Smartphones: Surveillance Facilitated?

May 22, 2020

A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing suggests we tend to reveal more about ourselves when we communicate through our smartphones than when we are on our desktops. The research was performed at the University of Pennsylvania by Shiri Melumad and Robert Meyer. Scienmag explores the tendency in, “Why Smartphones Are Digital Truth Serum.” We learn:

“For example, Tweets and reviews composed on smartphones are more likely to be written from the perspective of the first person, to disclose negative emotions, and to discuss the writer’s private family and personal friends. Likewise, when consumers receive an online ad that requests personal information (such as phone number and income), they are more likely to provide it when the request is received on their smartphone compared to their desktop or laptop computer.”

But why would we do this? For one thing, users seem to be subconsciously affected by the challenges inherent in using a smaller device:

“[The smaller size] makes viewing and creating content generally more difficult compared with desktop computers. Because of this difficulty, when writing or responding on a smartphone, a person tends to narrowly focus on completing the task and become less cognizant of external factors that would normally inhibit self-disclosure, such as concerns about what others would do with the information.”

Then there is the fact that most of us keep our phones on our person or near us constantly—they have become a modern comfort item (or “adult pacifiers,” as Melumad puts it). The article explains:

“The downstream effect of those feelings shows itself when people are more willing to disclose feelings to a close friend compared to a stranger or open up to a therapist in a comfortable rather than uncomfortable setting. As Meyer says, ‘Similarly, when writing on our phones, we tend to feel that we are in a comfortable “safe zone.” As a consequence, we are more willing to open up about ourselves.’”

The researchers analyzed thousands of social media posts and online reviews, responses to web ads, and controlled laboratory studies using both natural-language processing and human analysts. They also examined responses to nearly 20,000 “call to action” web ads that asked users for private info—such ads deployed on smartphones were consistently more successful at raking in personal data than those aimed at PCs. So consumers beware—do not give in to the tendency get too chummy with those on the other end of your phone just because you are comfortable with the phone itself.

Cynthia Murrell, May 22, 2020


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