Seldes went on to write the first serious discussion of American popular culture "The Seven Lively Arts," which was true to the basic principle that serious, respectful criticism of popular art (vaudeville to comic strips) is a necessary part of elevating both creators and audiences to make and expect better work.
Seldes is a personal hero of mine, in part because he was the Godfather of American pop culture criticism but also because of his relentless faith in the role of criticism in advancing the quality of media. During the 1930s he worked with CBS on brainstorming the forms early television might take. In lengthy memos to the top brass he responded to experimental broadcasts and wondered aloud whether existing media like the comic strip, vaudeville, radio and film were the best models for TV entertainment. When I make similar moves in these pages, comparing mobile to early TV or silent film, etc. it is an attempt to apply Seldes' own principles to this emerging medium.
Every new medium needs persistent, informed critical perspectives on its product, and this has been lacking in digital media generally but mobile media specifically. New sites and offerings get thrust onto the market with a press release and a blurb about the company's prospects, but too few journalists actually take a look at the product themselves and render even a cursory evaluation.
I wondered how any medium could move forward without a healthy discourse about what does and doesn't work. When a couple of authors finally put out a book years ago about "Web sites that sucked," developers dove into it. Finally someone was offering some kind of critical benchmark, even if it was snarky. So much of digital media has been start-up and hyper-driven that the journalism around it was focused almost entirely on business models and IPO possibilities, and not enough on engaging the medium itself.
Happily, this is starting to change a bit. Sites like VentureBeat and Silicon Alley Insider are more evaluative than their cheerleading counterparts a decade ago. In mobile, sites like WAPReview offer regular reviews of mobile sites, and a number of the iPhone sites are now reviewing entries in the App Store. When possible, MediaBistro's mobile bloggers actually do crack open their cells and try out some of the sites they report about.
Personally, I have been hoping for more. I tried myself a few times to get an online business pub off the ground that reviews mobile content on a regular, systematic basis. I think publishers, carriers, and mobile marketers could use such an organ. Sponsors and publishers always seem interested in the concept -- until it comes time to pony up support.
And so I am enthused when I do see some industry organs step in with evaluative overviews of the field. Let me direct everyone to dotmobi's mobithinking.com, which issued "The Best and Worst of the Mobile Web" report last week. Admittedly, I have never been an enthusiast for the dotmobi concept of a dedicated mobile domain. But I have been impressed by their willingness to advance the mobile Web platform with best practices over the years. In this new paper they consulted over a dozen media and mobile figures about first principles of good mobile Web design ("simplify, but don't over-simplify," "remember user details," etc.). Then they picked several sites that followed or ignored these principles. They praise The Weather Channel for its discoverability and good redirects but slap United Airlines for sporting few redirects and an unwieldy URL. ESPN earns props for reliability and usability across handsets while YouTube and United (again) are dissed for not adapting to handsets and crashing regularly.
To be sure, this is not a deep critical consideration of mobile media. It is at best a glancing view. Nevertheless, it is a helpful start, and I would like to see more of it on a regular basis.
Again, this old fart and unreconstructed historian must call up a bit of media history. Back in 1910, long before anyone (even Seldes) thought silent film deserved serious critical reviews, the industry itself provided them. Even when films were 1-minute glimpses of movement that usually ended in a kiss, a chase or a fight, the film distribution companies included short evaluations of the film's quality and audience appeal so theater-owners could discriminate between better and worse prospects.
Something like this is only starting in mobile media. Media companies and developers need critical market intelligence about what others are doing in the space (well and not so well) and this emerging world of mobile marketing needs more information about the media platform they are hoping to help underwrite. But most of all, for the good of what I believe will be the next great media platform, we need to elevate the discourse around it -- respect it so it respects us back with better work.