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Our wired world has a long way to go – putting “big” numbers in perspective

Last night I attended Refresh Events 7th installment at the MaRS Discovery District in downtown Toronto.  Stemming from keynote Thomas Purves‘ presentation on augmented reality, a spirited group discussion broke out to end the evening.  Topics included everything from global and local socioeconomics, to the proliferation of Java mobile apps in South Africa, to whether or not internet access could become a basic human right, to a future where people may have their phones “inside them” (insert joke here – last night’s best involved “vibrate mode”).

In all of this very well-informed global discussion, I was left thinking about niche, as I tend to do. Specifically, I was thinking about some comments made around what constitutes a mass audience, in our current digital definition.  We talk a lot about our wired world and the common experiences that it allows us to share.  But on a global scale,  we aren’t as far along as we often think.

The global village is still under construction

The global village is still under construction

Since Facebook and Twitter are “everywhere” these days, according to our media, their numbers might really help put my point in perspective.  Twitter, even after the whole Oprah/Ashton/CNN frenzy is just barely over 10 million users.  A large city.   Facebook, the “giant” of social networking, has (at best estimate) 200 million users.  Now this would make it the fifth largest country in the world, but it would still represent only about 3% of our global population. Three per cent?!?!  That’s not exactly a staggering number, all things considered.  If you consider this against the population that’s online, about 1.6 billion according to the latest stats, then the number is more like 12.5 or more like one in every 8 people on the internet.  This is somewhat impressive until you consider all the attention that’s being paid to Facebook when 77.5% of the people on the internet aren’t members.

Mobile, as a singular entity, just passed 4 billion connections this year, which seems more respectable from a market share standpoint.  Then you consider that a number of these connections are duplicates coming from individuals with more than one mobile.  Then, fragment this further by the unending list of operating systems and specifications that make up those 4 billion connections, and you again have a heavily fragmented market for common experiences.

So when we’re all talking about our wired world and how connected we all are, the reality is, we have a long way to go.  Only 23% of the world’s population is online.  About half have a mobile phone, but for all the hype that’s been made of them, only about 0.5% of the world’s population have an iPhone.

What does this all mean?  It means that Web 2.0 is just the tip of the iceberg because a huge percentage of our world is still at 0.0.  It means that the iPhone, as pervasive as it seems to be, is really just the toy of a niche subset of mobile users, in a Global context.  It means Twitter with all its staggering growth is only touching 0.17% of the world its supposedly going to change.

We live in a hyper-connected society and are a part of a global economy.  But those two things are not one in the same.  The global economy has been developing since the first civilizations began trading with one another, thousands of years ago.  Last night made me remember how new connective technology really is, and how far we still have to go before a true wired world is achieved.  I’m excited to get there, but I think it’s important to remember, in spite of all the hype we’re exposed to daily, we have a long way to go.

  • Dan Hocking

    Somebody saying what I was trying to elucidate last night – thank you, Andrew.

    The problems with discussing the digital divide that appears along socioeconomic lines is that it simply isn’t as true as we want to think it is. Yes, there may exist a digital divide here in North America – but it really is strictly a first world problem. Less than a 3rd of the world is online at all; and while services may be forming in underdeveloped countries skipping some of the steps that we had to go through, they certainly are NOT ubiquitous.

    To be honest, don’t we have bigger problems to fix than the fact that connectivity should be a basic human right? Or rather, doesn’t the world have bigger problems that just the fact that they aren’t connected?

    It’s blasphemy from a web geek, but it needs to be said.

  • Andrew Lane

    Love all your points, Dan. I’m really just trying to take a bit of the piss out of “phenomenons” like Twitter, iPhone, Facebook by pointing out that the world is a huge place. And you’re right, there’s huge problems to tackle along with that, but for today, I just wanted to do a little math and belittle some of the hype driving tech media today.

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