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Tablets and the “badge effect”

As we mentioned on this blog, The Economist recently reached the coveted 1 million fan mark on Facebook. In an interview last week with the New York Observer, Paul Rossi, managing director and executive vice president of The Economist for the Americas, discussed this significant occasion. “People used to say, just a few years ago, you only carried The Economist on the subway to meet girls,” he told the Observer‘s Off the Record blog. “Facebook is the equivalent of that today, it has a badge effect.”

It comes as no surprise that people read magazines like The Economist for more reasons than just a passion for international affairs or a penchant for excellent journalism. People tend to brandish their reading material purposefully, as a way to convey information about themselves to the world. When we’re seen reading The Economist, it signals to the world that we’re smart and curious. We may watch LOLcat clips in the privacy of our homes, but we make sure to read The Economist in public. And, as Rossi points out, social media replicates this real-world badge effect. By “liking” The Economist on Facebook, we are signaling to our virtual networks that we’re intelligent and worldly.

But how does this badge effect function when we read news on a tablet? A study by the Pew Center and The Economist Group found that only a portion of tablet users share news through social media or email. For now, the virtual badge effect of tablets appears to be minimal. Will this always be the case, or is this just an early step in the evolution of tablet reading? Further, unlike print, tablets often conceal the identity of our reading material. Instead of a distinctive magazine cover, the signaling device on many tablets is the standard black iPad case with the Apple logo. How are we to show our fellow straphangers that we’re reading The Economist when all they can see is the Apple logo?

As more people begin to consume news on a tablet, it will be interesting to see how the badge effect develops. How do you think it will be replicated on a tablet? Please comment below.