The Mobile Conversion, Internet Regression, and the 'Re-Passification' of the Media Audience

26 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2014

See all articles by Philip M. Napoli

Philip M. Napoli

Duke University

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: October 21, 2014


For an increasing proportion of the population worldwide, mobile-based forms of Internet access represent the primary means of going online. Furthermore, for some sectors, mobile-based forms of Internet access are the only means for connecting online. Much has been written about the tremendous benefits, and even the transformative capacity, associated with this global mobile diffusion. Though there is much to be gained from what might be called the ongoing mobile conversion, in which mobile Internet access supplants wireline access via PCs/laptops, there are significant drawbacks as well. This paper seeks to offer a somewhat contrarian perspective to the overwhelmingly positive discourse that has accompanied discussions of the rise of mobile Internet access. Specifically, this paper argues that the transition from fixed to mobile forms of Internet access represents an evolutionary regression across some key dimensions. In particular, the mobile conversion brings with it a significant step backwards in terms of the activity and autonomy that the Internet has, to this point, brought to media audiences. It is this re-passification of the audience that is the focal point of this analysis.

In addressing these issues, this paper begins with a theoretical grounding in media and audience evolution. Specifically, this paper begins with an examination of the institutional tensions and resistance patterns that have historically characterized the dynamic between media and audiences, with a particular emphasis on the extent to which media systems have facilitated or discouraged audience activity and content creation. Next, this paper examines the evidence that the dynamics of mobile Internet content provision and usage are fundamentally different from the traditional PC-based Internet in ways that represent a regression of the Internet’s capabilities, particularly in terms of facilitating a more active, content-creating and distributing role for the audience. It is suggested that relative to the PC-based model of Internet access and usage, the mobile Internet is, in many ways, a significant step back towards a more passive audience model in which the traditional boundaries between content providers and audiences that the Internet has thus far helped to break down are to some extent being re-established.

Keywords: Mobile, mobile internet, mobile leapfrogging, audience, audience evolution

Suggested Citation

Napoli, Philip M. and Obar, Jonathan A., The Mobile Conversion, Internet Regression, and the 'Re-Passification' of the Media Audience (October 21, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Philip M. Napoli

Duke University ( email )

Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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