March 25, 2009

The Mobile Difference: Wireless connectivity draws many users more deeply into digital life, but most Americans still connect to the internet mainly on wireline and rarely use a mobile device to access digital resources

WASHINGTON, DC – Some 39% of Americans have positive and improving attitudes about their mobile communication devices, which in turn draws them further into engagement with digital resources – on both wireless and wireline platforms.

Mobile connectivity is now a powerful differentiator among technology users. Those who plug into the information and communications world while on-the-go are notably more active in many facets of digital life than those who use wires to jack into the internet and the 14% of Americans who are off the grid entirely.

“For a sizable minority of Americans, mobile connectivity expands their digital horizons as they do more with their suite of wireline and wireless tools,” said John B. Horrigan, Associate Director of the Pew Internet Project and author of the typology report. “Mobile services complement existing broadband assets, and these Americans find it increasingly hard to be without their connectivity traveling with them as they go.”

These findings are the centerpiece of a new typology of technology users released by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The typology places information and communication technology (ICT) users into ten categories built around their assets (the gadgets they have), actions (how they use ICTs), and attitudes (how they feel about the role of ICTs in their lives).

Most wireless Americans view the mobile accelerant to their digital habits positively. Some 8% of adults – whom we call Digital Collaborators – delve deeply into digital lifestyles to collaborate with other users to create content and express themselves online. Another 7% – the group we’ve named Media Movers – use their information gadgets as a platform to share digital content with others. Another 9% – called the Roving Nodes – employ mobile connectivity to enhance personal productivity. 

For others, the tools of connectivity produce tensions. One group we call Ambivalent Networkers is made up of 7% of Americans who like to use mobile connections for social networking but sometimes lament being so available to others. An additional 8% – the Mobile Newbies – are just becoming accustomed to using cell phones, but thus far like very much how mobile devices help them stay in touch with others.

The remaining 61% of adult Americans are the stationary media majority. Many in these groups are content to be tethered to a broadband connection for communication and information gathering. Members of the five groups that make up the stationary media majority use their mobile devices mainly for phone calling, rarely for internet access, and often find incoming messages intrusive. Some groups, notwithstanding ample resources to get online, either suffer from information overload or keep ICTs on the periphery of their routines. 

“The bar for what constitutes a sophisticated tech user has risen with the advent of wireless connectivity,” said Horrigan. “Mobile access facilitates full participation in the flow of online information. For many Americans, always-on, always-available access is a basic part of their lifestyles. They don’t see home broadband access alone as sufficient for their digital needs.”

Here’s a rundown of the 10 groups in the typology. The first five groups (39% of the adult population) share the common characteristic of being motivated by mobility in their use of ICTs:

  • Digital Collaborators (8% of the population) are very much about continual information exchange with others, as they frequently mix it up with online collaborators to create and share content or express themselves.
  • Ambivalent Networkers (7%) are extremely active in using social networking sites and accessing digital resources “on the go” yet aren’t always thrilled to be contacted by others. They sometimes yearn for a break from online use and pervasive connectivity.
  • Media Movers (7%) are the accelerants of user-generated content as they use their ICT assets to send material (say, a photo or video they’ve taken) out onto the Web.
  • Roving Nodes (9%) are active managers of their social lives using basic applications – texting and emailing – to connect with others, pass along information, and bolster personal productivity.
  • Mobile Newbies (8%) are occasional internet users, but many in this group are recent cell phone adopters and very enthusiastic about how mobile service makes them more available to others. They would be hard pressed to give up their cell phones.

The final five groups (61% of the general population) make up the stationary media majority:

  • Desktop Veterans (13%) are tech-oriented, but in a “year 2004” kind of way. They consume online information and connect with others using traditional tools such as email on a home high-speed connection. They are not heavy users of cell phones for much beyond a voice call.
  • Drifting Surfers (14%) have the tools for connectivity, but are relatively infrequent users of them. They say they could give up their internet and cell phones. In spite of years of online experience, they seem to have checked out of the digital revolution.
  • Information Encumbered (10%) have average amounts of connectivity, but suffer from information overload and have a tough time getting their gadgets to work without help from others.
  • Tech Indifferent (10%) have limited online capability at home and, even though most have cell phones, they bristle at the intrusiveness cell phones can foster.
  • Off the Network (14%) lack the tools for digital connectivity, as they have neither online access nor cell phones.

Two-thirds (66%) of respondents in the five “motivated by mobility” groups collectively report that it would be “very hard” to give up their mobile devices. This represents a 20% increase in the share saying this compared to when these respondents were interviewed 20 months earlier in April 2006. In sharp contrast, just 21% of the “stationary media majority” respondents say they would find it very hard to do without their mobile devices, and this represents a 64% decrease in the share saying this since April 2006.

The typology of ICT users is based on two surveys concluded in December 2007. One survey, obtained telephone interviews – both landline and cell phone – with a nationally representative sample of 2,054 adults living in the continental United States. The interviews were conducted in English from October 24 to December 2, 2007. The second survey, conducted from October 23, 2007 to December 11, 2007, was a callback survey of 1,499 adults re-interviewed from the Project’s February to March 2006 survey of ICT users. Together, the two surveys contained 3,553 American adults, whose responses were used to build the typology.

Contact: John B. Horrigan, 202.419.4512