What We Talk About When We Talk About Mobile

We have been here before. That is important to keep in mind as the handwringing proliferates over the power of social platforms, their purported manipulations of our political systems, and the mobile addiction we are told we all have. Speculating frantically about the democratic and social consequences and promise of wildly popular new communications media has always been a part of Americans’ absorbing those very technologies.

Henry David Thoreau mocked the telegraph, which eventually helped build the newspaper industry, because he thought it would most likely be used by his fellow countrymen to communicate vapid trivia and royal gossip. The great social reformer Jane Addams worried that without content censorship and attendance regulations, the new nickelodeon threatened to fill the minds of impoverished city youth with unhealthy fantasies of personal prowess and unrealistic expectations of affluence.

Anxieties around new communications media in the U.S. have always gone to the heart of perennial democratic worries about the fitness of an informed citizenry to govern itself. Fears of new mass media being hijacked tug at a fear that the citizenry—hence, democracy—somehow can be manipulated by extra-democratic forces. By the time radio and TV arrived, well into the 20th century, the government started baking into broadcast licenses provisions that require various ways of servicing public interest.

The flip side of American anxiety about mass communications has been irrational exuberance. Enthusiasm over the power of the telegraph, film, radio, and TV to bring people together, educate and uplift the masses, democratize expression, and even encourage cross-cultural empathy was common in history and should be familiar to evangelists of digital connectivity. In many cases, these democratic fantasies obscured the realities of how these industries consolidated money and political clout. 

These rhetorical patterns are important to keep in mind as we start to argue about the role of Google, Facebook, and Amazon in our economy, politics, and everyday lives.

Mobile connectivity and media highlight another very American thread that runs deeply in the democratic fiber. The relationship between individual and community, personal liberty and responsibility to the group and public order is the ongoing tension central to American culture.

I think that mobile media has proven to be both so popular so fast and so controversial precisely because it goes to the heart of this very American tension. The gadget connects to the larger community, but unlike earlier forms of mass communication, it feels personally empowering rather than anonymizing. The ability to filter, customize, share, and manipulate a media-verse that spoke to us from on high and en masse may be more deservedly addictive than any interface manipulations Facebook designers can devise. 

Some of the most popular media content pieces and platforms are so powerful and appealing precisely because they try to resolve the perennial tension between self and society. Whine all you like about the excesses of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. But social media’s power comes from its ability to serve as a medium both for individual self-expression and conformity.

The selfie and the social feed are two wholly new media genres that mobility invented. Dismissing them as expressions of narcissism or narrow-minded tribalism is a bad analysis and probably bad business. This genre works via individualized profiles and voices that must be heard, but it makes the size of your stage contingent on approval of the community—Likes, shares, and follows.

In order for media companies to reimagine themselves in a post-mass media era, they need to take more seriously the massive successes that have defined this short mobile era. Social platforms, games, and dating apps such as Tinder offer their users imaginative new ways not only to express themselves, but to imagine and connect with a sense of community in attractive ways. They are addressing cultural tensions that run deeper than our snap judgments about the perils and promise of the mobile revolution.    

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