Toward A More Critical Mobility

Back in the 1910s a daring critic and editor at the literary magazine The Dial named Gilbert Seldes was writing an unlikely book review about a popular romance. This was the sort of pabulum major magazines like The Dial were not supposed to cover. But Seldes, the irreverent son of a free-thinking Russian anarchist, had little patience with the usual distinctions of high and low culture. He chastised the author for his mediocre talents but then also turned his critical eye on the literary establishment. He said that authors like this were so unsatisfying because "no one had ever asked any more of them." In essence, he contended that the audience and critics didn't respect the genre very much, and the genre returned the favor.


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, 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.

6 comments about "Toward A More Critical Mobility".
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  1. Hugh Simpson from WOW! Presentation, December 9, 2008 at 2:52 p.m.

    Are you sure the url is as I went there and got something did not seem to relate.

    However I enjoyed the article tremendously like I do all your articles!


  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, December 9, 2008 at 3:01 p.m.

    Apologies. Maybe it was a typo that made it in there. It is

  3. Gus Klein from LA GAY AND LESBIAN CENTER, December 9, 2008 at 5:22 p.m.

    I'm a zealot about critique, but I think an entire point was overlooked about critiquing mobility/mobile products. The fact that applications by nature contain one perfect tidbit of criticism, and that's how many people downloaded the app on their device. Not only that, but they are generally ranked. Is this not an inherent form of critique? An automated, perfectly statistical one at that. Instead, as a consumer I'm asked to (GO) have a (time consuming, long winded) look at "The Best and Worst of..." report ....Which isn't even an app I can download, right?... Just sayin'...

  4. Max Dawson from Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., December 9, 2008 at 6:27 p.m.

    Steve - One place where the form of criticism you are calling for is already taking place is in the academy. University-based researchers in the US and UK have approached mobile content from a variety of perspectives, carrying forward the traditions of critical analysis exemplified by Seldes, amongst others. I'd call your attention to my own article "Little Players, Big Shows: Format, Narration, and Style on Television's New Smaller Screens," as well as to the publications of Elizabeth Evans of the University of Nottingham, as examples of the sort of work currently being produced by media studies scholars. If you can get past the jargon, I think you'll recognize that academics share many of the same questions as you and your industry colleagues.

    Max Dawson
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Communication & Culture
    Indiana University

  5. Dan Dragomir from OBS, December 10, 2008 at 5:58 a.m.

    It's MOBIthinking not mobilethinking, please read carefully. And yes, mobile becomes part of our life, and I bet on new gadgets and also new apps that will enhance this experience in the near future.

  6. Steve Smith from Mediapost, December 10, 2008 at 5:35 p.m.

    Gus, I agree that user feedback can be helpful, although ratings do not deliver the kind of qualitative criticism I had in mind. I think the classic role of the seasoned critic is to bring a wealth of experience with other examples of the form. On the other hand, the Apple App Store does give users the opportunity to write comments, and more than a few mobile developers have told me this is the first time they have gotten a real and rich feedback loop.

    Max, you are quite right, academics have started drilling into mobile, if only because this is a field where everyone needs to find a niche and a reason to start a new Journal -- ;-). I think in a future column I will endeavor to translate some of the jargon-encrusted scholarship -- since I was once one of those who threw the jargon around with the best of them.

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