My wife is casting a sharp glance from the nearby couch as some bit of tinny chatter erupts from my iPhone in the midst of her weekly viewing of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.” We both agree that this Disney dump of backlot animated characters brought to life in an intractable plot line jumped the shark a while ago.
“Peter Pan?” I asked stupidly weeks ago. “What the hell is he doing mixed up with Snow White?” This has become an unabashed corporate franchise mashup. “But Tinker Bell does have nice legs,” I blurt -- entirely without thinking.
“You like those legs?”
I know -- just staggeringly stupid of me. But I have made the mistake enough times to reassure my wife that hers are superior. Which means that officially my wife has better gams than Kelly Rippa, Modern Family’s Julie Bowen AND Sofia Vergara, Katie Perry, all of the Rockettes, and Cyd Charisse. Yes, I know -- I am an incredibly stupid, blabbermouth husband.
And I don't know how to keep my iPhone's mouth shut either. There are ever more programs that default to audio or video playback, and this creates both a privacy and an etiquette problem. Second-screening on tablet, laptop or smartphone during TV viewing is de rigeur, of course. Playing video or audio from a device while watching TV is implicitly understood as a faux pas in multi-screen etiquette. But Web sites with mouseover audio triggers and Instagram/Vine feeds with video autoplay are making the world of using private media in public more problematic.
Instagram recently and quietly removed the option to turn off autoplay videos. I subscribe to the excellent NowThisNews Instagram feed of 10- to-15 second video news updates. I can’ recommend this feed enough just on design grounds. In just a few short months these guys have evolved the nano-video format into a credible means of delivering headlines. The initial seconds are a splash screen of oversized headlines (now in thin iOS 7-style typefaces) followed by a quick video montage of the news item.
But in practice, we are now playing cat and mouse with our own feeds. Unless we think to mute the phone first, a quick trawl of a news feed in some public place often means playing cat and mouse with auto-play video, tapping it to pause before it erupts -- something akin to the digital age's version of farting in a crowd.
Twitter is about to add to the noise as it rolls out this week a new timeline style that previews photos and Vine video rather than just linking to them. Thankfully, the videos require a tap to start and don't default to auto-play. And Twitter does let you toggle off image previews. So for those of you 140-character text purists, you can avoid the clutter.
Still, Twitter and Facebook/Instagram are priming the pump for greater brand presence in their feeds. The great clutterification of mobile begins. As it is, our feeds from these companies are a moshpit of discordant items, from news to cute animals, friend posts of personal interest to professional items. I understand there is some justification for the idea that a hallmark of social media is this mashup of genres. The story BuzzFeed likes to tell is that its cacophony of cute, newsy and lean-back content is just mimicking the genre-bending that a new generation of users accepts as a given because of the social feed. I am not so sure I agree with this de-contextualization of content argument. If you add promotions to the already cluttered and random feel of most timelines, the experience just continues to erode.
These mainstays of mobile media -- socially driven, quick grabs of content to fill the empty spaces in everyday life -- are feeling as nonsensical as “Once Upon A Time.” A heartfelt remembrance of a Facebook friend for her late friend followed by a sponsor post promoting the latest hack-and-slash game, announced with garish illustrations. Both posts are ‘relevant’ to me, to invoke that everpresent and increasingly meaningless marketing phrase. But now? Together? Are they relevant to one another? Am I being precious here and naïve to the realities of an aggregated world of “personalized” media? Maybe. But my encounters with my various timelines and feeds is feeling to me less “personal” all the time -- and instead an encounter with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et. al.’s business models, or a need to placate stockholders. It all has the same rationale as Peter Pan, Snow White, Belle and Pinocchio in the same world. It makes corporate sense to Disney. The rest of us are just taking a ride (or being taken for one). Where are Lady and the Tramp and the Aristocats? Why the hell not?
But this is just one more way that signal to noise is trending away from user experience and some of the givens of mobile usage and etiquette are being challenged by the mobile monetization rush and the crude pressures of IPO-ification in mobile. The busy-ness and chaotic nature of the content flowing into the most popular mobile channels should give pause. Is this the mobile experience we most want? Do we look for relief from a cluttered and randomized flow of life experience with media that is at least as if not more random?
There is an awful lot of talk about the so-called “user experience” at just the point where it seems to be degrading itself. And we are not talking yet about what the most rewarding, invigorating, clarifying, refreshing, informative, pleasurable moments might be. Which may mean that we aren't thinking hard enough yet about what “mobile media” is… or could be.