Mobile Apps as a New Level of Reality
“New Media”. This collocation is used so often nowadays (and not just by researchers or practitioners, but by journalists, self-proclaimed experts and general populace) that it takes a conscious effort to take a step back and ask “What’s new about it?”. Naturally, New Media are new in a relative sense — they are new to us, they are modern and up-to-date, and rely on latest technological advances. But a lot of scholars argued that there is much more to that “newness” then that.
For instance, Mark Hansen in his work titled “New Media” describes New Media’s special trait, something that stand out as a “[lack of] …direct correlation between technical storage and human sense perception”. A smartphone is a good illustration of this. We can use it to contact other people, to watch videos and photos, to listen to music or to read books and while technically we interact with different media and the processes going inside the smartphone’s electronic brains vary vastly, we do not perceive the severe difference between those activities.
Another example can be found in Lev Manovich’s book “The Language of New Media” where he describes New Media as something defined and shaped not by human perception or cognitive activity but by “computer’s ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics [which] influence the cultural layer of new media, its organization, its emerging genres, its contents.”
It is safe to say that the fact of particular newness of the New Media cannot be denied. There is a huge leap between a Walkman and an iPhone and not just technological, but what’s more important — semantical. One of the main aspects of this leap is a step towards constructing a new reality, or to be exact — an additional level to our physical reality. And it is not limited to what we know by the name of “Augmented Reality”, something that Wikipedia describes as “a view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input”. This additional reality is deeper and more comprehensive than that. To illustrate this fact I suggest having a look at some of the most popular mobile apps and perceiving them from a perspective of relation to our physical reality.
First example and the most obvious one is Tinder app — “a location-based social discovery application that facilitates communication between mutually interested users”, or in simpler words — a dating app which connects you with people who expressed interest in you. Now, a lot has been said and written about Tinder, its impact on the dating scene and interaction between sexes, but what is relevant is a system this app implemented. Users can select ”Discovery Distance” thereby defining an imaginable circle which is laid over the physical reality, defining and limiting their possible connections to potential partners and friends. This creates a framework of sorts, which ties together the real world and the world of thousands single people looking to meet someone online. And while this might not be sufficient to proclaim an emergence of new parallel reality, Tinder’s immense success and popularity have set a trend which a fair share of social mobile apps follow today.
One of them is Yik Yak, an app which allows users to share short messages with anyone within a 5 mile radius. It quickly became a “gossip app” which is very popular in smaller communities, for example schools, university campuses, big corporate offices etc. Yik Yak went further than Tinder, by not just tying some virtual entities to the real world, but by creating a whole additional level of reality, in which information taken from the real life is shared, distributed and discussed. Even though this app is purely recreational, it is still rather significant and influential — causing a wave of similar apps flooding iOS and Android application catalogues.
The next example however, is much more “serious”. Firechat is a messenger app which not only allows users to chat with random people nearby, but grants an ability to do so without the Internet connection, thus removing Internet from the equation and signifying an important role of mobile technology and apps. Web can be inaccessible at the times, but a smartphone is almost always right here, in your pocket. Wireless mesh networking system which the developers used has revolutionized mobile communication. Firechat was used as a communication tool during various civil protests and unrests — in Iraq, Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is another step forward, another advancement which strengthens and hardens this level of reality, separating it from the physical one, making it autonomous. And this is the best example of what is new about New Media — they do not generate a temporary, narrative-based, purely imaginable reality like literature and сinematograph do. Neither do they simply enhance and augment the reality of the world we live in. New Media create an additional level of reality, a network, a framework which overlaps the physical reality, opening a new dimension for thought, communication, information distribution.
The list of examples may go on forever, and it will undoubtedly include such apps as Grindr — a Tinder-like application for homosexuals, which revolutionized the LGBT dating scene and influenced the whole community; Ingress — an augmented-reality location-based MMORPG which is already seen as a huge advancement in the world of video games, and even apps like Avoid Humans using which you can, well, avoid people, by choosing the least crowded venues around.
What is next? How will this trend evolve? How else the physical reality could be used, how can we further enhance it, what layers can be laid upon it? Today those questions cannot be unambiguously answered. But the trend is already traceable. The rest — is a matter of time.
Hansen, Mark. 2010. New Media In: W.J.T. Mitchell, M.B.N Hansen (eds.) Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Manovich, Lev. 2002. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.