Column No. 250–appropriately enough, for one who first entered the commentary space as a political blogger, a repurposing of a blog post. Published on June 11, 2013.
Allow me to run something I posted on my blog last week—on June 5, in the middle of the World Newspaper Congress in Bangkok. Having heard yet another resource speaker repeat the newly popular research finding that smartphone users “check their phones 150 times a day,” I was moved to check the basis of the research for myself.
At the 2013 World Newspaper Congress and in its parallel conferences… the ascendancy of the mobile space is a recurring theme. The one idea that sums up this compelling vision of the present-sliding-into-the-future is the “150 times a day” meme:
According to research, people are checking smartphones on average 150 times a day @iRowan #editors13 #wnc13
That tweet, from the conference organizers’ official account, is representative. Of the hundreds of tweets and dozens of links I followed, many versions of the meme follow the same three-fold form: the attribution to “research,” the extension of the scope to “smartphones,” and the assertion of the frequency, “150 times a day.”
But is this statistic for real?
It seems very likely that the currency of the meme is due to (Internet investment maven) Mary Meeker’s fame… at All Things D’s D11 conference, on May 29, she dedicated one slide, out of a total of 117, to the idea that “mobile users reach to [sic] phone ~150x a day.” (That would be Slide 52.)
In the last seven days, Meeker’s slide deck has been accessed over 1.3 million times. (Almost a week later, the total has risen to almost 1.6 million.) ….
What was Meeker’s source for the claim? The mobile guru Tomi Ahonen, formerly of Nokia. I have not read Ahonen’s Almanac 2013, Meeker’s direct source, which was published only a couple of months ago. But he did write this, in his Communities Dominate Brands blog, last January, or when the 2013 edition of his Almanac was already in press:
“January 22, 2013
“An Attempt to Validate the 150x Per Day Number Based On ‘Typical User’
“I’ve been working on that 150 times per day number. You may have heard it, Nokia was first to publish the number in 2010, saying that on average a mobile phone (not smartphone, any mobile phone) user will look at the phone 150 times per day”
… In his January blog post, Ahonen describes his method of validating the 150 figure.
“I have been trying to validate the 150x number and I’ve gotten pretty close. So this is my ‘argument’ in support of 150 times per day. WHAT would a ‘typical user’ do with the non-smartphone today, that results in looking at the phone once every 7 minutes of every waking hour of every single day? I’ll paint a scenario, using for the best part, consumer statistics on behavior on phones, or replacement behavior, plus some observations and personal experiences and chats with some fellow experts.”
That doesn’t sound like research to me. Perhaps the better way to describe Ahonen’s process is to call it a thought experiment. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course, but how would Meeker’s Slide 52 come down, if the reference was not to an “almanac,” but to a thought experiment?
As a heavy user of both a “dumb” phone and a smartphone, I would like the 150 meme to hold true. Mobile is the future, or at least it feels so to me. But as a journalist, I cannot but be skeptical of Ahonen’s validation, WAN-IFRA’s use of “research”—and thus of Meeker’s Slide 52.
In the first place, Ahonen himself says the number applies to all phones, not just smartphones. Secondly, the number is from all of three years ago; surely the dynamics of phone use have changed since then. Thirdly, Ahonen’s thought experiment is full of questionable assumptions, which undermines the very concept of an “average.” Here, for example, is how he arrives at the estimate of 22 voice calls a day.
“Then the voice calls. The average phone user places 3 calls per day and also receives 3 calls. Where are the other 16 times? Interruptions! We have a dropped call (1x per day) or we make a call attempt that won’t go through (1x per day). We miss a call that was coming, too slow to pull the phone out, or forgot we had changed our ringing tone (yes, we all have done that too). I say 1x per day we miss a call. Avoid a call? Yes that we also do, we see who’s calling, and decide not to talk, send the bastard to voicemail jail. That’s 1x per day. But you know what. We look at the phone we start the call—we ALSO have to look at the phone to end the call. So out of the 7 actual phone calls, we have to end 7 calls, that gives us 7 more times to look at the phone. Now I’m at 17 times per day. Where are the last 5? Anticipation again. We look at the phone awaiting or anticipating a call or call-back. I’d say 5 times per day. That gives a total of 22 times we look at our phone relating to voice calls, per day.”
So the figure of 22 voice calls (second only to the average of 23 messaging “uses” the average cell phone user makes) includes 16 “interruptions.” Ahonen could be right; he could also be ridiculously wrong. Who is to say?
Fourthly, lastly, Ahonen’s research was meant to approximate the 150 number. In other words, it wasn’t so much validation as rationalization.
Surely we need a better basis to build the future-that-is-already-here.
* * *
On June 7, Jeff Elder of the San Francisco Chronicle debunked Meeker’s 150-times-a-day claim in great style. I found his story, “Mary Meeker’s misinformation has influence,” actually a little too soft on Ahonen (the former Nokia executive has done more than Meeker to try to popularize the 150-times-a-day claim), but he got results. The Chronicle’s social media director got Meeker to tweak the headline and the sourcing of Slide 52, among others. And he drew renewed attention to the conduct of “a sometimes credulous tech press.”