6 New Media Theory
New Media and Mass Communication171
What is New about the New Media?173
Political Participation, New Media and Democracy177
The Main Themes of New Media Theory180
Applying Medium Theory to the New Media183
New Patterns of Information Traffic186
Technologies of Freedom?192
New Equalizer or Divider?195
Theory relating to media and mass communication has to be continually reassessed in the light of new technologies and their applications. Throughout this edition we recognized the arrival of new types of media that extend and change the entire spectrum of socio-technological possibilities for public and private communication. To speak of a complete transformation would be premature, but it is clear that the digital age ushers in a process of profound change for quite some time to come. The underlying assumption in this chapter is that a medium is not just an applied technology for transmitting certain symbolic content or linking participants in some exchange. It also embodies a set of social relations that interact with features of the new technology. New theory is only likely to be required if there is a fundamental change in the forms of social organization of media technologies, in the social relations that are promoted, or in what Carey (1998) terms the dominant structures of taste and feeling. At the same time, we try to stay mindful of Scannells (2017: 5) warning about the trap of presentism in media research that fails to engage with earlier traditions of communication theory and should undertake some unforgetting.
New Media and Mass Communication
The mass media have changed very much, certainly from the early-twentieth-century days of one-way, one-directional and undifferentiated flow to an undifferentiated mass. There are social and economic as well as technological reasons for this shift, but it is real enough. Secondly, information society and network theory, as outlined in Chapter 4, also indicates the rise of a new kind of society, quite distinct from mass society, one characterized by complex interactive networks of communication. In the circumstances, we need to reassess the main thrust of media social-cultural theory.
The new media discussed here are in fact a disparate set of communication technologies that share certain features, apart from being relatively new, made possible by digitalization and being widely available for personal use as communication devices and infrastructures. From the outset we recognize with Nancy Baym that newness is a state of time rather than of technology (quoted in Baym et al., 2012: 258), which should orient us to identifying concrete attributes or affordances of particular technologies instead of focusing on their novelty.
As we have seen (p. 52), new media are very diverse and not easy to define, but we are particularly interested in those media and applications that on various grounds enter the sphere of mass communication or directly or indirectly have consequences for the traditional mass media. Attention focuses mainly on the collective ensemble of activities that fall under the heading Internet, especially on the more public uses, including online news, advertising, broadcasting applications (including the downloading of music and the uploading of video, etc.), forums and discussion activities, the World Wide Web (WWW), information searches, certain community-forming potentials all of which and more tend to be subsumed by online platforms and are offered through a wide array of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Generally, new media have been greeted (not least by the old media) with intense interest, positive and even euphoric expectations and predictions, and a general overestimation of their significance (Rssler, 2001). At the same time, journalists, pundits and scholars are equally likely to respond with great concern and dystopian analyses about their supposedly disruptive or even destructive impact. With all these technologies competing and evolving, it is important to note that from a historical perspective newer media and their uses do not replace but rather tend to act as accelerators and amplifiers of long-term trends in the socio-technical history of other media. In this development there is no necessary end-point, and different media are usually transformed through a complex interplay of real and perceived needs, competitive and political pressures, and continuous social and technological changes a development Fidler (1997) describes as the mediamorphic process. In general, it seems prudent to heed Fidlers warning against technomyopia: the tendency of people to overestimate the short-term impact of technology, while simultaneously underestimating its long-term potential. The main aim of this chapter is to offer a preliminary review of the impact of the evolution of the Internet and online media on other mass media and on the nature of mass communication itself.
As a basic orientation to the topic, it is helpful to look at the relationship between personal media and mass media, as conceptualized by Marika Lders (2008) and displayed in Figure 6.1. The underlying assumption is that the distinction between mass and personal communication is no longer clear since the same technologies can be and are used for both purposes (see Chapter 2). The differences can only be understood by introducing a social dimension, relating to the type of activity and social relations involved. Instead of the concept medium, Lders prefers the term media forms, which refers to specific applications of the technology of the Internet, such as online news, social networking, etc. She writes (2008: 691):
Distinctions between personal media and mass media may be outlined as differences in the type of involvement required from users. Personal media are more symmetrical and require users to perform actively as both receivers and producers of messages.
The second main relevant dimension is that of the presence or not of an institutional or professional context that is typical of mass media production. Between them, the two dimensions of symmetricality and institutionalism locate the different types of relation between personal and mass media. An additional element is the distinction made by Thompson (1993) between (technically) mediated and quasi-mediated communication.
Figure 6.1 Two-axes model of relationship between personal and mass media (Lders, 2008)
What is New about the New Media?
To determine the level of newness of any medium, one has to first decide what approach to take: the technological characteristics and affordances of the technology involved, the perspective of the user and the particular social context within which the medium gets used, or the content and services being offered through a particular device, platform or interface. In terms of technological characteristics, the Internet can be defined by its digital, networked, interactive, virtual, customizable and generally open (as in anyone can produce as well as consume content and services online) nature.
The most fundamental aspect of information and communication technology (ICT) is probably the fact of digitalization, the process by which all texts (symbolic meaning in all encoded and recorded forms) can be reduced to a binary code and can share the same process of production, distribution and storage. The most widely noted potential consequence for the media institution is the convergence between all existing media forms in terms of their organization, distribution, reception and regulation. Many different forms of mass media have so far survived, retained their separate identity and even flourished, even though in terms of market value these institutions lag far behind Internet platforms and services that also and increasingly offer content and services traditionally the exclusive domain of mass media. For now, the general institution of mass media survives as a distinct element of public social life. The new electronic media do not necessarily replace the existing spectrum. On the other hand, we have to consider that digitalization and convergence might have much more revolutionary consequences, especially in the long term.
If we consider the main features of the media institution, as outlined in Box 3.4 (p. 80), it seems that the Internet in particular already deviates from that typification on three of the six points named. First, the Internet is not only or even mainly concerned with the production and distribution of messages, but is at least equally concerned with processing, exchange and storage. Secondly, the new media are as much an institution of private as of public communication and are regulated (or not) accordingly. Thirdly, their operation is not typically professional or bureaucratically organized to the same degree as mass media. These are quite significant differences that underscore the fact that the new media correspond with mass media primarily in being widely diffused, in principle available to all for communication, and to some extent free from direct control (with exceptions in parts of the world where Internet access is in fact offered through state-run organizations).
Attempts to characterize the new media, especially as embodied in the Internet, have been hindered by their very diversity of uses and governance as well as by uncertainty about their future development. The computer, as applied to communication, has produced many variant possibilities, not one of which is dominant. Postmes, Spears and Lea (1998) describe the computer as a uniquely undedicated communication technology. In a similar vein, Poster (1999) describes the essence of the Internet as its very underdetermination, not only because of its diversity and uncertainty in the future, but also because of its essentially postmodernist character. He also points to key differences with broadcasting and print, as shown in Box 6.1.
6.1 New media differences from old
The Internet incorporates radio, film and television and distributes them through push technology:
It transgresses the limits of the print and broadcasting models by (1) enabling many-to-many conversations; (2) enabling the simultaneous reception, alteration and redistribution of cultural objects; (3) dislocating communicative action from the posts of the nation, from the territorialized spatial relations of modernity; (4) providing instantaneous global contact; and (5) inserting the modern/late modern subject into a machine apparatus that is networked. (Poster, 1999: 15)
More succinctly, Livingstone (1999: 65) writes: Whats new about the internet may be the combination of interactivity with those features which were innovative for mass communication the unlimited range of content, the scope of audience reach, the global nature of communication. This view suggests extension rather than replacement. An assessment made five years after this by Lievrouw (2004) underlines a general view that the new media have gradually been mainstreamed, routinized and even banalized. Research on political communication speaks of the normalization of the Internet, meaning its adaptation to the needs of the established forms of campaigning (Vaccari, 2008b). Contemporary research on the Internet and all its related phenomena indeed takes its cue from the banal, everyday and altogether mundane nature of online media in peoples daily lives, as it is exactly in their unremarkable aspect that new media can play a profound role in shaping our experience of each other and the world.
In general, differences between new and old media can be appreciated in more detail if we consider the main roles and relationships that are found within the traditional media institutions, especially those concerned with authorship (and performance), publication, production and distribution, and reception. In brief, the main implications are as follows.
For authors, there are increased opportunities through posting on the Internet, desktop publishing, blogging, vlogging and similar autonomous acts. However, the status and rewards of the author, as understood until now, have depended on the significance and location of publication and on the degree and kind of public attention received. Writing a private letter or a poem, or taking photographs, is not true authorship. The conditions of public recognition and esteem have not really changed with the new technology, and the condition of having a large audience and widespread fame may even have become more difficult to achieve. It is not easy to become famous on the Internet without the co-operation of either the traditional mass media or the platforms that provide much of the publication space online. There are also increasing difficulties in maintaining copyright as well as some reliable source of revenue arising from competition with the supply of free user-generated content.
For publishers, the role continues but has become more ambiguous for the same reasons that apply to authors. Until now, a publisher was typically a business firm or a non-profit public institution. The new media open up alternative forms of publication and present opportunities and challenges for traditional publishing. The traditional publication functions of gatekeeping, editorial intervention and validation of authorship will be found in some types of Internet publication, but not in others. Platform companies increasingly replace publishers as the key agencies for getting published works whether written words, audio, video, graphics, or a combination thereof to a mass audience, and these businesses operate quite differently, not the least because their publication and distribution management is generally determined by constantly changing algorithms.
As to the audience role, there are possibilities for change, especially in the direction of greater autonomy and equality in relation to sources and suppliers. The audience member is no longer really part of a mass, but is either a member of a self-chosen network or special public or an individual. In addition, the balance of audience activity shifts from reception to searching, consulting and interacting more personally, as well as contributing their own work to publication. This shift coincides with media industries increasingly converging their operations and production processes in order to capture the illusive audience a twin process that Jenkins (2006) calls convergence culture. As a result, the term audience is in need of supplementation with the overlapping term of user, with quite different connotations (see pp. 498499).
Despite this, there is evidence of continuity in the mass audience (see Chapter 14) and there is still a demand by the audience for gatekeeping, curation and editorial guidance even if such functions are to some extent taken over online by software and algorithms. Rice (1999: 29) remarks on the paradox of the extended range of choices facing the audience:
Now individuals must make more choices, must have more prior knowledge, and must put forth more effort to integrate and make sense of the communication. Interactivity and choice are not universal benefits; many people do not have the energy, desire, need or training to engage in such processes.
Into this gap between audience agency and audience effort the platform companies have sprung, offering to automate algorithmically much of user choice. These comments are incomplete without reference to the changed roles in relation to the economics of media. For the most part, mass media were financed by selling their products to audiences and being paid by client advertisers for the chance of audience attention to their messages. The Internet introduces many complications and changes, with new types of relation and forms of commodification, new competitors and new rules.
As far as the relations between different roles are concerned, we can posit a general loosening and more independence, especially affecting authors and audiences. Rice (1999: 29) has noted that the boundaries between publisher, producer, distributor, consumer and reviewer of content are blurring, even though this does not mean all have the same (legal, economical) status. This casts doubt on the continued appropriateness of the idea of the media as an institution in the sense of some more or less unified social organization with some core practices and shared norms. In the general meltdown, it is likely that we will recognize the emergence of separate, more specialized institutional complexes and networks of media activity. These will be based either on technologies or on certain uses and content (for example, relating to news journalism, entertainment franchises (in film, television and video games), business, sport, pornography, tourism, education, professions, etc.), with at times a limited or absent institutional identity. In that sense, the twentieth-century mass media have withered away. At the same time, through converging operations, solidifying business operations across many different areas, collaboration with Internet platforms and fostering relationships with audiences as fans, many mass media companies are seeking to retain their institutional status.
On a concluding note, we have to signal the increasing importance of artificial intelligence in the study of media and mass communication (Guzman and Lewis, 2019). With the rise of big data as a fundamental driver of the global economy, the significance of powerful computer hardware and software to process all of this information and to translate it into actionable intelligence, such as business opportunities, electoral gains and reputation boosts is of profound interest to researchers. Collaborations with experts in computer engineering and data science, digital methods, digital humanities, information studies and so on, abound. Key issues in this emerging field of study are the evolving relations and boundaries between humans and machines, the role of ethics in , and a host of regulatory issues involving so-called predictive analytics that govern the business models of so many Internet companies.
Box 6.2 lists the main changes brought about with the rise of new media.
6.2 Main changes linked to the rise of new media
Digitalization and convergence of all aspects of media
Increased interactivity and network connectivity
Mobility and delocation of sending and receiving
Adaptation of publication and audience roles
Appearance of diverse new forms of media gateway
Fragmentation and blurring of the boundaried media institution
Emergence of platforms as powerful online intermediaries
Rise of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics
Political Participation, New Media and Democracy
The earlier mass media of press and broadcasting were widely seen as beneficial (even necessary) for the conduct of democratic politics, as much as for effective state control. The benefit stemmed from the flow of information about public events to all citizens and the exposure of politicians and governments to the public gaze. However, negative effects were also perceived because of the dominance of channels by a few voices, the predominance of a vertical flow, and the heightened commercialism of the media market, leading to the neglect of democratic communication roles. The typical organization and forms of mass communication limit access and discourage active participation and dialogue.
The new electronic media have been widely hailed as a potential way of escape from the oppressive top-down politics of mass democracies in which tightly organized political parties make policy unilaterally and mobilize support behind them with minimal negotiation and grass-roots input. They provide the means for highly differentiated provision of political information and ideas, almost unlimited access in theory for all voices, and much feedback and negotiation between leaders and followers. They promise new forums for the development of interest groups and formation of opinion. They allow dialogue to take place between politicians and active citizens, without the inevitable intervention of a party machine. Not least important, as Coleman (1999: 73) points out, is the role of new media in the subversive service of free expression under conditions of authoritarian control of the means of communication. It is certainly not easy for governments to control access to and the use of the Internet by dissident citizens, but neither is it impossible.
Even old politics, it is said, might work better (and more democratically) with the aid of instant electronic polling and new tools of campaigning. The ideas concerning the public sphere and civil society, discussed elsewhere, have stimulated the notion that new media are ideally suited to occupy the space of civil society between the private domain and that of state activity. The ideal of an open arena for public conversation, debate and exchange of ideas seems open to fulfilment by way of forms of communication (the Internet, in particular) that allow citizens to express their views and communicate with each other and their political leaders from the comfort of their own home, place of work or mobile device.
The arguments for welcoming a new politics based on new media are quite diverse and different perspectives are involved. Dahlberg (2001) describes three basic camps or models. First, there is the model of cyber-libertarianism that wants an approach to politics based on the model of the consumer market. Surveys, plebiscites and televoting fit this outlook, replacing older processes. Secondly, there is a communitarian view that expects the benefits to come from greater grass-roots participation and input and the strengthening of local political communities. Thirdly, there is a perceived benefit to deliberative democracy made possible by improved technology for interaction and for exchange of ideas in the public arena.
Bentivegna (2002) has summarized the potential benefits of the Internet to politics in terms of six main attributes, as shown in Box 6.3. She also describes the main limitations and the obstacles which have so far prevented any democratic transformation. In her view, the gap between the political realm and citizens has apparently not been reduced, participation in political life has remained stable (Bentivegna, 2002: 56). The reasons cited include the glut of information that limits the effective use that can be made of it; the fact that the Internet creates private lifestyle alternatives to public and political life in the form of the virtual communities discussed above; the cacophony of voices that impedes serious discussion; and the difficulties for many in using the Internet. In addition, there is the now much demonstrated fact that the new media tend to be used mainly by the small minority that is already politically interested and involved (Davis, 1999; Norris, 2000). If anything, new media possibilities may widen the gap between active participants and the rest.
6.3 Theoretical benefits of the Internet for democratic politics
Scope for interactivity as well as one-way flow
Co-presence of vertical and horizontal communication, promoting equality
Disintermediation, meaning a reduced role for journalism to mediate the relationship between citizen and politicians
Low costs for senders and receivers
Immediacy of contact on both sides
Absence of boundaries and limits to contacts
Political participation online, as a distinct mediated democratic process, tends to involve two main role-players: globally dominant media corporations (providing much of the access and infrastructure through which people can participate online) and transnational social movements (which can be little more than people temporarily joined in shared engagement using a hashtag on social networking sites). This process exists next to a more traditional orientation of nation-based mass media institutions and the politics and politicians of the nation state. Chadwick (2017) suggests that political communication today is increasingly shaped by interactions among older and newer media logics, constituting a hybrid media system. Chadwick argues that power is exercised by those who create, tap and steer information flows to suit their goals, and in ways that modify, enable and disable the agency of others across and between a range of older and newer media settings.
Early expectations of the Internet as making a big difference in the way people experience and participate in the political process have since been downplayed in favour of more nuanced perspectives. Scheufele and Nisbets (2002: 65) enquiry into the Internet and citizenship concluded that there was a very limited role for the Internet in promoting feelings of efficacy, knowledge and participation. A meta-analysis of 38 studies on the effects of Internet use on political engagement concludes quite convincingly that new media do not have a negative effect, albeit that positive effects are specifically related to the use of Internet for news (Boulianne, 2009). More recent studies similarly point to the fact that the link between Internet use and political participation does not make people act all that differently from previous media eras those who use the Internet to find information about politics and political parties are more likely to vote than those who tend only to use the Internet to express themselves about politics and political issues now and then (Feezell, Conroy and Guerrero, 2016).
There is also evidence that the existing political party organizations have generally failed to make use of the potential of the Internet, but rather turned it into yet another branch of the propaganda machine. Vaccari (2008a) speaks of a process of normalization, after high expectations. This does not necessarily mean that such traditional use of a new medium is unsuccessful, as the political campaigns of more populist politicians such as Donald Trump (elected as President of the United States in 2016) and Jair Bolsonaro (elected as President of Brazil in 2018) show. These campaigns featured the effective use of social media channels such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to target specifically tailored messages to particular groups of voters.
The Main Themes of New Media Theory
In Chapter 4, mass media were looked at in the light of four very broad concerns: to do with power and inequality, social integration and identity, social change and development, and space and time. Up to a point, theoretical perspectives on the new media can still be discussed in relation to the same themes. However, it also soon becomes clear that on certain issues the terms of earlier theory do not fit the new media situation very well. In respect of power, for instance, it is much more difficult to locate the new media in relation to the possession and exercise of power. They are not as clearly identified in terms of ownership, nor is access monopolized in such a way that the content and flow of information can be easily controlled.
Communication does not flow in a predominantly vertical or centralized pattern from the top or the centre of society. Government and law do not control or regulate the Internet in a hierarchical way as they do the old media (Collins, 2008). As the Internet has become the dominant medium around the world, governments and large media conglomerates, as well as Net native corporations, step in to negate some of its earlier freedoms (Dahlberg, 2004). As the data gathered through the (voluntary and involuntary) surveillance of Internet users becomes ever more comprehensive and profitable, new media can be seen as contributing to the controlling power of central authority, both in business and in state affairs.
There is now greater equality of access available as sender, receiver, spectator or participant in some exchange or network. It is no longer possible to characterize the dominant direction or bias of influence of information flows (as with press and television news and comment), although the issue of the degree of freedom available to the new channels is far from settled. From its open and democratic early phase, the Internet is increasingly becoming more regulated and dominated by telecommunications companies and corporations that operate on a global scale. Debates about Net neutrality and other issues related to Internet governance have been fierce, and are not likely to be settled anytime soon. Of key importance is the question of consumer protection in the age of big data and dataveillance as the main source of revenue online. Legislation, such as the 2016 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union, intends to safeguard data protection and privacy, even though its introduction (as that of similar laws elsewhere in the world) comes with much discussion and controversy.
In relation to integration and identity, the conceptual terrain is much the same as that dealt with earlier. The same broad issue is still whether the new media are a force for fragmentation or cohesion in society. However, early critics suggested that the basic configuration of the Internet and the nature of its use point to predominantly fragmenting social effects (Sunstein, 2006; Pariser, 2012). On the other hand, it opens up the way for new and diverse vicarious relationships and networks that are integrating in different ways and may be more binding (Slevin, 2000). The bridging and bonding effects (Putnam, 2000; Norris, 2002) of the Internet show how the new media environment can contribute to respectively social integration and polarization at the same time. Older concerns about mass media took as their basis the central case of the nation state, usually coinciding with the territory served by a mass medium. Alternatively, it might be a region, city or other political-administrative zone. Identity and cohesion were largely defined in geographical terms. The key questions are no longer confined to pre-existing social relationships and identities. Wellman (2002) has suggested that social integration in the context of new media primarily works through networked individualism, which would indicate a societal shift from group-based interaction in a single, local family and community to multiple, sparsely knit networks stretched across space and time. Research suggests that, while people of all ages appreciate the use of ICTs in maintaining ties and relationships with family, friends and networks online, most still prefer to spend quality time in person (Quan-Haase, Wang, Wellman and Zhang, 2018). The key is to appreciate how such processes of traditional affiliation and mediated interactions exist side by side, can overlap and also contradict one another as they constitute our sense of identity and belonging online.
Rasmussen (2000) argued that new media have qualitatively different effects on social integration in a modern network society, drawing on Giddens (1991) theories of modernization. The essential contribution is to consider media as contributing to both bridging and widening the gap that is said to be opening up between the private and public worlds, the lifeworld and the world of systems and organizations. In contrast to television, the new media can play a direct role in individual life projects. They also promote a diversity of uses and wider participation. In short, the new media help to re-embed the individual after the disembedding effects of modernization, with consequences only rarely uniform or one-directional.
In respect of potential for social change, the potential for new communications as an agent of planned economic or social change requires reassessment. At first sight, there is a big difference between mass media that can be systematically applied to goals of planned development by way of mass information and persuasion (as in health, population and technical innovation campaigns) and the open-ended, non-purposive uses that are typical of new technology. The loss of direction and control over content by the sender seems to be crucial.
However, it may be that more participatory media are equally or better suited to producing change because they are more involving as well as more flexible and richer in information. This would be consistent with the more advanced models of the change process. As the Internet matures and more data about peoples use of the various Internet-related products and services becomes available, producing social change by micro-targeting individuals online with customized (commercial or political) messages becomes quite possible. On the other hand, such methods used by advertising and marketing firms are rarely very effective, and the information we receive online still has to compete with a wide array of other sources of information and communication that make up the average users media diet.
Much has been written about the new media overcoming barriers of space and time. In fact, old media were good at bridging space, although perhaps less good in relation to cultural divisions. They were much faster than the physical travel and transportation that preceded them. But their capacity was limited and transmission technology required fixed structures and great expense to overcome distance. Sending and receiving were both very much physically located (in production plants, offices, homes, etc.). New technology has freed us from many constraints, although there are other continuing social and cultural reasons why much communication activity still has a fixed location. The Internet, despite its apparent lack of frontiers, is still largely structured according to territory, especially national and linguistic boundaries (Halavais, 2000), although there are also new factors in its geography (Castells, 2001). Communication used to be concentrated in the USA and Europe, and cross-border traffic originally was dominated by English. Today, the dominant geography of the Internet is Asian (specifically China and India), and although English is still the most used language online, other languages have become quite prominent, especially Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese.
How far time has been conquered is more uncertain, except in respect of greater speed of transmission, the escape from fixed time schedules, and the ability to send a message to anyone anywhere at any time (but without guarantee of reception or response). We still have no better access to the past or the future, or more time for communication, and the time saved by new flexibility is quickly spent on new demands of technology and intercommunication.
Applying Medium Theory to the New Media
As Rice et al. (1983: 18) observed some time ago, the notion that the channel of communication might be as important a variable in the communication process as source, message, receiver and feedback, may have been overlooked. Referring to the work of the Toronto School (see Chapter 4, p. 133), they add that One need not be a technological determinist to agree that the medium may be a fundamental variable in the communication process. Nevertheless, it is still very difficult to pin down the essential characteristics of any given medium, and the ground for distinguishing between new and old media is not very solid.
The main problem lies in the fact that in actual experience it is hard to distinguish the channel or medium from the typical content that it carries or the typical use that is made of it or the context of use (for instance, home, work or public place). Precisely the same problem has bedeviled earlier research into the relative advantages and capacities of different traditional media as channels of communication. However, this does not mean that there is no important difference or emerging discontinuity between old and new. At the moment we can do little more than make plausible suggestions.
Rice (1999) has argued that it is not very profitable to try to characterize each medium according to its specific attributes. Instead, we should study the attributes of media in general and see how new media perform in these terms. Baym (2015) offers a helpful checklist of questions to be asked of each new medium in order to compare it to other media:
What kinds of interactivity are available?
What is/are the temporal structure/s possible (synchronous, asynchronous)?
How available are social cues, including the physical, non-verbal and social/identity cues?
Is the medium stored?
Is it replicable?
How many people can messages reach using that medium?
What kinds of mobile engagement does that medium afford?
Contrasts and comparisons of media tend to idealize certain features of a medium (for example, face-to-face communication or the virtues of the traditional book), ignoring the paradoxes of positive and negative consequences. The diversity of the category new media and their continually changing nature set an obvious limit to theory forming about their consequences. The technological forms are multiplying but are also often temporary. We can identify five main categories of new media which share certain channel similarities and are approximately differentiated by types of use, content and context, as follows:
Interpersonal communication media. These include the telephone (now predominantly mobile), email and messenger applications (such as Whatsapp and Telegram). In general, content is private and perishable, and the relationship established and reinforced may be more important than the information conveyed.
Interactive play media. These are mainly computer-based and video games, plus virtual reality devices. The main innovation lies in the interactivity and perhaps the dominance of process over use gratifications.
Information search media. This is a wide category, but the Internet (and its interface, the World Wide Web) is the most significant example, viewed as a library and data source of unprecedented size, actuality and accessibility. The search engine has risen to a commanding position as a tool for users as well as a source of income for the Internet. Besides the computer used for Internet access, mobile devices such as the smartphone and tablet (and also the laptop) are important channels for information retrieval.
Collective participatory media. This category includes especially the uses of the Internet for sharing and exchanging information, ideas and experience and developing active (computer-mediated) personal relationships. Social networking sites belong under this heading. Uses range from the purely instrumental to the affective and emotional. The commercial aspect of these media is embodied by online platforms, both commodifying and virtualizing all aspects of peoples lives (from Uber to Deliveroo and Tinder to AirBnB).
Substitution of broadcast media. The main reference is to uses of media to receive or download content that in the past was typically broadcast or distributed by other similar methods. Watching films and television programmes and listening to the radio and music, etc., are the main activities.
The diversity indicated by this typology makes it hard to draw up any useful summary of medium characteristics that are unique to the new media or applicable to all five categories. Fortunati (2005a) emphasized the parallel tendencies of mediatization of the Internet and Internetization of the mass media as a way of understanding the process of mutual convergence. In terms of affordances, certain characteristics stand out when it comes to new media: their (1) interactivity and (capacity for) virtuality, (2) on-demand and real-time access, (3) creation, distribution and consumption of content by (almost) everyone, and (4) their hybrid character (converging different types of media forms and mediated communication, offering platforms for both mass and interpersonal communication) (Baym et al., 2012).
The subjective perception of new media characteristics shows wide variations between people. A different set of criteria are relevant for comparison with mass communication. Box 6.4 indicates certain dimensions or variables that have been thought to help in differentiating new from old media, as seen from the perspective of an individual user.
6.4 Key characteristics differentiating new from old media, from the user perspective
Interactivity: as indicated by the ratio of response or initiative on the part of the user to the offer of the source/sender
Virtuality: the extent to which the medium can produce an alternative reality, community or world within which the user can roam freely
Social presence (or sociability): experienced by the user, meaning the sense of personal contact with others that can be engendered by using a medium
Media richness: the extent to which media can bridge different frames of reference, reduce ambiguity, provide more cues, involve more senses and be more personal (including multimedia, crossmedia or transmedia options)
Autonomy: the degree to which a user feels in control of content and use, independent of the source, including opportunities to create (and remix and share) their own content
Privacy: associated with the use of a medium and/or its typical or chosen content
Personalization (or customizability): the degree to which content and uses are personalized and unique
The meaning and measurement of interactivity
Although interactivity is most frequently mentioned as the defining feature of new media, it can mean different things and there is already an extensive literature on the topic. Kiousis (2002) arrived at an early operational definition of interactivity by reference to four indicators: proximity (social nearness to others), sensory activation, perceived speed and telepresence. In this definition, more depends on the perception of the user than on any intrinsic or objective medium quality. Downes and McMillan (2000) name five dimensions of interactivity, as follows:
the direction of communication;
flexibility about time and roles in the exchange;
having a sense of place in the communication environment;
level of control (of the communication environment);
perceived purpose (oriented to exchange or persuasion).
It is clear from this that conditions of interactivity depend on much more than just the technology employed. Although we can characterize new media according to their potential, this is not the same as empirical verification. A case in point is the potential for sociability and interactivity. While it is true that the computer machine does connect people with other people, at the point of use it involves solitary behaviour, individualistic choices and responses, and frequent anonymity. The relationships established or mediated by the new communicating machines can be transient, shallow and without commitment, as much as they are meaningful, enriching and a powerful source of social support. They are regarded as an antidote to the individualism, rootlessness and loneliness associated with modern life, as well as a logical development towards forms of commodified social interaction that can be achieved to order. Overall, to most people social interaction online does not substitute or replace other kinds of personal relationships, suggesting that research should deliberately include the mixing of onlineoffline practices and sensemaking processes.
New Patterns of Information Traffic
Another useful way of considering the implications of the changes under discussion is to think in terms of alternative types of information traffic and the balance between them. Two Dutch telecommunication experts Bordewijk and van Kaam (1986) have developed a model that helps to make clear and to investigate the changes under way. They describe four basic communication patterns and show how they are related to each other. The patterns are labelled allocution, conversation, consultation and registration.
With allocution (a word derived from the Latin for the address by a Roman general to assembled troops), information is distributed from a centre simultaneously to many peripheral receivers, with limited opportunity for feedback. This pattern applies to several familiar communication situations, ranging from a lecture, church service or concert (where listeners or spectators are physically present in an auditorium) to the situation of broadcasting, where radio or television messages are received at the same moment by large numbers of scattered individuals. Another characteristic is that time and place of communication are determined by the sender or at the centre. Although the concept is useful for comparing alternative models, the gap between a personal address to many and impersonal mass communication is a very large one and is not really bridgeable by a single concept. The case of an assembled audience is quite different from that of a dispersed audience.
Conversation and exchange
With conversation, individuals (in a potential communication network) interact directly with each other, bypassing a centre or intermediary and choosing their own partners as well as the time, place and topic of communication. This pattern applies in a wide range of situations where interactivity is possible, including the exchange of personal letters or electronic mail. The electronically mediated conversation does, however, usually require a centre or intermediary (such as the telephone exchange or service provider), even if this plays no active or initiatory role in the communication event. There is also the matter of the communication interface (such as the particular software environment of a messaging app) influencing the exchange. Characteristic of the conversational pattern is the fact that parties are equal in the exchange. In principle, more than two can take part (for example, a small meeting, a telephone conference or a computer-mediated discussion group). However, at some point, increased scale of participation leads to a merger with the allocutive situation.
Consultation refers to a range of different communication situations in which an individual (at the periphery) looks for information at a central store of information data bank, library, reference work, computer file system, and so on. Such possibilities are increasing in volume and diversifying in type. In principle, this pattern can also apply to the use of a traditional print-based newspaper (otherwise considered an allocutive mass medium), since the time and place of consultation and also the topic are determined by the receiver at the periphery and not by the centre.
The pattern of information traffic termed registration is, in effect, the consultation pattern in reverse, in that a centre requests and receives information from a participant at the periphery. This applies wherever central records are kept of individuals in a system and to all systems of surveillance. It relates, for instance, to the automatic recording at a central exchange of telephone calls, to electronic alarm systems and to automatic registration of television set usage in people-meter audience research or for purposes of charging consumers. It also refers to the collation of personal particulars of e-commerce customers, for the purposes of advertising and targeting. The accumulation of information at a centre often takes place without reference to, or knowledge of, the individual. While the pattern is not historically new, the possibilities for registration have increased enormously because of computerization and extended telecommunication connections. Typically, in this pattern, the centre has more control than the individual at the periphery to determine the content and occurrence of communication traffic.
An integrated typology
These four patterns complement and border upon (or overlap with) each other. The authors of the model have shown how they can be related in terms of two main variables: of central versus individual control of information; and of central versus individual control of time and choice of subject (see Figure 6.2). The allocution pattern stands here for the typical old media of mass communication and conforms largely to the transmission model especially broadcasting, where a limited supply of content is made available to a mass audience. The consultation pattern has been able to grow, not only because of the telephone and new telematic media, but because of the diffusion of video- and sound-recording equipment and the sheer increase in the number of channels as a result of cable and satellite. The new media have also differentially increased the potential for all these different modes of communication. As noted, registration becomes both more practicable and more likely to occur. It can be viewed as extending the powers of surveillance in the electronic age.
The arrows inserted in Figure 6.2 reflect the redistribution of information traffic from allocutory to conversational and consultative patterns. In general, this implies a broad shift of balance of communicative power from sender to receiver, although this may be counterbalanced by the growth of registration and a further development of the reach and appeal of mass media. Allocutory patterns have not necessarily diminished in volume, but they have taken new forms, with more small-scale provision for segmented audiences based on interest or information need (narrowcasting). Finally, we can conclude from this figure that patterns of information flow are not as sharply differentiated as they might appear, but are subject to overlap and convergence, for technological as well as social reasons, and perhaps increasingly so. The same technology (for example, the telecommunications infrastructure) can provide a household with facilities for each of the four patterns described.
Figure 6.2 A typology of information traffic. Communication relationships are differentiated according to the capacity to control the supply and the choice of content; the trend is from allocutory to consultative or conversational modes (Bordewijk and van Kaam, 1986)
This way of portraying the changes under way invites us to consider again the relevance of the current body of media theory concerning effects. It seems that much of this only applies to the allocutory mode, where a transmission model may still be valid. For other situations, we need an interactive, ritual or user-determined model. It seems evident that in the new media environment different modes, models and media of communication exist side by side and exhibit a mutual shaping effect (see Chapters 16 and 17).
Computer-mediated Community Formation
The idea of community has long held an important position in social theory, especially as a tool for assessing the impact of social change and as a counterpoise to the idea of a mass. In earlier thinking, a community referred to a set of people sharing a place (or some other bounded space), an identity and certain norms, values and cultural practices, and usually small enough to know or interact with each other. A community of this kind usually shows some features of differentiation by status among its members and thus an informal hierarchy and form of organization. We should not overly romanticize notions of community, Doreen Massey (2005, 2007) warns, with reference to historical work on the formation of communities, as the boundaries of what constitutes spatial community tend to be relational, temporal and symbolic, rather than existing on a grid of absolute space. Any more or less stable notion of community must be seen as fundamentally contingent. This helps us to qualify normative claims about the more or less stable or ephemeral nature of communities online.
The traditional mass media were viewed ambivalently in their relation to the typical (local) community. On the one hand, their largeness of scale and importation of outside values and culture were viewed as undermining local communities based on personal interaction. On the other hand, the media in adapted localized forms could serve and reinforce community, potentially providing a social glue or cement. Although it is another use of the term community, it was also observed that mass-distributed, small-scale media (specialist publications or local radio) could help sustain communities of interest as is still very much the case in large parts of the world (most notably on the African continent). The general estimation was that the larger the scale of distribution, the more inimical to community and local social life, but even this judgement was challenged by evidence of continued localized interpersonal behaviour. Not least relevant was the fact that mass media often provide topics of conversation for discussion and thus help to lubricate social life in families, workplaces and even among strangers.
Against this background, there has been a continuing debate about the consequences of each succeeding media innovation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of cable television was hailed not only as a way of escaping from the limitations and drawbacks of mass broadcast television, but as a positive means of community creation. Local cable systems could link up homes in a neighbourhood to each other and to a local centre. Programming could be chosen and made by local residents (Jankowski, 2002). Many extra services of information and help could be added on at low cost. In particular, access could be given to a wide variety of groups and even individual voices, with limited expense. The restricted bandwidth of broadcast television ceased to be a major practical constraint, and television by cable promised to approach the abundance of print media, at least in theory.
The notions of a wired community and a wired city became popular (see Dutton, Blumler and Kraemar, 1986) and experiments were conducted in many countries to test the potential of cable television. This was the first new medium to be treated seriously as an alternative to old-style mass media. In the end, the experiments were largely discontinued and failed to live up to expectations. The more utopian hopes were based on false foundations, especially the assumption that such community-based miniature versions of large-scale professional media were really wanted enough by the people they were meant to serve. Problems of financing and organization were often unsurmountable. Cable distribution became not an alternative to mass media, but predominantly just another means of mass distribution, albeit with some space for local access in some places. What was distinctive about these cable visions was the fact that a physical community already existed but with unfulfilled potential that better intercommunication was supposed to realize. Similar claims and expectations are made about the potential of digital or smart cities a fuzzy concept first used in the 1990s, and that contains the following as its key characteristics (Albino, Berardi and Dangelico, 2015: 13):
a citys networked infrastructure that enables efficiency and development;
an emphasis on business-led urban development and creative activities for the promotion of urban growth;
social inclusion of various urban residents and social capital in urban development;
the natural environment as a strategic component for the future.
A new set of expectations concerning community has developed around computer-mediated communication (CMC). The core idea is that of a virtual community that can be formed by any number of individuals by way of the Internet of their own choice or in response to some stimulus (Rheingold, 1994).
Some features of real communities can be attained, including interaction, a common purpose, a sense of identity and belonging, various norms and unwritten rules (netiquette, for instance), with possibilities for exclusion or rejection. There are also rites, rituals and forms of expression. Such online communities have the added advantage of being, in principle, open and accessible, while real communities are often hard to enter. The traditional notion of community is useful as a starting point for theory about the consequences of new media, as the forms of association in both local and virtual communities can exhibit uncertain, fluid and cosmopolitan properties (Slevin, 2000).
There have been numerous empirical studies of online communities, usually based on some common interest, for instance fandom for a music group, or on some shared characteristic, such as sexual orientation or a particular social or health situation (see Jones, 1997, 1998; Lindlof and Schatzer, 1998). The typical conditions for the formation of a virtual community seem to include social status (often perceived as minority-based), physical dispersal of members and a degree of intensity of interest. It can be appreciated that CMC offers possibilities for motivated and interactive communication that are not available from mass media or from the immediate physical environment. Most studies of online communities indicate that face-to-face and online contacts are not exclusive and have a mutual interaction.
The claim to the term community in its established meaning is undermined by the lack of transparency and authenticity of the group formed by way of computer-mediated communication. Not least important is the lack of commitment of members. Postman (1993) has criticized the adoption of the community metaphor because there is a lack of the essential element of accountability and mutual obligation. Likewise, Bauman (2000: 201) laments that such groups are examples of cloakroom communities, where people temporarily gather to ward off the condensation of genuine (that is comprehensive and lasting) communities which they mime and (misleadingly) promise to replicate or generate from scratch. On the other hand, researchers of online communities in recent years especially those emerging for (and populated by) refugees and migrants as they make their precarious way in the world suggest that such concerns fail to appreciate how virtual communities serve all kinds of meaningful functions for their participants, and indeed have real consequences beyond the online environment (Paz Alncar, Kondova & Ribbens, 2018; Leurs, 2019). Although computer-mediated communication does offer new opportunities to cross social and cultural boundaries, it can also indirectly reinforce the same boundaries. Those who want to belong to a community in cyberspace have to conform to its norms and rules in order to be recognized and accepted. At the heart of the community concept in the context of new media is the notion of affective publics, as Zizi Papacharissi (2014) articulates. People can be drawn to virtual communities as much as local ones, driven as they are by personal sentiment. In doing so, the private and the public nature of communication get mixed in our contemporary networked life, as Sherry Turkle (2011: 157) notes, which is always on and always with us.
Technologies of Freedom?
The heading to this section forms the title of a seminal work by Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983) that celebrated electronic means of communication because of the escape they offered from what he regarded as the illegitimate imposition of censorship and regulation on broadcast radio and television. The essence of his argument was that the only logical (though disputed) case for state control of media was spectrum shortage and the need to allocate access opportunity in semi-monopoly conditions. The emerging new era could grant the freedom enjoyed by print media and common carriers (telephone, mails, cable) to all public media. Distribution by cable, telephone line, new radio waves and satellite was rapidly removing the claim for regulation arising out of scarcity. Moreover, the growing convergence of modes of communication made it increasingly impossible as well as illogical to regulate one type of medium and not others.
The freedom that has been claimed as a feature of the new media (especially the Internet) is not precisely the same freedom as Pool was claiming for media in general. Essentially, Pool wanted the freedom of the market and the negative freedom (no government intervention) of the US First Amendment to apply to all media. The image of freedom attached to the Internet has had more to do with its vast capacity, its network-of-networks technological infrastructure, and with the lack of formal organization, governance and management that characterized its early history when it was a more or less freely accessible playground for all comers, with much use subsidized by academic institutions or other public bodies. Castells (2001: 200) writes that the kind of communication that thrives on the Internet is that related to free expression in all its forms. . . . It is open source, free-posting, decentralized broadcasting, serendipitous interaction . . . that find their expression on the Internet. This view is in line with the aspirations of its founders. The system was there for all to use, even if the original motives for its creation were strategic and military, while the motives for its subsequent promotion and expansion were mainly economic and in the interests of telecommunication operators.
The system had and retains an inbuilt resistance to attempts to control or manage it. It appeared not to be owned or managed by anyone in particular, to belong to no territory or jurisdiction. In practice, its content and the uses made of it were not easy to control or sanction, even where jurisdiction could be established. In this it shared many features of common carrier media, such as mail and telephone.
The relative free and unregulated beginnings of the Internet have been changing as the medium matures in this it resembles the histories of other mass media. As it has become more like a mass medium, with high penetration and a potential for reaching an important segment of the consumer market, there is a higher stake in forms of regulation and management. As Lessig (1999: 19) has pointed out: The architecture of cyberspace makes regulating behavior difficult, because those youre trying to control could be located in any place . . . on the Net. However, the means are available by way of control of the architecture and of the code that governs the architecture. It is increasingly a medium for commerce (selling goods as well as information services), so that financial security has to be achieved. It has also become big business. Hamelink (2000: 141) remarks that although no one owns the Net and there is no central regulatory body, it is possible for some industrial players to own all the technical means that are required to access and use the Net. He anticipates a near future when governance and access to cyberspace will be in the hands of a few gatekeepers . . . controlled by a small group of market leaders (ibid.: 153). Twenty years later, this prediction seems to be confirmed.
As the Internet penetrates more homes and becomes a banal part of peoples everyday lives, the demands for applying criteria of decency (among other issues) and also for means of enforcement have grown, despite jurisdictional difficulties. As with earlier media, once a claim to great social impact is made, the demand for control grows and the practical obstacles to control turn out not to be so insurmountable. More and more of the normal legitimate accountability claims against public media are arising (for example, about intellectual property, libel, privacy). The seeming anarchy of many service providers and content organizers is giving way to a more structured market situation. Pressure is being put on service providers and platform companies to take some responsibility for what appears on their services, even if the control is haphazard, non-transparent and can have a chilling effect. Influential contemporary calls for regulation and media policy regarding the Internet in general and social media in particular primarily make the argument for a revitalization of public values (Van Dijck et al., 2018), the public interest (Napoli, 2019), and radical democratic pluralism (Cammaerts & Mansell, 2020) as the guiding principles to which new media should be held accountable.
A new means of control?
Police and intelligence services are paying more attention to the need for surveillance and control, especially in respect of potential transborder crime, child pornography, terrorism, domestic disaffection, plus many new kinds of cyber-crime. Twenty years into the twenty-first century, there is an ever-growing list of exceptions to the freedoms of the Internet, varying from one national jurisdiction to another and correlated with the general level of freedom (or its absence) in each state. The situation after the western declaration of a war on terror since 2001 has made it easier for governments and authorities to implement restrictions on the liberty of the Net, as in most other spheres (Braman, 2004). Taken together, the tendencies described lead to a severe modification of the Internets anarchic and open image, although this may simply reflect the onset of normalization that has been exhibited before in respect of other media. The situation is too early and too unsettled to make an assessment, but not too early to say that even the freest means of communication cannot escape the operation of various laws of social life. These include those of communication itself (which bind participants together in some mutual obligations or expectations), and especially those of economics and social pressure.
The more apocalyptic visions of the future indicate a potential for social control through electronic means which far outstrips those available in the industrial age, except where brute force could be used. The monitoring and tracking of informational traffic and interpersonal contacts are increasing, based essentially on the registration pattern of computerized information traffic indicated above (Jansen, 1988). In a contemporary iteration of such an analysis, observers note how surveillance capitalism has become the dominant economic (and political) model in the digital age, offering new ways of manipulating and perhaps even controlling consumers and citizens alike (Zuboff, 2019).
From a historical perspective, Benigers (1986) interpretative history of communication innovations since the early nineteenth century is insightful, in that they fit within a pattern not of increasing liberation, but of increasing possibilities for management and control. Beniger uses the term control revolution to describe the communications revolution. Whatever the potential, the needs of commerce, industry, military and bureaucracy have done most to promote development and determine how innovations are actually applied. Another chronicler of communication innovation (Winston, 1986) recognized that most new technologies have innovative potential, but the actual implementation always depends on two factors. One is the operation of supervening social necessity, which dictates the degree and form of development of inventions. The second is the law of the suppression of radical potential, which acts as a brake on innovation to protect the social or corporate status quo. In general, Winston argues for theories of cultural rather than technological determination. Carey (1998: 294) took a similar position about the new media, arguing that globalization, the Internet and computer communications are all underdetermined by technology and history. The final determination of these new forms is one prepared by politics.
Of crucial importance when studying these developments is a nuanced understanding of what freedom means in this context (Chalaby, 2001). The freedom from surveillance and right to privacy is a different kind of freedom, protecting anonymity, not publication. Both of these (and other) kinds of freedom are important, but the potential and actual uses of the Internet are too diverse for all forms of freedom to be claimed. Freedom of speech and expression, as established for other media, recognizes some limits on the rights of others, the necessities of society and the realities of social pressure. It is unrealistic to expect the Internet to enjoy freedoms that have been restricted for other media on grounds accepted as legitimate.
New Equalizer or Divider?
The rhetoric surrounding new media throughout history has often embodied a claim that the new medium whether it was the printed newspaper, broadcast radio or television, or the Internet helps to produce a more equal, better informed and more liberated society. From a historical point of view, such high expectations have tended to fall flat against developments in social reality, even though literacy rates regarding both media and citizenship have been rising steadily throughout the world during the twentieth century. Critics of overly optimistic readings of the new point out that new media are generally no different from the old media in terms of the social stratification of ownership and access. It is the better-off that first acquire and then upgrade the technology and are always ahead of the poor. They are differentially empowered and, if anything, move further ahead. Social and information gaps widen rather than narrow and there emerges an information underclass as well as a social underclass.
Much is made of the digital divide as a successor to the information gap that was once predicted as a result of the coming of television (Norris, 2000; Hargittai, 2004). Historic conditions play a part in shaping the impact of new technology, not only in the developing world but in former communist countries such as Russia (Rantanen, 2001; Vartanova, 2002). As Selwyn (2004) points out, access to channels is not the same as actual use. Even use is structured according to the availability of skills and other resources, which are not evenly distributed, leading to a second-level digital divide that cannot be overcome by technology. Furthermore, a third-level digital divide can be identified in terms of who benefits most from being online (Helsper, 2012), showing how the Internet remains more beneficial for those with higher social status. Findings from research in this area suggest that access to and use of the Internet might amplify existing inequalities above and beyond the intensity of internet use (Van Deursen and Helsper, 2015: 45).
It is true that the networks, circles and connections between users of new technology based on telecommunications and computers do not have to follow the lines of national frontiers in the same way as old mass media almost invariably have done. It may therefore be less appropriate to apply the centreperiphery model of mass communication, which reflects the varying degrees of dependency in poorer and smaller countries and regions on a few primary producers of news and entertainment. The possession of the right technology does open doorways to new possibilities for information and intercommunication, irrespective of the level of development of ones own home place. Some of the gaps and obstacles to development may be leapfrogged. Other constructions of distinction or difference between new media users in the West and those in the Global South or between those in developed and developing nations are also subject to revision, as the work of Payal Arora (2019) among Internet users in China, India, Brazil and across the Middle East shows: cat videos are universal, and people regardless of social status or location love to have fun and make connections online.
A particular poignant area for critical consideration in media and mass communication research is the environmental impact of the technologies under investigation. In part, this relates to the sourcing of precious metals that are needed for batteries, computer chips and other hardware necessary for our media to work. All too often these materials are mined in developing countries with little or no oversight regarding working conditions. These materials are then put together in factories mostly located in China where workers, some as young as 16 years old, work nights and overtime to produce the hugely popular devices, in breach of labour laws. Regular reports of inhumane working conditions in such production facilities have prompted companies like Samsung, Apple and Amazon to develop and enact strict supplier codes of conduct, although the enforcement of such contracts is far from universal.
There are equally problematic issues at the end of a media devices life, considering the enormous global impact of electronic waste, or e-waste. Given the fast-paced rate of upgrades and replacements in consumer electronics such as the smartphone, tablet and television as the obsolescence of media is generally planned hundreds of millions of electronic devices are discarded annually, most of which are still working. Correspondingly, a profitable global market for collecting and deposing of electronic waste is growing rapidly, with little oversight. Most of the materials and components in our media end up in illegal dumpsites in Africa (Nigeria and Ghana are the worlds leading destinations for electronic waste, according to the United Nations). Recognizing the severity of this issue, in 2007 the United Nations, together with a host of other organizations, started the Solving The E-waste Problem (STEP) initiative. The tracking, management and disposal of electronic waste is a global (and not a municipal or otherwise local) problem because of the complexity and cost involved in safely disposing of the many hazardous yet also valuable, often precious materials that make up media artefacts. The value of e-waste is partly determined by the fact that many of the parts are still working or can be made to work, and thriving local economies for recycling e-waste are also emerging. At the same time, those who work on electronic scrapyards regularly expose themselves to toxins that cause respiratory and dermatological problems, eye infections, neurodevelopmental issues, and ultimately, shorter lives. Maxwell and Miller (2012) are among those media scholars advocating a greening of the media.
In the early days of mass media, there was also a belief that the communicative reach and power of radio and television could help bridge the gaps in social and economic development. The reality proved to be different, and mass media, in their transnational forms at least, were likely to do more for their originating societies and cultures than for their supposed beneficiaries in the Third World. The same tendency to see technology as a changer of the world is still present (Waisbord, 1998). It is hard to see how the situation is different, despite the greater potential for the users and receivers of new media to claim access and to take over the means of cultural oppression. As always, it takes deliberate effort to counter the tendency of technologies and new media to reinforce and amplify existing power relationships and inequalities in culture, society and the economy.
This excursion into theory for new media has been somewhat inconclusive, although recognizes a strong case for revision of theory. Even so, public communication continues much as before. The central values of liberalism, democracy, work, human rights and even communication ethics are evolving rather than collapsing in the twenty-first century. Even the old problems addressed by such values are still in place, including unbridled consumerism, injustice, inequality, crime, terrorism and war. The more specific and central question addressed by this chapter is whether or not the ideas and frameworks that were developed to pose and test questions about media and mass communication are still serviceable.
There are some reasons for supposing that they might not be. There is a definite trend towards the demassification of old media as the proliferation of channels and platforms for transmission eats into the mass audience and replaces it with innumerable small and more specialized audiences. The more this happens, and it can apply to radio and television as well, the less the mass media will provide a common basis in knowledge and outlook or serve as the cement of society. This has been widely regretted as a loss to the larger enterprise of a democratic and socially just society. With regard to peoples role as citizens in democracy, some evidence suggests that new media have contributed to the rise of a new style of populist politics, propelling parties and leaders to popularity largely fuelled by data-driven campaigns using social media (while bypassing the traditional route of the mainstream news media). This would counter claims that the decline in engagement in politics can be attributed to the new media. However, they are also not an antidote, as the political attachment to such people and ideas tends to be fickle.
It is arguable that there is no media institution any more, but many different loosely connected elements operating in a global network of media production. There are new forces at work and new trends that may not be open to capture by familiar concepts and formulas. Nevertheless, the basic features of the role of media in public and private life seem to persist. The new media have gradually come to be accepted as mass media for the good reason that their uses exhibit many of the features of old media, especially when treated by their owners as mass advertisers and as distribution centres for media content, such as music and films. As numerous studies show, there are striking regularities in Web-use behaviour that conform to familiar mass media patterns, such as concentration on a small number of very popular sites by very large numbers of users.
What does seem to be clear is an ongoing hybridization and convergence of different modes and models of communication, of different institutional arrangements, and of different practices in and uses of producing and consuming media. In this process, powerful new players emerge, particularly due to the dominance of Web-based platforms and the convergence of the technology, media and telecommunications sectors (Faustino and Noam, 2019).
The evidence so far does not support the view that new technology is having a strongly deterministic effect towards change in the medium term; it is neither producing any very reliable explosion of freedom nor (as yet) seriously diminishing what freedom of expression exists already. Nevertheless, there are areas with potential for change that require monitoring. One is the redrawing of social (and cultural) boundaries, which the formation of new networks of interconnected individuals encourages. Another is the potential transformation of political communication (really of politics) in the widest sense as the old allocutive means seem to perform less well. Finally, there remains the issue of potentially increasing divisions in the benefits of new media as a result of underlying social and economic inequalities.
Arora, P. (2019) The Next Billion Users. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Baym, N.K. (2015) Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Fortunati, L. (2005a) Mediatizing the net and intermediatizing the media, International Communication Gazette, 67(6): 2944.
Lders, M. (2008) Conceptualizing personal media, New Media and Society, 10(5): 683702.
Morris, M. and Ogan, C. (1996) The Internet as mass medium, Journal of Communication, 46(1): 3950.
Quan-Haase, A. (2020) Technology and Society: Social Networks, Power, and Inequality, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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