What evidence in society do we have of a new communication medium becoming an art form? One that I’ve been musing on is the emergence of critique.

And not just critique in the form of having specific or varied tastes and applying your criticisms towards those particular proclivities, but the kind of critique that garners an audience and directs Commerce.

Today in Insiders we’ll be asking a big question: is commerce a form of art? Specifically, has eCommerce — the visual medium — transcended into a new form of artistic expression?

Can the digital arrangement of pixels that enable purchasing products online be artistic, and can that art become beloved?

Can we cultivate tastes and genres of that art form? And if so, what evidence do we have?

Evidence of art: the emergence of criticism.

Pictured: Ashwinn Krishnaswamy, a TikTok brand critic and founder of Forge, an eCom services firm

If you’re new to eCommerce or retail communities, you might be surprised to know how cutthroat this industry can be at times. This exists due to the proliferation of business media, which is sales literature disguised as entertainment.

The services industry in eCom thrives on weaponizing information in the form of “thought leadership” — lording a set of standardized practices and tastes over popular and well-known brands as “gotcha” content.

These thought leaders position themselves as the high society of shopping. They have emerged as a class of critics that are driving commercial value in the ecosystem by evangelizing practices, and fielding opportunities to put their thoughts into service of the commerce organizations they’re aiming to reach.

Their goal is not to make a living on their critique, but rather earn a living as a byproduct of their very good taste.

One such critic is Ashwinn Krishnaswamy, founder of a brand studio and eCom services agency, Forge. Ashwinn has gained a large following on TikTok for his critique, which ranges from design and typography choices to product innovation.

In physical retail, the prevailing critic is Neil Saunders, who has raised the ire of retail outfits like Macy’s (who blocked him on social media briefly in early 2023). Neil’s profession is retail analysis, but he also performs the role of consulting for retailers like Macy’s who may value his perspective.

Neil’s penchant? Finding disheveled tentpole retail stores and exposing them through his social media accounts. Neil is a retail paparazzo.

Pictured: a disheveled Macy’s display, from a tweet by Neil Saunders.

In the same way that critics have long debated the merits of art, music, film, fashion, and food, the eCommerce critic class brings a discerning eye to brands and the channels they operate. These critics delve into the nuances of digital branding, user experience, and marketing strategies, evaluating how they contribute to, or detract from, the overall cultural impact of a given eCommerce platform or business.

The emergence of a retail or eCom critic class highlights the growing significance of eCommerce as a medium that transcends traditional commercial boundaries. As the digital marketplace continues to evolve, it becomes more than just a platform for buying and selling goods; it morphs into a dynamic cultural arena where creativity, innovation, and artistic expression converge.

This new form of criticism highlights the importance of understanding and appreciating the role that eCommerce plays in shaping our society.

Good eCommerce goes beyond mere transactions; it captures the essence of the human experience, incorporating elements of storytelling, aesthetics, and social engagement. On the other hand, bad eCommerce reduces this rich tapestry to mere consumerism, with little consideration for the cultural context in which it exists.

As the critic class in commerce gains prominence, their evaluations and discourse will help elevate the standards of the entire marketplace. By recognizing the creative and cultural potential of eCommerce, we can begin to view it not just as a business tool, but as an art form in its own right. This shift in perspective allows us to engage with commerce more thoughtfully, enriching our understanding of its place in the broader cultural landscape and, ultimately, helping to shape a more vibrant and inclusive economy.

Or at least that’s what we’d hope to see.

Commerce writ-large has come into its own as a fully matured art form, replete with a critic class that scrutinizes and evaluates its many facets. However, as we continue to democratize information and opinion-sharing through social media, a pervasive sentiment of "everyone's a critic" begins to challenge the very notion of legitimacy.

The ease with which individuals can now create bands, websites, or products has shifted the power dynamics in the world of commerce. Consumers, now more than ever, wield immense influence over the success or failure of these ventures. This abundance of choice, coupled with the power of critical thinking (or the lack thereof), has transformed the consumer into a discerning patron of the digital arts.

In much the same way that there are strata of art (fine art, hotel art, a child’s crayon drawing) — there are strata of commerce as art.

Film: The Communication Medium that Became Art

In 1895 the New York Times published a short review of a Paris exhibition of the films of French film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière. These reviews became the first critique of a new and emerging art form, and the role of the film critic was born.

Early film critics in the 20th century faced a number of challenges and had to adapt to new publishing mediums as the film industry developed. These challenges included establishing the credibility and legitimacy of film as an art form, navigating the relationship between filmmakers and critics, and finding ways to effectively convey their opinions to a wide audience.

There are a number of lessons that emerging fields of criticism, such as eCommerce, can learn from the experiences of early film critics.

Film as an industry is quite mature in its commercialization. From it, we can discover other evidence of medium-becomes-art transcendence. Among others, we see the existence of awards and festivals, education and academics, preservation and archiving, mystique and urban legends, historians, and the emergence of genres, to name a few.

If we were to divine a scoring system to know precisely when a medium has become art; based on this informal list, we may be able to put a tally mark in each column for eCommerce as being “emergent” in its artistic expressions.

One of the key challenges that early film critics faced was establishing the credibility and legitimacy of their field. This involved defining what made a film good or bad and developing criteria and standards for evaluating films. Emerging fields of criticism can learn from this by defining the criteria and standards that they will use to evaluate products and services and working to establish their own credibility as experts in their field.

The complexities that make eCommerce work are not dissimilar to that of film. In the early 20th century, film required a number of scientific and technological advancements to exist. Chemistry for exposing and developing the film, electricians and lighting to illuminate sets, recordists to capture the audio, and scads of writers to create cohesive stories.

Similarly, I’ve often said that eCommerce is the convergence of the most difficult of disciplines in customer experience: logistics, payments, marketing, communications, merchandising, pricing, product development, and brand.

There are a number of allegorical overlaps, it seems. The very industry could not exist save for the existence of many dependent disciplines — each with its own specializations, innovations, regulation, and complexities.

Because commerce criticism has a tangible return on the investment, it makes sense to commercialize these points of view as entertainment. But the commercial value can only be established if the critic has credibility.

For art or film critics, it is not necessarily critical to be an artist in their own right in order to establish credibility — this may not be true with commerce criticism. However, having a strong understanding of the artistic or film-making process and the history and context of the art form can be helpful in developing a nuanced and informed perspective on the work being evaluated.

For eCommerce businesses and the critique of their practices, it is also important to establish credibility by demonstrating expertise in the field and a thorough understanding of the products and services being evaluated. This may involve learned history or experience but is often most accepted or trusted through mutual respect and admiration.

To be part of the “club” you might have worked for — or been hired by — an elite organization. The names of these organizations are in flux, but your prior work often stands as a testament to your pedigree. In the DTC era, these businesses were Bonobos, Casper, Warby Parker, and Away. Little to no vetting was required if you had these credentials and impeccable taste. Your critique is valid.

These challenges are felt in commerce criticism, too. We have felt this acutely, as Future Commerce is a media outlet that participates in commerce critique; though we lack the traditional pedigree required to be part of the club. Unlike traditional journalism, the critic’s perspective is formed based on opinions, as our perspectives are likely varied based on our tastes. Like film criticism, there is little value in telling an artist what they should have done to make a better story after the fact.

In this way, commerce criticism is unique. It only exists for its own vanity, and to garner attention. Film criticism before the publication of a film is called consulting. Criticism before the publication of a new eCommerce property is called strategy.

The Democratization of Opinion

There exists a counter-argument. By proliferating opinion and taste, albeit at the expense of a handful of standout brands, critique can provide the rest of the world immense value. The creation of content that elicits commentary and responses from a consumer audience that may validate the claims of a critic may highlight problems that executives may otherwise never see.

Arguably this is bad for the creator, but good for society.

We’ve argued for this in another way, by calling for more discourse between brands and their customers. If brands won’t speak to their customers, perhaps critics can be a suitable surrogate?

As the lines between commerce and art blur, consumers must develop a keen sense of discernment to differentiate between the plethora of options available to them. In this new era, critical thinking becomes an essential tool for navigating the complexities of consumerism. By cultivating an appreciation for the history, evolution, and cultural context of eCommerce, consumers can make more informed decisions about the products and services they choose to engage with, effectively becoming curators of their own digital experiences.

This democratization of opinion has the potential to elevate the conversation surrounding eCommerce as a whole — never mind whether it is truly art — which should empower consumers to demand higher quality, innovation, and creativity. The consumer demand for new products is what should spur us forward to create new and better businesses — not just mediums, but functional and sustainable organizations.

The challenge, then, is fostering a culture of informed criticism and thoughtful engagement that moves beyond the superficial and self-referential. Otherwise, we’re just adding to the noise.

Everyone’s a critic. Even online shoppers.