatively new phenomenon. It was first popularized with the invention of the transistor radio in the 1950s, which created the first electronic mobile receiving-only medium, but was revolutionized with the invention of the mobile phone. Indeed, the mobile phone took the world by storm. There are today more mobile phone connections worldwide5 than there are human beings.6 Those not connected to a mobile device have been in the minority in many countries for some time (Campbell, 2007). This is no small feat. The mobile phone, which made its debut as a commercially available device only in the mid-1980s, is now probably the most popular information and communications technology (ICT) used by humans. Since 2014 more Americans have been accessing the Internet over a mobile application on a phone or tablet than over a personal computer,7 and since 2015 more searches on Google have taken place on a mobile device than on a stationary one.8 This may demonstrate the impact of mobility on access and why in the developing world the mobile phone has been seen as having a greater impact on social change than the Internet (Briggs & Burke, 2009).
Since mobile devices serve capabilities similar to those served by computers, telephones, televisions, and other ICTs, one needs to determine what it is that makes these devices the devices of choice for a growing number of activities, where the differentiator and the common denominator is clearly their mobility. Indeed, mobility is an essential characteristic of human existence. As a recent promotional video of the US Customs and
Border Protection service, airing on international flights arriving at US airports, says: “We are improving to get you moving.”
Human movement during the day is patterned and predictable (Song, Qu, Blumm, & Barabasi, 2010), and despite the variety in their mobility records, humans maintain “simple reproducible patterns” of mobility (Gonzalez, Hidalgo, & Barabasi, 2008). Hence, the mobility characteristic of contemporary media is consistent with human nature. Within a few years of their introduction to the market, mobile devices have become more than a luxury item or a status symbol (Bauman, 1999; Cohen & Lemish, 2002) and turned into a necessity as they are increasingly being used in stationary or domestic settings (Weber, 2011).
Mobile devices have also altered traditional social norms and behavior patterns. They change the ways people communicate by contesting the accepted boundaries between public and private spaces (Steier, 2013), and they contribute to the formation of new social spheres in which people “find it increasingly difficult to distinguish relationships that exist in their pockets from those that exist in their physical surroundings” (Mihailidis, 2014, p. 59). Lemos (2010) identifies three ideal types of mobility: physi- cal/spatial (transport), virtual/ informational (media), and cognitive/ imaginary (thoughts, religion, dreams) and sees three different probable types of action mobile devices offer as they replace, complement, or add to one’s information behavior. Media mobility also has an effect on the way we consume media content. Tryon (2012) distinguishes between platform mobility—the capability of content to seamlessly move between platforms, which in themselves are mobile—and temporal mobility, which expands the time-shifting capability of by now old technologies such as video cassette and digital video recorders.
At the same time, the mobility of contemporary media has contributed to the redesign and repurposing of traditional media institutions. Thus, for example, mobility has become vital to successful consumer engagement (Brennan & Shafer, 2010). Public documentation via mobile phones— the most significant development of which is user-generated content—has become a new component affecting traditional news-gathering practices and flow cycles (Bivens, 2008). A plethora of research demonstrates how ordinary citizens are taking the place of journalists, photojournalists, and other established professionals as a result of possessing and operating mobile devices (Pavlik, 2013). Mobility also creates new roles in the newsroom, such as “curators” who are replacing old-style gatekeepers, creates a new culture in the newsroom, and drives new business models (Ibid). In addition, new mobile media have been seen as transforming the news media owing to their emerging modes of on-demand, on-location, and participatory news production (Sheller, 2015).
Perhaps the most discussed effect of mobility is its role in the support of social movements. While “consensus has not been reached regarding the extent to which mobile phones can create an alternative politics and facilitate social change” (Wasserman, 2011, p. 147), an analysis of over three million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content, and thousands of blog posts revealed that social media had a critical role in the Arab Spring—the pan-Middle East protest movement that peaked in 2011 (Howard et al., 2011). Hassanpour’s (2011) recount of probably the largest of such movements constituting the “Spring,” the Egyptian uprise in Tahrir Square, describes how the social dependency on mobility has become so essential that “disrupting social and mobile media... fostered more contention of a decentralized nature...[and] acts as a catalyst of the revolutionary process and hastens the disintegration of the status quo” (p. 2). Other descriptions of mobile-enhanced social unrest (e.g., Christensen, 2011) question whether mobility actually did help the protesters or whether it gave more surveillance power to oppressive regimes, highlighting the double-edged sword of contemporary media, which sets enhanced expression and access to media against the price being paid for the loss of privacy.
Nevertheless, the growing political role of the mobile device transcends beyond assisting movements for social change. Goggin and Clark (2009) claim that mobile devices foster an interaction between “traditional concepts of community and citizen media, on the one hand, and emerging movements in citizenship, democracy, governance, and development, on the other hand” (p. 586), while Wasserman (2011) states that the capability of mobile devices to change and modernize identities contributes to the transmission of political information needed for rational public debates while compromising traditional cultural borders and social hierarchies. Indeed, mobiles provide opportunities for intercultural contact (Shuter, 2011) as they serve not only as mere “technologies transmitting democratic and civic information but also as the location where people are transgressing the hitherto fixed boundaries of what counts as political participation or civic identification” [emphases in original] (Wasserman, 2011, p. 157).