Guest Post: Rising holiday-week app downloads may signal something much darker

Kageni Wilson is a technologist, innovator, writer, entrepreneur and trend watcher. He is the founder and CEO of ionacloud, a cloud-based file storage and sharing service. In an exclusive guest post for HumanIPO, he looks at the underlying reasons for the spike in app downloads over the Christmas period.

In January, app analytics platform Flurry released data showing Android and iOS users downloaded 1.76 billion apps, shattering the 1.2 billion app download record held by the 2011 holiday week by 47 percent. Downloading and installing 1.7 billion apps takes some effort labour to achieve. But holidays are supposed to be quality time spent with family and loved ones, right? So why then would app downloads be the highest in history, breaking all previous records at this particular point in time?

Well for starters, the 50 million new smart devices activated during the 2012 holiday week obviously have something to do with it. Flurry’s annual look at how many new mobile devices came online during the holiday season show a dramatic change from the situation a year ago. Over 50 million iOS and Android devices were activated between December 25 to December 31, versus just over 20 million devices last year. 17.4 million iOS and Android devices were activated on Christmas day alone.

Nowadays hardware is basically an access point for the million plus apps in app stores waiting to be discovered, downloaded and used, often temporarily before they are either dumped out of boredom or  replaced with better, shinier, newer ones. If you take the time to think of the app stores as actual retail stores with lots of deals and free samples you realise it is consumerism in its purest form, except we’re not talking about money. We’re talking about time and attention.

However, I have a second, somewhat darker theory as to why this would happen at precisely this time. It’s not all about hardware sales rising or growing overall app popularity. A spike this high in this short a period indicates a convergence of the above and another contributing factor.

Let’s take a look at the numbers given by Flurry:

Why would people spend time earmarked for family and loved ones downloading and using apps on their devices instead, and to the tune of breaking a record no less? It’s clear why we spend a lot of this time shopping, to fill the high demand of supplies we will need during the festive season and of course gifts. But apps are not given as gifts, which leaves it in the shopping for ‘supplies’ category. But why would a healthy list of new apps on your phone or tablet be such a crucial supply for a time you’re supposed to be spending off your device and actually interacting with people close to you? Now assuming there’s a logical basis for asking this question, which I believe there is, the answer is sad but obvious.

We either dislike or find incredibly boring the act of spending time with family and loved, preferring to to spend this period of convergence mandated by societal custom and tradition actually touring app stores and getting new stuff. We are getting inexpensive distractions to keep us occupied and distracted so we can make a technical appearance but don’t actually have to hang out and ‘talk’.

This is of course for those who do converge with family, friends and loved ones. There’s the millions that don’t for any number of other reasons, ranging from estrangement and wilful isolation to inconvenient work schedules or vacationing in far-off destinations. Then there’s the huge percentage of the population that is non-Christian and to whom the Christmas break is therefore just a normal holiday.

Flurry also reported as part of its findings that increases versus baseline download rates were more significant in countries including Canada, Germany and France where Christmas is more commonly celebrated than in some other high-performing nations like China and South Korea. Data doesn’t lie so clearly there’s a correlation between how common it is to celebrate Christmas in these places and the rise in app downloads for that particular population in 2012.

Now first off remember we tend to shop for apps and games and other distractions in our free time and if there’s something Christmas break provides most of us with, it’s lots of free time compared to the rest of our annual calendar. All this ‘free time’ has very interesting effects on some people. For some it’s as simple as finally cleaning up their apartment, but for others it provides a perfect window for loneliness and depression to set in.

Now given there are all these different kinds of people with all these different reasons for ending up at the app store it becomes clear why app downloads would skyrocket like that during the Christmas week. But that’s a level one insight from the data and its implications notwithstanding, there’s a secondary insight that occurred to me upon looking at the data.

The fact that to solve the problems of boredom or distraction from any number of things we do not want to face now leads us to our devices as the default solution and indicates something else in its own right.

We are connecting at ever deeper levels with the technology we encounter on a daily basis and it is playing a part in our lives that is growing both in size and significance every single day. When you pick up your smartphone or tablet and choose to do something on it as opposed to sitting next to someone and having a conversation or participating in some other sort of bonding activity with them, you are basically replacing them with your device. Pure and simple. You may not think about it like that or even realise it on a conscious level but that is exactly what is happening. And here’s the kicker. In the case above, you haven’t used your device to escape a bonding experience at all, but are actually at that point in time involved in a bonding experience with your device as opposed to being in one with the person.

That we would immediately seek solace and comfort in our devices as opposed to our loved ones speaks volumes. It means we actually trust our devices more than we do other people, which is why we are more comfortable with them. After all, your smartphone doesn’t judge you for gaining weight or ask you why you’re still single, or force you to face the reality of your first Christmas alone after the divorce or any of the million other things you would have to deal with when you actually interact with people. It’s the perfect escape for a society of burgeoning escapists who prefer tunes from their iPod and Angry Birds to talking with family.

These devices are designed to look like putty in our hands – framing us as masters of our own little universe with the ultimate power to do with them what we wish – while in reality in the long term it is actually us who end up wrapping ourselves around the device, not the other way round.

The app download numbers are going up every year with each holiday season trumping the last. This in my opinion is why. We are at the event horizon of an ongoing socio-psychological shift in the smartphone-using section of the population where we (each for our own set of reasons) are starting to connect with our devices better than we do with other members of our own species. It is subtle and at present largely subconscious but it’s there and it’s growing fast.

Where it will lead in the long run is a matter of interesting discussion and while I have a few ideas of my own I think I’d rather hear your thoughts first in the comments section below.

Follow Kageni Wilson on Twitter @The_Kageni_Mind

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