Facebook, Snapchat and others must hate Pokémon Go

Here you can read a German version of this article.

When it comes to mobile consumer tech, the past days have in my opinion been the most interesting so far this year. First, an utterly impressive iPhone app called Prisma emerged and shortly after blew up. Then the AR/mixed reality smartphone game Pokémon Go was released (in English-speaking app stores, other markets are expected to follow soon) and managed to captivate casual gamers, geeks and curious people alike. In the US alone, a reported 7.5 million people have downloaded the Pokémon Go app over the course of only a few days, instantly bringing activity key performance indicators to levels of famous, well-established apps such as Tinder, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. Update: According to estimations, on Monday the game saw almost 21 million daily active users in the U.S. alone. Let this sink it.

I haven’t been playing the remake of the iconic Pokémon franchise (largely to protect myself from getting obsessed with it) but have observed people who have. They got instantly hooked. Yesterday evening, one said something remarkable: “I haven’t been using Snapchat once today, and Facebook (the feed) neither”.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Pokémon Go came and snatched large amounts of smartphone users’ available time budget. You cannot play Pokémon Go while hanging out on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The app requires your full attention, and at least during the initial days, it seems to do a great job of securing it. One must assume that some of those who got drawn into the world of Pokémon Go will free time for the game by canceling or postponing other appointments or scheduled activities. So in this specific case, smartphone user attention is not a full zero sum-game. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that a large chunk of Pokémon Go fans will (have to) reduce their time spent on social media while they are at the peak of their dedication to their new favorite app. And that matters.

Many of today’s tech companies are built on the principles of the attention economy by using tricks and hacks to get people hooked, relying on habit creation and subsequently monetizing users’ time on mobile. Once they exist, the habits to regularly check back with an app are strong. Strong enough to make it hard, if not impossible, for rivals or other new apps to break them. But Pokémon Go did that. It reached an instant global distribution through word-of-mouth and pushed other long-established habits of smartphone users aside, at least temporarily.

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Of course, once novelty has worn off, the majority of users will downgrade Pokémon Go in their mental list of app priorities. However, until then, millions more will have spent large amounts of time with it. Also, Pokémon Go makers Niantic and Nintendo could extend user loyalty and excitement by adding new features, enhancing the game play, and possibly by turning the game into a social network. Even though the hype will eventually calm down, it’s possible that millions, mostly young users all over the world will keep dedicating hours every day to Pokémon Go. This will undeniably not be appreciated by the big social platforms.

In the end, the crucial point I want to make is the following: In today’s smartphone-centric world, everyone competes with everyone about scarce user time. A few protagonists are dominating here. For these companies, a newcomer app with significant addictive characteristics which manages to get on everyone’s smartphone from the get-go is bad news and – if this should become a enduring or repeating occurrence – a risk to the stability of their business.

There is one technology giant which does not need to worry about the Pokémon Go craze, because it infamously failed to establish a leading social media platform: Google. Coincidentally or not, Niantics was created within Google, users have to log in to the game with their Google identity (no login via Facebook or Twitter available) and the search and advertising giant has invested some million Dollars into the company since it got independent. Now this money is not only creating a huge hit and generating already lots of revenue through in-app purchases, but it’s also messing with those rivals that Google until today never has managed to beat.

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