Blacks, Latinos Heavy Consumers Of Mobile Technology

A recent Pew study indicates that African Americans and Latinos use cell phones at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. This is especially true among the 18-29 age group. Smokey Fontaine, Chief Content Officer of Interactive One �" one of the largest online platforms for the African American community, has studied digital behaviors for years. Mark Lopez is Chief Operating Officer of Terra Networks USA and has followed the online Latino community, providing bilingual content for Hispanics in the U-S and 18 other countries. They both talk with host Michel Martin as part of Tell Me More series kicking off today called “Tell Me Mobile.”

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

A panel of digital gurus, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists will get together in New York today, to explore the trends and habits of African-American and Hispanic consumers online.

Now, we've all heard of the digital divide. That's a term that's used to describe the differences in access to the latest technologies, whether because of race or relative economic capacity. White and Asian consumers have long been believed to have greater access to and connection with those technologies. But a new study by the Pew Research Center, by their group that focuses on the Internet and American Life, shows that black and Latino consumers use mobile applications at a much higher rate than white consumers do.

And it probably won't surprise you that that is especially true among 18 to 29-year-olds. We caught up with some of these young mobile users on the streets of Washington, D.C., recently.

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Mr. ANGEL ALFARO(ph): My name is Angel Alfaro. I'm 24 years old from El Salvador. I use my cell phone, like, a lot. And to be honest, I text, like, more than I speak. And I use the Web browser a lot. And that's all, but mostly texting.

Ms. PORTIA URBAN(ph): My name is Portia Urban. I'm 21. And the most thing I like to do on my cell phone is text. My dad tell me that I need to put my phone on vibrate because I always text. So it's like my phone be loud so I get one text after another text after another text. And he be, like, it's so annoying.

MARTIN: Today we bring you Tell Me Mobile, a series of conversations exploring this interesting development and what it might mean. Joining us now are two digital thinkers, Smokey Fontaine is a chief content officer of Interactive One. Interactive One is one of the most visited online platforms for the African-American community. He joined us from our studios in New York.

Also with us is Mark Lopez, chief operating officer of Terra Networks USA. Terra is one of the largest global digital media companies producing bilingual content for the Hispanic community in the U.S. and 18 other countries. He joins us from member station WLRN in Miami. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. SMOKEY FONTAINE (Chief Content Officer, Interactive One): Thank you for having me.

Mr. MARK LOPEZ (Chief Operating Officer, Terra Networks USA): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Smokey, let me just start, and Mark, I'm going to ask you the same question, why are African-Americans and Latinos using mobile devices at a higher rate than other consumers?

Mr. FONTAINE: Well, I think we're seeing a couple things happen. I mean for one there has been an historical digital divide in terms of Internet usage. And that has changed very much. I mean the real impetus for our company is to close that divide and take advantage of this growing audience. But cell phone fees have come down. That's one of the things we've seen, especially cell phone fees regarding data usage.

And so, the ability for you to walk into, you know, your local wireless provider and walk out with a kind of smartphone-enabled phone that allows you to download apps and be on social networking sites and communicate via sharing photos and videos with your friends. The cost eventually for that has become much more accessible. And that's one of the leading motivators.

MARTIN: Let's get Mark in on this question of why is it that African-Americans and Latinos are using these mobile applications at a higher rate. And what about that digital divide? Is that just old news?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah. In term of the Latino audience, I think that for us it wasn't a surprise. Latinos tend to over index in consumption of content on the Internet as well. And when it comes to mobile devices, they use the smaller devices to keep in touch with family and to consume a lot of content and they share it with people that are close to them, whether that's friends, family. So, we see the Latino audience really making a full utility of that mobile device, whether it's to access the Internet, to talk or to share pictures and video.

MARTIN: So, Smokey, Mark, I'll ask you the same question, Smokey first. Why do we think, though, after all this talk about these particular groups being left behind in the digital age, that in these particular applications and usages, they're moving ahead of other consumers.

Mr. FONTAINE: Well, smartphone usage has become a very desirable thing to do. It's an aspirational behavior, right? To have a, you know, a really cool phone and bring it back to your community or to your school, is something that African-Americans, we love to do. And so there's a real kind of consumer drive here to have the best and to have the coolest kind of gadget, which is as much useful as it is a kind of showoff tool. But that can't be separated from why we see this adoption. I mean, it's a must-have item to have an iPhone or a BlackBerry or a, you know, cool Android phone on your belt to show off, and that's helping the numbers rise really quickly.

MARTIN: Mark, what do you think?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah. In terms of - I mean, a lot of people think about this phenomenon in terms of the demographics of the Latino audience tends to be younger. But really, it is about the utility of the device. Can that device get me closer to a family that's far away in my home country? It definitely can. I can send video. I can send pictures through the device, some things that a few years ago, I couldn't do with my mobile phone. So I think the utility of the device itself is driving a lot of this, too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. As part of our series Tell Me Mobile, Smokey Fontaine, Chief Content Officer of Interactive One and Mark Lopez, Chief Operating Officer of Terra Networks USA, are telling us what's behind new data showing very high rates of mobile use by Latinos and African-Americans - in fact, you said outstrips that of other consumers.

Have either of you thought of any downsides to this phenomenon? Is there anything not positive about it in your view? I mean, we already have seen -there's been much debate in school systems about whether kids should be able to bring mobile devices to school. Some people say, well, it's become a distraction. The kids are spending time texting when they should be reading or studying or paying attention in class.

I'd like to ask, is either of you thinking about or connected to any downside to this that you'd want to discuss?

Mr. FONTAINE: The example I always like to use, though, is that we are in a revolutionary time.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. FONTAINE: And the median contents change. But at the same time that we've all been - and I have myself been worried about how our, you know, what these new habits are going to mean for us kind of culturally and intellectually. Yet, at the same time all these kids, all they're doing is tweeting and sending text messages, they're also lining up every year to buy a 700-page book with no pictures otherwise known as "Harry Potter" and read it...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. FONTAINE: ...for, you know, veraciously at every age, from age six to 36, and that's not something that I've seen happen in generations past. I remember the Motorola two-way was the first kind of connected device - this going back probably to the early 2000's, 2001. And the first community to adopt this Motorola two-way device was the African-American community. It was pre-BlackBerry.

MARTIN: That's true. But you do, then, look at the achievement gap figures and say okay, you have kids who clearly have technological ability. They're clearly creative. They're clearly good at adapting technology to their use, and figure it out without a whole lot of, you know, input from other people. They just take the stuff and use it. Then how come we still have this achievement gap? What's this about?

Mr. FONTAINE: Well, because we have so many other socioeconomic factors that are, you know, that much more powerful than the fact that we're actually really good at many of these things that we not thought we're good at, right? And so, you know, how many kind of technology programs are there at a local level in communities that are, you know, that are predominately of color? Very few.

You know, we - one of the most active groups on Black Planet is our technology group. And it's a bunch of kind of black nerds, and those kids do exist, you know, what I mean? And they're African-American, but they're as nerdy as - you see all the pictures of the kids at E3, you know, they play games 10 hours a day, and they can - they write code in their sleep, but, you know, they're not really all that visible.

Mr. LOPEZ: I think...

MARTIN: Well - Mark, go ahead.

Mr. LOPEZ: The other component - yeah. The other component is I think it's good to allow kids to experience these technologies in a very early age. So they are kind of - they grow up with them in a natural way. I think limiting the use of it or prohibiting the use during school or - why not the opposite? Why not making them part of the curriculum? Making sure that they feel like that that's something natural and they can balance their life with that mobile device or that laptop or that PC. And I think that's kind of like the more, I don't know, natural way of integrating technology into education and everything else.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that with the increased usage of these technologies among these populations, that maybe that achievement gap will close as kids start to understand the technology's for them, that it isn't just other people, that it is something that is just - it just is. It isn't...

Mr. LOPEZ: I think it is closing. I mean, I think that going back to Smokey's point, I think one of the - all of the areas today are on in terms of education, making sure that those resources are available to these communities, and these communities know that those resources are available and that companies - technology companies - go out and recruit actively minorities.

I mean, I think some of those things are happening today. They need to happen faster. But the technology gap is definitely closing on the Latino space. It's been closing for the past 10 years, and it will continue to close. But other gaps are going to open up. I mean, we don't know what the media world is going to look like 10 years from now and what devices we're going to be consuming content on. So we just need to keep up and making sure that we are catering, as media companies, to our audiences in any technology and any way possible.

MARTIN: We've talked a lot about younger people. What about older people? I mean, I think a lot of people understand the connection that the 18 to 29-year-old - and even, frankly, younger than 18 - have to this technology. And a lot of times, you know, younger people are featured in the ads and in the marketing and so forth, and we see it. But what about with older consumers? Have you seen a similar move towards usage among older consumers who are of color?

Mr. FONTAINE: Well, we have. And I think even the a Pew study that you quoted, we've seen, you know, the kind of 40-plus demographic be one of the most highest indexed demographic in terms of adoption and usage of the mobile device. I think the relationship with the phone is an easier relationship and a less kind of threatening, fearful relationship than the relationship older folks have with the desktop computer. And that, I feel, is really driving it.

I mean, there's a comfort with using a device that's small and, you know, has a limited number of buttons and it's kind of in your pocket. And if they're guided in really useful ways, in easy ways to kind of get what they want to do, I think they, you know, that the older generation will find it far more fulfilling to just follow a couple steps on a phone that's in your pocket, as opposed to the kind of daunting task of, you know, launching Windows or - and that's the difference.

MARTIN: I'm so curious about this, because again, you're right. You'll meet many people - I've met a number of people who are older, who will text.

Mr. FONTAINE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But try to get them to go to the computer at the library or use a desktop - won't happen. And I just have never understood that. I just, you know - and you think it's just because the phone is a familiar device and people have one in there house, it's easier to sort of translate it to? It's just puzzling to me.

Mr. FONTAINE: I believe so. I mean, texting is easy, right? I mean, it's because by definition it's short. So you - it's not going to take too much of your time, because it's a limited form of expression. And we're all familiar on how to use a phone. I mean, even before there were kind of keyboard-enabled phones, I mean, folks were, you know, going through the numbers and pressing multiples and numbers to get to letters far greater than I ever imagined folks would do. And you could see folks doing that very quickly, you know, A, B, C, D, E, F, and spelling things that way.

We see a lot of older folks using the phone to take pictures. I mean, that's a very powerful thing. I mean, I just speak from personal experience. My grandparents using the phone to take endless pictures of me and our kids, and that's something they could never do before.

MARTIN: Mark, what about you? You were mentioning that the ability of people to stay connected to people for - who are far-flung, and family members who are far-flung, perhaps even places where land lines are particularly effective or present. So are you seeing the same thing? Are you seeing adoption among older Latino consumers, as well?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah. Definitely, we do.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOPEZ: I mean, we have over 30 percent of the use survey(ph) - the total use survey(ph) says 35 and older. So definitely, we're seeing that usage. And at the end of the day, usage of the mobile phone is a lot easier than managing a computer, and is more impulsive from the standpoint that your life pictures are right there in front of you. So there's more to share at any given time with family and friends that you would if you're on a fixed place through a laptop or a computer.

So I think there's a lot more opportunity to be able to utilize that device at any point in time during the day. So on the Latino end, we're definitely seeing that. And I think that is driving people even back into using the laptop computer and using the PC to an extent that they didn't do before. I think both mediums feed upon each other.

MARTIN: Mark, you and Smokey are participating in a digital summit in New York today that will focus primarily on the multicultural online consumer. Could you just tell a little bit about who you think is going to be there, of any cool applications coming out that you can tell us about? What's ahead?

Mr. FONTAINE: Sure. Well, this is our inaugural event for the digital summit. And there was one motivation to have this, and that was essentially to bring about the most senior African-American and Latino and Asian-American kind of leaders in the online space together in one room.

For the most part, there is a huge, huge minority when you attend these conferences of any one who serves in African-American or a Latino community who attends these conferences. And so, you know, the voices of these communities -which we know are over-indexing, and we know when the new census data comes out is going to be, you know, almost half if not more than half of at least the American population. The kind of online expression of that or the online representation of that has been really light so far.

It's going to be the first of its kind. It's based in New York. Obviously, the New York online community, as well, is thriving, kind of Silicone Alley versus Silicon Valley. And so we want it to really be a dialogue of how we can progress the way we serve our audiences better.

MARTIN: Mark, anything you want to add?

Mr. LOPEZ: In terms of the opportunity itself from a business standpoint, when we look at the new consumers in this country in the next 10 to 20 years, I mean, multicultural consumers are going to be where the growth is going to be in the country. And when you look at the digital consumption of that consumer, digital is really the growth engine.

So you have a growth engine within a growth engine for most marketing CMO's, that they should definitely take advantage on, understand, and be able to have conversations with the consumer, because that's the future of this country when it comes to any marketer in the U.S.

MARTIN: Mark Lopez is Chief Operating Officer of Terra Networks USA. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Smokey Fontaine is the chief content officer of Interactive One. And he joined us from our studios in New York.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. FONTAINE: Thank you.

Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And text me later, will you?

Mr. FONTAINE: We will.

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BLOCK: My name is Block. I am 24 years old. And I use my phone for a variety of reasons, mostly to call people and text and things like that. But I don't have the Internet at home, so I like to surf the Web on my phone.

I hate Facebook, so I don't go to social networking sites. I love sports, so I just go to ESPN.com at all times. It, like, possesses my life. And when Fantasy Football is going on, NFL.com. My mom don't know what the hell I do with my phone.

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BLOCK: She hopes I call her with it, that's what she hopes, that I can at least call her.

Ms. JUSTICE ROSE(ph): Hey, I'm Justice Rose. Mostly, I just text my friends, family and I associate via messages. Sometimes I call people. I network. You know, I keep a lot of my information in my phone. Actually, I'm not much of an Internet person, believe it or not. Most of my peers are. I don't really use Internet too much. It'd be more via email. I talk, email and listen to music. I have Pandora, so I can listen to a mellower radio - Corinne Bailey Rae, you know, Michael Jackson - great artists. RIP, Michael.

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CHRIS: My name is Chris. I'm 24 years old, and I do everything on my phone. I text. I talk. I dBm a lot. I Google bank locations on the Internet. I send pictures. I receive pictures. You know, pretty much of my life is on my phone. Facebook, Twitter - you could follow me if you want to.

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MARTIN: These are the voices of some of the folks we caught up with on the streets of Washington, D.C., telling us everything they like to do with their cell phones.

Tune in tomorrow as we continue our series, Tell Me Mobile, where we talk about what might be the downside of young people hooked on mobile devices. Parents, you might want to hear this.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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