'Social Media Dad' Sees an iPhone-Powered New World Order

It Took My Kid's Birthday Party to See the Light

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Sometimes we pick up our best insights in times of sheer chaos.

Mind you, I'm not alluding to Bob Garfield's "Chaos Scenario" (a provocative read, by the way) but, rather, to what I learned about the all-devices-in-one iPhone during a high-energy birthday party this past weekend for my 4-year-old twins.

Birthday parties are a big deal. They make big-initiative-marketing plans look trivial. Add friends and neighbors to the mix and a few contingency scenarios and we're talking an operation worthy of first-year military logistics training. Yes, it's all fun and heartwarming -- it's the Academy Awards of Kodak moments -- but it's not exactly what I'd dub a check-the-box, add-water-and-stir exercise.

We're talking multitasking on steroids and you need to be poised to exploit an opportunity or need on a moment's notice. My Sisyphean to-do list included music, photos, video, giving directions, pinata set-up and oversight, serving drinks, food set-up, assisting my wife and mother-in-law whenever possible, perpetual cleanup and more. (What's truly scary is that my wife Erika's list was even longer and more challenging.)

Enter the iPhone. While it would border on hype to suggest that my two-week-old iPhone "saved" the party, it certainly made things much easier. It took the photos, provided quick directions, captured and edited critical video coverage, downloaded a last-minute birthday song, periodically powered the outdoor stereo system and, in the last half hour, served as on-demand, pass-along entertainment for adults and kids alike. (Who wants to wait for re-reruns of the day's activity?) Oh, and it was in my back pocket, ready for service at any time.

Of course, I could have used other far more superior tools -- Erika, for example, was running around with our beloved, yet visibly clunky, digital camera around her neck, and a killer HD Flip video camera sat in a drawer but a hundred feet away -- but honestly, the iPhone functionality was, as Wired magazine recently noted, "good enough" to meet the need. Quite good, in fact.

Indeed, convenience and simplicity were the orders of the day and I felt comfortable, empowered and relaxed with the device. I wasn't seeking perfection -- just a solid denominator of solid results.

The implications
Now, I'm not trying to be an Apple shill here but rather underscore a broader trend and what I think is a bellwether. Apple -- a "leading indicator" in so many respects -- has a track record of driving habit change at a time when "influencers" increasingly move the market. The iPhone is clearly resetting consumer expectations about the role, functionality and integration of devices, and other brands are moving in a similar direction. At the end of the day, we need to understand where the puck is moving.

Whether iPhone or its mobile brethren, we're finally gravitating to that once overhyped vision: the all-in-one device. We're also gravitating to a principle I dub SNAP: Simple, Now, Accessible, and Practical. Let's dissect what I mean here.

  • Simple: Complexity is our enemy. We yearn for convenience. Our brains can only store so many instructions. Secretly, we're all in search of one-click (or one-touch) simplicity and convenience.
  • Now: Instant gratification is a hallmark of the digital age, and mobile devices take this to impressive levels. The irresistible lure of content creation and production puts the "now" factor in unique context.
  • Accessible: Our devices follow us everywhere and, combined with the simplicity principle, we're entering a brave world of consumer-controlled surveillance and friction-free feedback. We're empowered to record and narrate everything around us and that has massive implications for product exposure, brand transparency and our ability to exercise our "power dad" instinct at kid parties.
  • Practical: We don't need every feature. We need timely solutions and answers. "Apps," in particular, are like digital machetes that cut through 90% of the waste we typically see on web sites to focus on what's most needed and what's of most service to consumers. Practical, because we really need to get things done.

Consequences and roadkill
This has real consequences for the other single-function gadgetry in our digital constellation. Whether we admit it or not, we're starting to unload, unwind or just park "heavy" or "single use" digital equipment from the mix.

Will we soon see a wave of gadget downsizing and consolidation? Amidst my own medley of gadgets and electronics tools, I'm already feeling the impact in just two weeks of having an iPhone. Regular digital camera usage is down. The Flip camera is spending more time in the backpack. The fancier video camera is gathering cobwebs. The BlackBerry (which work pays for) has been narrowed down exclusively to "official" calls and e-mails. The laptop is less relevant for sharing video clips with the twins. My tiny tape recorders will never hear another voice. (The iPhone has a wonderful voice recorder.)

My stereo receiver, already beaten down by the iPod, is increasingly taking on the look of a Buggywhip. TV games have lost some of their lure as I drink from the fire-hydrant of low-cost or free iPhone games. My Kindle still has a fighting chance, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it. Even Apple's taking a hit on iTunes consumption because I'm receiving a nice alternative via Pandora. (But at least it's on the same device.) My fancy iMac desktop is hoping and praying I'll see incremental value in iMovie vs. just touching the "send to YouTube" button.

So there's economy (and probably an ROI model somewhere amidst all this), but there's undoubtedly some unintended social consequences from all-things-all-needs mobile devices. Our personal silos may grow deeper, our distractedness and ADD-factor may well notch up a bit. We'll probably need to develop new social mores to ensure we get invited to the next kid's party. More of us will get thrown in jail for looking too hard (and for too long) at these devices, especially while walking the streets and driving.

Indeed, let's hope the mobile-powered SNAP culture doesn't lead us to, well, snap.

But it is what it is, as they say. We're gravitating to a brave new world of simple, now, accessibility, and practicality. If we can successfully apply those principles to a kid's birthday party, imagine all the other things we can do.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of 'Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000' (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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