03/05/2013 05:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Have We Lost Sight of the Human Behind the Screen?

The flights out of Barcelona last Thursday were stuffed full with suited mobile mavens as they returned home after an intense three days, trekking around the Mobile World Congress. Bigger and more impressive each year, the MWC presents the daunting task of how to take in all the new and shiny objects on offer.

For me, some of the most exciting innovations were those that capture human data and repackage it in a useful way. For example, Telefónica in Spain has recently created a product in partnership with the insurance company Generali. The product is designed to reduce insurance premiums by allowing young people to "Pay for how they drive." A wired mobile device in the vehicle relays data to a service center. Driving is then assessed on criteria like speeding, braking and night driving. Quite simply, if you drive in a low-risk category you pay less insurance. Cities can also utilize this data to improve roads and road safety. This is a part of a new wave of ultra-personalization in the mobile sphere where devices know us better than we know ourselves.

Which prompts an interesting question: How well do we know ourselves when it comes to our mobile behavior? Sometimes with all the talk of gadgets and devices at the MWC, we lose sight of the human being behind the screen.

As more and more of our interactions are conducted via a mobile screen, to what extent is our intense relationship with our devices influencing our personal relationships and even our personalities? After all, as Marshall McLuhan famously stated, "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."

At McCann Truth Central, we conducted a global research study called "The Truth About Connected You" to explore how the "tool" of mobile phones was "shaping" user personalities that we launched at MWC. Our Mobile Personality Profiler test, which is online at, is a bit of fun (e.g., are you a "Data Diva" or a "One Tech Pony" personality type?), but it aims to make a serious point. It prompts the individual to examine his or her own mobile behavior. Do you prefer lots of short messages or fewer long messages? How often do you screen calls? Do you like to have your phone on silent or do you wince at the idea of missing a call?


Since the early days of mass access to the Internet, sociologists and anthropologists have been asking questions about if and how interaction online is markedly different from the interactions we have in a face-to-face setting. The phenomenon of developing multiple avatars or even adopting the identity of someone entirely different has been much documented and discussed. We've all encountered quiet and respectful individuals who feel compelled to unload a torrent of abuse online, hidden behind the veil of an anonymous name. We wanted to take this conversation a step further and look specifically at if (and how) the mobile interface impacts our behavior.

Perhaps you've noticed that your usually surly and monosyllabic niece seems more eloquent and confident via text? Or that your usually outgoing partner is curt and antisocial when you correspond via mobile? If so, you may well be getting a glimpse into their distinctive "mobile" personalities.

In this context, it is vital to consider the implications for the brands and businesses that seek to interact with customers via mobile. Mobile is a unique space in how it bridges the public and private worlds. We most often use the device in public yet we have a deeply personal and intimate relationship with the device too. Nearly a fifth of our survey's respondents even characterize their mobile relationship as that between "lovers."

Consequently, despite having the best intentions, many mobile advertisers and network providers are frequently seen as intrusive just by targeting the wrong individuals in the wrong way. It stands to reason that marketers who better understand the mobile personalities of their customers will be better placed to provide the engaging and useful communications customers demand. We found that 63 percent of customers wish that the advertising they saw on their mobile was more entertaining.

If this year's MWC taught me anything, it's that mobile is truly entrenched in every aspect of our lives (or very soon will be). Our mobiles are an extension of ourselves and thereby provide a fascinating insight into our personalities. More than half of young people aged 16-22 told us they would rather give up their sense of smell than give up their mobile technology. Mobile devices are truly our fifth sense, essential to how we sense and make sense of the world around us. Daniel Eckert Chief Technology Officer of PwC even referred to our mobile devices as our "clones."

As mobile technology continues its inexorable march into everything we do and ultimately becomes completely integrated... for how much longer will we actually need a "Mobile" World Congress?