On That Photo From the Vatican with All the Mobile Phones

I’ve been thinking more about that photo we all saw and most of us shared yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, NBC posted an image on Instagram of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, juxtaposing photos from the 2005 announcement of Pope Benedict XVI and the 2013 announcement of Pope Francis. It was accompanied by the caption: “What a difference 8 years makes.”

St. Peter's Square in 2005 vs. 2013 - via NBCNews Instagram

St. Peter’s Square in 2005 vs. 2013 – via NBCNews Instagram

The difference is obvious. In the first, thousands of people look up at the balcony, awaiting the announcement. In the lower right corner, one person holds a small flip phone. In the other, an endless sea of glowing smartphones and tablets, as thousands of people stare intently up at the tiny balconies on the tiny screens floating between them and their new pope.

I saw it first from Eric Meyer and immediately shared the image on Twitter and G+, accompanied by the line “Are you paying attention to mobile?” Brad Frost did almost the exact same a few seconds after me (whoo!).

Those two images, taken in the same spot just 8 years apart, stand as a stark example of the unquestionable presence of the mobile device. These devices are as much a part of our lives as the religion that these people came to celebrate. So much so, that they actually placed their device between themselves and the highest living representative of their faith. That’s not symbolism–that’s the reality of the mobile era.

But I missed the real point of that photo, I think.

When I said “mobile” I meant mobile web–and responsive design, and adaptive content, and apps, and all the other things we typically think of when we read about “mobile.” I’m currently working on several website redesigns and replatforms–all of them going adaptive, responsive, etc. I just installed a responsive template to this blog (from the fantastic people at Creative Market, btw.).

But the more I look at this image, the more I realize it’s not about those things at all. In the context, it extends beyond the screens these people are holding up in front of their faces.

They’re not surfing the web. They’re not downloading apps. They’re certainly not reading my blog. They’re taking photos and video, they’re live chatting, Facetiming, Skyping, Google Hangout-ing. They’re actively sharing their experiences, or recording their experiences with the explicit intention of sharing them with their friends, families, followers, and perfect strangers all over the world.

In that context, this wasn’t about the device, it was about the basic need to share. To be a part of a community. To make connections with other human beings. It was about shared experiences. (Sure, it could be about the lack of shared experiences those people had with others around them. Or maybe it’s about the experience we all shared as we looked at that picture and thought about our lives 8 years ago.) Remember, the person gave us that picture was also staring at a tiny screen in front of their face, between themselves and one of the most impactful events in the world.

In this sense, it’s not about mobile. It’s not even about social. It’s about the way we live our lives, the things we choose to surround ourselves with, and the effects those decisions have on us all. And it’s about the basic need for human connection.

So yes, if you’re building a website, you need to think about mobile devices. Because that’s the way you’ll connect with people and share your story. If you’re planning an event, you need to plan around people’s experiences with and through their devices, because that’s how they’re going to experience it either way. And if you’re taking over as leader of a 2,000-year-old religion, you need to realize that your followers, no matter how dedicated, have a device in their pocket that gives them access to the entire history of human knowledge and realtime updates of every event that’s happening every second in the entire world.

It’s not about mobile, it’s about context. It’s a reminder of how fast things change around us and how little we know about our world 8 years from now. All we can do is strive to keep up with what we need today, and hope it will still be relevant tomorrow.

That’s the context we all work in today.