The symbiotic relationship of social media and apps

Symbiosis is a term used in biology to describe a relationship that is (usually) mutually beneficial to one another. The two parties in the relationship depend on each other’s unique gifts in order to survive and flourish; this is seen in the partnership between clownfish and sea anemone:

“In a symbiotic mutualistic relationship, the clownfish feeds on small invertebrates that otherwise have potential to harm the sea anemone, and the fecal matter from the clownfish provides nutrients to the sea anemone. The clownfish is additionally protected from predators by the anemone's stinging cells, to which the clownfish is immune.” – Symbiosis, Wikipedia

The unique relationship between social media and apps is much like the biological phenomenon of symbiosis, in that while one can survive without the other, it becomes much more beneficial to both if they are included. A recent study from Pew Internet Research Center released figures on the percentage of adults using Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram, and the results demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that apps and social media go hand in hand. Here are some of the key findings from the report:

  • Some 73% of online adults now use a social networking site of some kind.
  • Facebook is the dominant social networking platform in the number of users, but a striking number of users are now diversifying onto other platforms.
  • Some 42% of online adults now use multiple social networking sites.
  • Some 71% of online adults are now Facebook users, a slight increase from the 67% of online adults who used Facebook as of late 2012.
  • Pinterest holds particular appeal to female users (women are four times as likely as men to be Pinterest users), and LinkedIn is especially popular among college graduates and internet users in higher income households.
  • Twitter and Instagram have particular appeal to younger adults, urban dwellers, and non-whites.
  • 63% of Facebook users visit the site at least once a day, with 40% doing so multiple times throughout the day.
  • Instagram and Twitter have a significantly smaller number of users than Facebook does, but users of these sites also tend to visit them frequently. Some 57% of Instagram users visit the site at least once a day (with 35% doing so multiple times per day), and 46% of Twitter users are daily visitors (with 29% visiting multiple times per day).
  • 42% of online adults use multiple social networking platforms. For those who use only one social networking site, Facebook is typically—though not always—the platform of choice.

More people are visiting social media sites on their mobile devices via apps than at any time before in history, and this number only is forecasted to increase as the world becomes more interconnected, aka as “the Internet of Things”.  Several social networking properties gained their viral following in 2013 purely from the infiltration of mobile app use; this includes Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat, three social platforms that are especially popular with people ages 13 to 25:

“Instagram in 2013 comfortably cruised from 80 million to 150 million monthly active users, half of whom check their feeds daily. The app has become a mainstay of the social routine because it continues to be interesting….. The ephemeral messaging app Snapchat has captivated your teenage relatives, and for good reason: They just tap out a message or snap a photo with a funny caption, and set a timer. When the seconds tick down, the message disappears. It's fun, simple, and, most important, private. Snapchat began growing its fanbase last year, but in 2013 the service was inescapable.” – “From Twitter to Tinder: Social media hits and misses of 2013”,

Increased global connectivity grew greatly in 2013, thereby increasing the use of engagement via apps. A Nielsen study on mobile usage tracked the growth of smartphone penetration, showing growth in overall smartphone penetration in the US from 56% at the beginning of 2013 to 65% of U.S. mobile subscribers by October, with the majority of users using Android and iOS platforms to increase activity in apps, specifically, social networking apps. Facebook won the day with over 103 million unique users every month, and Instagram was in the top ten lists of apps used for the year.

It’s clear that apps that are either purely focused on social media or apps that offer some sort of social media activity are the clear winners when it comes to app engagement with users. This goes for games and social media as well; another prime example of a symbiotic relationship, as seen in a recent article from Gigaom:

“More than 250 million people are playing Facebook games every month, and roughly 100 developers generated more than $1 million in revenue in 2012. But one statistic that Facebook mentioned is particularly loaded: 55 percent of the top 400 iOS apps are integrated with Facebook. Far and away, the most popular game on Facebook is King’s Candy Crush Saga, which, according to Facebook, has roughly 100 million monthly players. While Candy Crush Saga is a behemoth on Facebook, its dwarfed compared to King’s internal data — a representative told the New York Times this summer that the game receives 600 million active game sessions from mobile devices each day. Given its ubiquitousness on iPhone and Android, it’s likely that mobile gaming is influencing social gaming, not the other way around.” – “Zynga may be coming back but social gaming is not what it was”,

We’re just starting the early stages of what the relationship between social media and gaming could really look like; regardless, developers who integrate these now expected features into the apps that they release are more likely than not to see greater engagement from their user base.  This is especially true of Facebook, as seen in an article from Appcelerator:

  • More app developers integrate with Facebook than any other major social media provider (66% – Twitter is a distant second at 52.7%);
  • This lead can’t be chalked up solely to Facebook’s authentication service. When asked how they were managing user authentication inside their apps, most developers reported relying on traditional web protocols (38.7%) or specific methods such as SAML or OAuth (21%). Social media services such as Facebook were third at 19.1%.
  • Facebook’s switch from HTML5 to native apps and their investment in mobile-friendly APIs such as Open Graph were ranked one and two respectively by developers when asked to judge the company’s smartest mobile bets.

The study from Pew Research gives us an interesting insight into how the genders use apps, which coincide nicely with data from analytics firm Apsalar, which offers insights on how women use apps as opposed to men (hint: women tend to be much more social pretty much across the board). On the surface, it would seem obvious that men and women are quite different when it comes to app usage. It is also revealing that different development approaches would best be utilized for different apps, not necessarily targeting towards one gender or the other, but taking different usage patterns into account as part of the overall development strategy.

  • Women install 40% more apps than men, buy 17% more paid apps, and pay 87% more for those apps
  • The top app categories for women are social media, news, productivity, lifestyle and books
  • The top app categories for men are business, games, navigation, travel, health, and fitness
  • Men lead in mobile gaming and in-app spending. They use business-related apps 85% more than women, navigation apps 40% more, games 61% more and health and fitness 10% more.
  • Women use social media apps a whopping 600% more than men, news apps 90% more, productivity apps 89% more, lifestyle apps 64% more, and books 10% more.

The social aspect of app downloads, along with gender engagement patterns, leads us to the logical conclusion that the weighted influence of an individual within their social circles counts for more than that of a brand of a website. Think back to the last time you downloaded an app, visited a link, or looked at a video. Most likely, you did so on the recommendation of a friend – not necessarily directed straight at you, per se, but you saw it on their social networking “stream” and made the conscious decision of taking their word for it that that content was worth engaging with. Social engagement is based on both authority and relevancy; in fact, recommendations from your peers carry more weight on activity users engage with on apps, the Internet, and in real life than anything else.

So, who’s the clownfish and who’s the anemone in the symbiotic example I used earlier to delineate the relationship between social media and app engagement? Either one would fit; but neither one can really exist profitably without the other.


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