Mobile First is a Special Case of Reading First

Several years ago, there was a push towards “mobile first” publishing – the idea being that more and more people were using their mobile phones as their primary reading device. The optimization of web content for constraints inherent in mobile technology (be that bandwidth or limited computational resources) is something I had already noted as a usability imperative at least a decade earlier (mainly while writing on the long-since defunct – I summed it up as “I hate to wait”. At the time the writing was in plain sight on the wall separating the First World from the Third World (but was by and large ignored besides do-gooders lamenting a “digital divide”).

The metaphor of the “Bright Lights, Big City” is a useful one. We must recognize that the so-called digital divide is in large part a tale of two cultures: One that has been steeped in mass consumption of big media content for several centuries, and another that is more attuned to many millennia of “primitive” and “face to face” styles of very traditional and highly evolved forms communication. Put simply: Whereas advanced technology and machines dominate “Developed” countries; Natural languages reign supreme in “Non-Developed” countries.

There is indeed some irony in the widespread consumer-orientation in highly industrialized countries. We will probably revisit this theme sometime in the near future.

Here and now, however, I want to focus on the “matter of fact” situation that online engagement is still in the vast majority of cases a phenomenon of highly developed economies and technologically advanced societies – and that in these societies the primary avenue to engagement is paved on the path of reading and consuming content. The road to participatory communication is a limited access highway, and all on ramps require reading (or “consumer”) literacy.

The production of literature will also need to be reviewed, but for the present moment it is simplest to treat it as being of secondary significance.

Participation and engagement in community communications is not a matter of prodding and motivating people to publish, but rather it is a matter of making it quick and easy for people to read.

This primary rule has been – by and large – neglected by most “publishing platforms” (such as WordPress). There are some notable exceptions – for example: Chris Lema’s talk at WordCamp Portland 2015 in which he argued that “our goal should always be to delight our client’s clients” (see ca. 17 mins.). Another good (and more recently published) resource to consult for this approach is Tammie Lister’s presentation about “how to know your users” in which she emphasizes that she does not want to get stuck in some kind of semantic debate (about “usability” vs “user testing”, etc.): “Whatever word gets you to doing the thing, then that’s totally OK to use.” (ca. 4 mins.)

If publishing platforms were more oriented towards users – if publishing software were more concerned with delighting the client’s clients, or delighting the end users – then we ought to be making it as quick and easy as possible to read content. Webpages should load in a split second. There should be no strings attached. No big data, no signups, no small print.

Yet this isn’t presently the case. Clearly, we need to pay more attention to putting reading first on the list of things we need to do. Personally, I advocate for reading first, joining second and writing last.

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