Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Promise and Peril of New Media: Engagement or Distraction?

Multimedia Milieu

Well, after this week’s readings, I now have a word to describe what I do each morning while I eat my breakfast. I’m participating in “concurrent media exposure” because I’m reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph or the Dallas Morning News while listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on the radio. Who knew I was so au courant?

This week’s articles highlight both the promise and the peril of new media. New media can help develop people’s civic involvement and give them a way to store those long New Yorker pieces until they can read them. But on many new media platforms, the credibility of news stories can be altered depending on what surrounds them. And people greatly underestimate how much time they spend on new media.

Tenore (2010) described three Web-based programs that allow people to permanently store a link to long articles so they can read them later. Nate Weiner, creator of Read It Later, said he is giving these long articles “a second chance” (para. 10). For Weiner, Read It Later is a mechanism to avoid getting caught in the “conundrum of connectedness” (para.5), in which you are overwhelmed with data but don’t have the time to digest and evaluate it.

Attentive reading on an unlikely device

Marco Arment, developer of Instapaper – which has an application for the iPhone – maintained that cell phones are better than computers for reading long stories.

The modern computer is packed with distractions. Your hands are always on thecontrols, waiting to click around and find the next bit of information. Every few minutes something beeps or pops up a balloon or displays a big red number. Long-form content requires attentive reading, and attentive reading requires a distraction-free environment. (Tenore, 2010, para. 16)

I would be very skeptical of this claim if I hadn’t experienced this phenomenon myself. I have read several long Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles on my iPhone while waiting to see a doctor or get my hair done. There were no electronic distractions: just me, my iPhone, and the newspaper article. However, now that the fourth generation of  iPhones can run more than one application at a time, the days of distraction-free reading on that device may be numbered.

Finally, Mark Armstrong used a Twitter account called @LongReads as a clearing-house for long-form journalism. Readers tweet him about long stories they like and he retweets the recommendations to his followers. In essence, he’s developing a community of long-form journalism readers (Tenore, 2010).

Websites as tools for civic engagement

Coleman, Lieber, Mendelson, and Kurpius (2008) explored a different kind of engagement. They tried to determine if a website designed to meet users’ wants and needs in its content, navigation, and appearance can foster positive attitudes toward civic engagement. To do that, they employed uses and gratifications theory. This theory is designed to understand how people use mass communication, what needs they hope to satisfy, and what their motives are for using that particular medium. And the authors combined it with Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion. According to Coleman et al., Yankelovich describes three levels of public engagement in working to solve important public problems:

  1. Consciousness-raising, in which citizens learn about the problem
  2. Working through, in which they confront the need for change
  3. Resolution, where they make a decision about the problem.

While media are involved in the first step of this process, they usually “then abandon the effort, leaving people to the second and third stages on their own” (p. 181). The authors wanted to see if user-friendly websites – one example of new media – could play a positive role in civic engagement. They declared that:

Only the websites that provide gratification for the uses sought will be the ones actually used by citizens; only the sites actually used by citizens will have the potential to encourage civic participation. (Coleman et al., 2008, p. 184)

Results of the study showed that user-friendly websites did foster positive attitudes about civic engagement. People preferred the website with self-contained chunks of information with clear, no-nonsense headlines that enabled them to easily find the information they sought. This website also used a lot of lists, charts, and graphics, rather than long narrative passages.

Attitudes, not actions

From these results, the authors concluded that Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion needs an additional step between the first two, designed

to determine what people want and need on that topic, their motives for using websites with information on the topic and what they bring to the issue, so that the content and structure of the websites created would better meet those needs. (Coleman et al., 2008, p. 197)

To me, the problem with this study is that it measures attitudes about civic engagement, not actions. I can see that an easily navigable website with chunks of useful information and data presented in clear charts and graphics would be engaging. But, looking at a website is a passive activity. Even if the website has features such as polls to vote in or blogs to comment on, that is not the same level of engagement as actually voting or going to a town hall meeting to publicly express your opinion. Coleman et al. (2008) briefly discuss how Internet users tend to be younger and more interested in entertainment than politics. The authors’ user-friendly website is also more entertaining than most websites dealing with civic issues such as the budgets of governmental agencies. Their research does not tell us if the people visiting the user-friendly website took the next step and became more engaged in civic life.

News content set free

Thorson, Vraga, and Ekdale (2010) used social judgment theory as a lens to examine the effect that surrounding material has on straight news stories, now that “news content is set free to be publicly reframed and reinterpreted by bloggers and other self-appointed pundits” (p. 290). They cut and pasted an article from a news website and embedded it within a partisan political blog post, then altered the partisan ideology and civility of the blog post “to create a more or less credible standard of comparison to the balanced news story” (p. 290). Their overall results indicated that “judgments of news story credibility can be influenced by the context in which the story appears, at least when that context provides a salient and extreme standard of comparison” (p. 303). The authors found that readers judged the news article “more credible when the blogger’s post was uncivil than when the blogger was civil” (p. 304), thus demonstrating “a contrast effect. The uncivil tone of the blog message made the news story look more credible by comparison” (p. 304). Maybe the readers were just relieved to read something that wasn’t the Web equivalent of a shouting match.

While these findings are heartening to those of us worried about the fate of fair and balanced news coverage, it’s important to note that the blogging posts in this study were not assailing the facts or tone of the news article. Thorson et al. (2010) said “the news story itself was not under attack by the blogger but merely one of the policy positions described within the story” (p. 307). And the authors studied a one-time event, not exposure to the same blog over time. There is no shortage of partisan bloggers who have an audience that apparently enjoys a certain amount of uncivil commentary.

‘Multi-media-ing’ as a way of life

Finally, results of the Middletown Media Studies II by Papper, Holmes, and Popovich (2009) showed that many contemporary Americans engage in “multi-media-ing” for hours every day, often without realizing it. The authors were able to determine this by using observers who followed study participants around and noted their actual use of media. In contrast, many studies of media use rely on participants’ self-reporting, which is notoriously inaccurate.

The demographically balanced population in the study by Papper et al. (2009) were exposed to one or more media for almost 9 hours out of the average 12.9 hours of the observational day. For 2.75 hours of that 9 hours – 30.7 percent – participants were exposed to two or more media. “At 225.6 minutes [about 3 ¾ hours], media-only activity (not involving any other life activity) was the number one activity during the day” (p. 55).

The authors use the term “exposure” as opposed to “use,” because participants weren’t always actively using the media. An example would be a radio or television playing in the background while a participant surfed the Net on a computer.

Papper et al. (2009) did not track participants’ exposure to media over time, so they couldn’t say if media use is increasing. However, it’s certainly not decreasing. Anecdotally, I know my use of media has increased since I got my iPhone. I now check Facebook, read newspaper articles, and look up word definitions and synonyms during down times when I’m waiting for something. Before I had the iPhone, I couldn’t do that.

What we don’t know yet is how this constant exposure to multitudes of media is affecting us. “Multi-media-ing” is essentially a form of multitasking, and there are numerous studies that indicate multitasking is not nearly as efficient as corporate America would like us to believe. Some research implies that multitasking negatively affects our ability to concentrate and makes us more susceptible to distraction.

As we trip merrily down the yellow brick road of being increasingly connected to all kinds of media devices, I wonder if we are not also becoming more detached from our immediate physical environment. Cyberspace is indeed seductive, but we need to think about the cost of responding to its siren call.

References

Coleman, R., Lieber, P., Mendelson, A.L., & Kurpius, D.D. (2008). Public life and the Internet: If you build a better website, will citizens become engaged? New Media & Society. (10)2, 179-201. doi: 10.1177/1461444807086474

Papper, R.A., Holmes, M.E., & Popovich, M.N. (2009). Middletown Media Studies II: Observing consumer interactions with media. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 18-30. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richtel, M. (2010, June 6). Multitasking hurts brain’s ability to focus, scientists say; when one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it. Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2012049123_webmultitask07.html

Tenore, M.J. (2010, August 19). How technology is renewing attention to long-form journalism [Blog]. Poynter Online. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=188741

Thorson, K., Vraga, E., & Ekdale, B. (2010). Credibility in context: How uncivil online commentary affects news credibility. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 13(3), 289-313. doi: 10.1080/15205430903225571

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The olden days of ‘old media’

Last night in New Media class, I had a moment of — epiphany? despair? irony? — while giving my report on uses and gratifications theory. I was talking about growing up in Austin with just one TV station: the CBS affiliate KTBC, which was owned by Lady Bird Johnson.

Noted newsman Edward R. Murrow of CBS

The closest NBC and ABC stations were in San Antonio. If you had a big outside antenna, you could get them. We didn’t, so most of the time we got fuzzy, snowy pictures that weren’t worth watching.

About 80 percent of the class appeared not to fathom that. I felt like part of an oral history project; someone should have been recording me talking about the days of “old media” for the Library of Congress. It is very strange to be part of “living history” and still be alive and kicking.

According to Wikipedia, I am not remembering this correctly.  The Wiki article on KTBC says it actually carried shows from all three networks: 65 percent were CBS programs, and the remaining 35 percent were split between NBC and ABC. I sure don’t remember it like that, but if it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true, right?

It was a huge deal when UHF station Channel 42 signed on, because we could get NBC programs. The Wik says Channel 42 began broadcasting in 1965, which means I probably did see some of the original “Star Trek” broadcasts in 1966 and 1967 on NBC.

Project Proposal: “Lower your voice! I don’t want to hear about your cross-dressing boyfriend!”

Too much public and semi-public space – sidewalks, doctors’ offices, grocery store aisles – has been taken over by people talking VERY LOUDLY on their cell phones. The rest of us don’t want to hear these conversations, but smacking the phone out of the person’s hand isn’t acceptable social behavior. Plus, the phones are so small now that you could easily smack the person instead and be charged with assault.

One solution to loud cell phone conversations

A Sept. 17, 2010, article in Science News online discusses a recent study that shows the background chatter of cell phone users distracts people around them, making the reluctant listeners lose their focus on whatever they are doing. For example, it’s possible that a passenger’s cell phone conversation may distract the driver of the vehicle enough to impair his or her driving (Bowers, 2010).

Loud cell phone conversations in public places are thus not just annoying, but potentially a serious problem that needs to be investigated and remedied.

I will conduct a brief literature review of the effects of cell phone use on talkers and listeners, including research into why people talk louder when using a cell phone and why their one-sided conversations can be so distracting. I will look for studies that address modifying behavior, so that people don’t talk so loudly on their cell phones.

I will apply communication theories such as the coordinated management of meaning, social learning theory, and social exchange theory to this problem. The result will be a mechanism – such as a public service campaign using new media – to raise people’s awareness of the dangers and rudeness of talking loudly on a cell phone in a public place. The ultimate goal is to change people’s behavior.

The False Promise of Media Convergence: A Manifesto

The three chapters on media convergence we read this week by Grant, Kodzy, and Kraeplin and Criado were intriguing, but they gave me a headache. It took me a while to realize it, but they also made me sad.

Despite discussion of all the bells and whistles and multi-media presentations and links and blogs and commentary and choices and smart phones and print-audio-video-news-entertainment-sports on demand that make up media convergence, two things seemed to be missing:

  • How does serious news attract readers, listeners, or viewers in the midst of this cacophony of media voices?
  • Who is going to pay the journalists and support staff needed to produce news of substance that conceivably could make a difference in our lives?

I understand that we really don’t know the answers to these questions, but it does seem we should be talking about them.

There was scant mention of working reporters’ ideas and attitudes about media convergence in these three chapters, except for this from Kolodzy:

More often than not, journalists distrust convergence. They view it as a marketing ploy, a way to promote the news as a “product,” emphasizing the business rather than the journalism in the news industry. They also view it as a management ploy, a way to get fewer journalists to do more work with fewer resources [emphasis added]. (2009, p. 32)

Most of the media representatives cited in these three chapters are from management: they are editors or news directors, not the reporters who gather and present the stories.

The hamster wheel

Media convergence is great for media companies: They combine resources and expand their audiences. For reporters, convergence is likely to mean more work; besides writing or broadcasting their stories, they now have to blog, tweet, Facebook, etc.

And, by opening up newsgathering and commentary to readers/viewers/listeners through interactive products such as blogs, media companies can increase their content without adding staff.

Starkman (2010) calls the “do-more-with-less meme” sweeping the media industry the “Hamster Wheel.” Journalists are producing more stories, more copy, more audio, more video than ever before, he says.

Story counts are up, but the stories are trivial. Newsgathering is driven by the need for an ever-updated website, a lot of Facebook posts, and tweets galore. If the media platforms aren’t constantly changing, then nothing much must be happening.

There’s less and less time for journalists to spend on in-depth reporting, because they have to produce more and shorter stories. The point is to generate more page views of the website. Investigative and in-depth pieces take time and don’t lend themselves to a quick turnaround, so they are not as desirable. That means potential investigative pieces aren’t being done.

A Luddite who loves new media

I realize that I sound like a Troglodyte, an 19th century Luddite ready to take my ancient pica pole and attack the nearest new media platform. But I love the new media.

Luddites attacking machinery in 19th century England.

When I write my weekly reading reaction, I have to resist the seductive lure of my Facebook page, Twitter account, and RSS feed on Google Reader. If I don’t keep checking, I might miss something. And if I do peek at my Facebook page, I invariably end up commenting on a post or replying to a friend’s comment.

Now I have this blog, which allows me to publish my insightful analyses of each week’s readings in “New Media: Theories and Applications.”

And it doesn’t end there: I can set up categories of blogs, so that I can inflict my perceptive observations and thoughtful commentary on a theoretically infinite number of readers/listeners/viewers.

And that’s the problem. There’s an infinite supply of something Stephen Colbert might call “newsiness”: It’s not really news, but it’s “news-like.” Knowing or understanding it won’t make a difference in anyone’s life, but it can entertain and distract.

In the distant past of the 1980s, I was a copyeditor at the Midland (Texas) Reporter-Telegram. On the days when I was in charge of laying out Page One, I would discuss what stories should go on the front page with the paper’s editor and city editor. There was always a tension between having the “hard” news that readers needed to know, vs. “soft” news that was entertaining or enjoyable.

The hard news items were mostly wars, disasters, and politics; the soft news items were celebrity profiles, lifestyle features, and uplifting articles. We used our judgment as editors to decide what readers needed to know. That may sound condescending, but we saw it as a public service.

What is missing in all of this media convergence is a similar level of judgment. It’s fine for a media outlet to have feedback from its audience, but should it let the audience determine what it covers? Will the audience be allowed to vote some news categories off the island?

Hard news serves a purpose

Hard news can make people uncomfortable, and people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

But, as we’ve discussed in class, people don’t change their attitudes and beliefs until holding those attitudes and beliefs makes them more uncomfortable than rejecting them. If media no longer make people uncomfortable and therefore open to change, what other institution in society is going to take on that role?

I find it telling that one of Kodzy’s primary examples of successful media convergence is the AOL Time Warner merger. That ended up being a fiasco, with Time Warner officially splitting from AOL within the past year. If there was any synergy from the deal, it died long ago.

Kodzy also mentions ESPN as a successful integrator of various media platforms: network, website, and magazine. But ESPN is all about sports, which is primarily entertainment. People want to be entertained; entertainment is unlikely to make them uncomfortable.

Kodzy (2009) cites a 2004 Pew Research Center survey that reported half of people under-25 saying they are “too busy” to follow the news regularly. Convergence can fix this, Kodzy implies, because it provides news in more than one platform and people can access the news when they want it.

I think this ignores the real problem that the Pew researchers uncovered: lack of interest in the news. Often when people say they are “too busy” to do something, what they really mean is that the activity is not important to them. For half of the people under 25, keeping up with the news is not important, and an easily accessible, 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week constantly updated news platform is not going to change that.

Many people under 34 also prefer their news to be in a visual format. Unfortunately, hard news doesn’t always lend itself to visuals. Sometimes what is required is to read and think, rather like I’m doing in this reading reaction.

Three questions

Finally, here are three questions I have after reading chapters in Grant and Wilkinson (2009):

  1. Who benefits from convergence?
  2. Who receives the most benefits?
  3. Why does it matter?

It’s easy to romanticize the journalism of “the good old days.” Easy, but not very helpful. We have to deal with journalism and the media industry as it is.

However, that doesn’t mean we have to jump on the hamster wheel and embrace media convergence as journalism’s salvation. So far, convergence has been most successful in combining various technological platforms. Whether it will make or break journalism itself has yet to be determined.

References

Grant, A.E. (2009). Dimensions of media convergence. In A.E. Grant & J.S.Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 3-17. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kodzy, J. (2009). Convergence explained: Playing catch-up with news consumers. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 31-51. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kraeplin, C, & Criado, C.A. (2009). The state of convergence journalism revisited: Newspapers take the lead. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 18-30. New York: Oxford University Press.

Starkman, D. (2010, September-October). The hamster wheel: Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere. Columbia Journalism Review, online edition. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/the_hamster_wheel.php?page=all

Blogs: Black Market Journalism or New News Product?

While reading these three academic articles about the role and evolution of Web logs – more commonly known as blogs – I was struck by how dated they seemed. The oldest article, by Robinson, was published just four years ago, and the other two articles were published in 2008 and 2009.

Yet four years can seem like decades in the world of the Internet and new media. Murley (2009) was the only author to mention Facebook, because it didn’t exist in 2006 and was just taking off in 2008.

Whether reading about blogs as a form of postmodern writing (Robinson, 2006) or as a way to allow new voices to take part in a mediated discussion (Murley, 2009), this all seemed like old news to me. I felt that I was reading about blogs’ past, not how they function now, or how they may function in the future.

And that made me wonder about the relevance of the traditional academic publishing process when compared with the speed at which new media evolves. In the academic milieu, researchers typically measure and analyze data one year, submit their paper or book chapter the next year, and see their work published the following year.

By that time – two or three years after the data were collected and analyzed – the research question or problem may be irrelevant to current new media issues. It may provide insight into the history of new media, but it won’t help us understand new media now or predict its future.

The “j-blog”

Robinson (2006) sets out to analyze the “j-blog” – any blog written by a mainstream journalist. She conducts a textual analysis of a number of j-blogs with three questions in mind:

  1. Do these blogs uphold the standards of traditional journalism?
  2. How are truth, independence, credibility, and authorship established in these blogs?
  3. How do journalists “negotiate and (re)interpret traditional news frames and journalistic authority in the online medium?” (p. 69)

She cites numerous examples of “news repair,” when bloggers or their readers attempt to correct what they perceive as errors in previous blog posts, the mainstream print or broadcast news product, or other blogs.

In addition, she discusses the postmodern nature of blogs. Even journalists who blog may change the original information or opinion they posted in light of other bloggers’ comments or new data, she says.

Robinson concludes that blogs are a new form of journalism, and that they are postmodern, presenting multiple truths and “various interpretations of the day’s news, ‘unfiltered’ and ‘unedited’” (p. 79).

Yet journalists will only go so far, she says. They conduct news repair by criticizing blogs by non-journalists that fail to meet journalistic standards. They let readers change the content of the blog, but then link to other sources that provide different information or opinions, Robinson says.

Blogs’ effect on news coverage

In 2010, it seems safe to say that blogs – whether written by journalists or not – have changed the way mainstream journalism organizations cover the news. These organizations now are forced to cover events that would not have been news or that they would not have been aware of a few years ago.

The recent flap over an African-American Department of Agriculture official who appeared to make racist remarks in excerpts from a videotaped speech at an NAACP banquet is one example of that. The story was picked up by a conservative blogger and quickly spread over the Internet, forcing mainstream news media to cover it.

Disappointingly, these media initially did not fully investigate the story, which led to a lot of embarrassment when an airing of the full video showed the official telling a tale of personal redemption from racism. We will see if this incident gives mainstream media – or bloggers, for that matter – any pause the next time a politically inflammatory story runs wild on the Internet.

I wish I had Robinson’s faith that readers can distinguish between traditional news stories by mainstream media and the opinions and unsupported observations of an independent – or, more often, politically biased – blogger.

Too many otherwise intelligent people appear to believe almost anything they read on the Internet if it comes from a legitimate-looking website or blog. I hope this changes over time, and that readers become at least as skeptical of blog posts as they are of their own government.

Sweetser, et al, (2008) take up this issue of credibility, examining if journalists and public relations practitioners who use blogs think they are credible. They conclude that those who use blogs frequently think blogs are more credible than those who rarely use blogs.

They cite research that shows bloggers find blogs highly credible, while traditional news outlets are only moderately credible. And bloggers think other bloggers’ bias and lack of professional affiliation makes them more credible, not less.

An extension of work

Sweetser, et al, conclude that professional communicators use blogs as an extension of their work. According to their analysis, journalists tend to use blogs interactively, writing blogs and dialoging with their readers.

However, public relations professionals are more likely to monitor blogs about their organization and industry, rather than write their own blogs or actively engage with readers. This may be because media organizations have pushed journalists to blog, while PR professionals have been warned about the dangers of blogs and blogging, Sweetser, et al, say.

As a former journalist and current PR practitioner, this makes sense to me. For a journalist, the back and forth of blogging is not that different from having readers comment online, in letters to the editor, or by phone on a story.

But PR professionals have to be sure that blog posts cannot be used against the organization or company they represent. On the other hand, monitoring blogs that concern their field or industry can provide useful information.

I think PR professionals are becoming less wary of online interaction with customers or the public. The popularity of corporate Facebook pages seems to indicate that, even if the effectiveness of corporations’ use of social media remains questionable.

Murley (2009) gives a brief overview of the development of blogs and their historical, pre-Internet roots. He says their most important contribution to the media landscape “has been their ability to infuse new and different voices into the mediated discussion” (p. 245).

He notes that blog use is different in other countries, with higher percentages of Chinese and Japanese reading blogs compared with residents of the United States.

Blogs: The future or a fad?

Murley also points out the dangers of either miscalculating blogs’ effect and reach or devaluing them as a fad. They may be a fad, in that some other form of Internet communication may take their place, but the personalization, participation, and connection of this kind of communication is not going away.

As I read these three articles, it seemed to me that one issue continues to be hashed out in the blogosphere: the issue of control.

Who has control: the mainstream media, which still generate the vast majority of the news bloggers comment on or add to; the bloggers themselves, some of whom are powerful enough to generate news on their own; or the readers, who ultimately will determine what kind of news they want and who they trust.

Mainstream media appear to be losing control of the news and bloggers seem to be gaining some power, along with readers/consumers of news. This may be good news if you’re a postmodernist who doesn’t like hegemony, but it will be a scarier and more chaotic world if there is no “news authority” to at least provide some guidance about which sources are credible.

References

Murley, B. (2009). Web logs: Democratizing media production. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 234-238. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, S. (2006, January). The mission of the j-blog: Recapturing journalistic authority online. Journalism: Theory, practice, and criticism, 7, 65-83.

Sweetser, K.D., Porter, L.V., Chung, D.S., & Kim, E. (2008, April). Credibility and the use of blogs among professionals in the communication industry. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 85, 169-185.

New Media: It’s the Technology, Stupid. . . . Or Is It?

This whole new media thing is quite paradoxical. New technology – the Internet, social media, chat rooms, texting, blogs, Twitter, etc. – created the “new media,” but has it given birth to new ways for humans to communicate? That is the question, and it has yet to be answered, according to this week’s readings in “New Media: Theories and Applications.”

As Silverstone (1999) aptly puts it, “It is easy to be seduced by the simplicity and significance of novelty. . . . The new is no simple matter” (p. 10). We can get carried away by our ability to instantly communicate with someone on the other side of the world, or to chronicle our daily life by sending out cryptic messages on Twitter. Until just a few years ago, no one could do these things; 20 years ago, no one even imagined them.

So the technology is and continues to be revolutionary. No doubt even more incredible high-tech communication gadgets will be invented in the next five years. However, a revolution in technology does not necessarily translate into a revolution in how people communicate.

. . . (N)ew technologies do have a bearing on the circumstantial parameters under which human interaction occurs and do afford previously rare opportunities but . . . these technologies do not fundamentally alter human needs and desires, per se, and thus do not make existing theories of behavior obsolete. (Yser & Southwell, 2008, p. 9)

The authors make the point that, in 1948, communication theorists were pondering the possible consequences of the new media of the day: television, FM radio, and the facsimile machine (p. 8).

Theory provides context

Bardzell (n.d.) contends that theory provides the context needed to evaluate new media. Studying theories of new media “exponentially increase our experience of media, even if only vicariously” (p. 3). He claims that new media theory enables designers to create visionary new works.

Without a theoretical framework, new media will remain derivative. And new media designers will be unable to produce transformative works. Theory also provides the common language needed to analyze new media objects and allows designers to predict the effect these objects will have on the humans who use them (p. 7, 9).

Bardzell’s thesis about the importance of theory to new media seems reasonable to me. Theory provides the context; without it, you have a random constellation of ideas about new media that defy assessment. His argument for the centrality of theory to new media is applicable to other subjects. Every academic discipline must have a theoretical dimension. But he doesn’t stop there; he outlines how to analyze a theory: comprehend it, apply it, and critique it. I’ve used that approach to analyze the other required readings this week, and it seems to work pretty well.

Silverstone cautions that new technologies do not exist in a vacuum; they are affected by the cultural paradigms and imperatives of their age (1999, p. 12). The United States is a capitalist society, which means its values are economically based: everything has a price and a cost. New media are not evaluated based on how they might benefit or harm society or the individual. Rather, the question is how they can be harnessed or altered to make money for their creators.

Question of access

And who will have access to the new media? Silverstone says technology and society are not necessarily in sync:

. . .(O)ur preoccupation with the necessary interweaving of technology and capital has arguably blinded us to the significance of investment in human capital, to the realization that technology is as much if not more about skills and competence, literacy and access, as it is about investment and interfaces. (1999, p.12)

Yzer and Southwell (2008) argue that new communication technologies – the phrase they use instead of “new media” – are “a source of contextual influence on communication processes” (p. 15). The new media enable or discourage relationships rather than changing how humans communicate. Thus old patterns of communication behavior persist regardless of how new the technology is. It’s the context of the human interaction that changes depending on the technology used. Thus we need to study how and when these contexts arise (p. 16).

This makes sense to me, as technology is a lot easier to change than human behavior. Though anecdotally, it seems one behavior is changing: many people are paying more attention to computer-mediated communication (CMC) than to face-to-face interaction.

They talk and text on their cell phones while also conducting a face-to-face interaction with someone else. The immediacy and mystery of the electronic communication trumps the interpersonal exchange with the three-dimensional, living, breathing person in front of them. This may seem a trivial change, but it could be interpreted as a devaluation of face-to-face communication and thus a devaluation of the face-to-face communicator.

Blurred boundaries

Lievrouw (2009) persuasively makes the case that new media and information technologies have blurred the distinction between interpersonal communication and media communication.

She outlines three “moments” in communication theory and research: two-step flow, the crisis of new media, and the cultural turn, from media to mediation (p. 312). Two-step flow is important because it places “interpersonal interaction at the center of media influence and persuasion, effectively turning the notion of mass communication on its head” (p. 314-315). For mass communication to happen, people must intervene – with interactions and conversations – between the source of the message and its target.

Then the second moment, “the crisis of new media,” encourages “a shift from a relatively simple focus on media channels to a focus on communicative action in the context of networked relations and systems” (p. 315) says Lievrouw. Finally, mediation encompasses “both the technological means or forms of expression, and the interpersonal processes of moderation, negotiation, and intervention” (p. 317).

She constructs a compelling case for defining communication “as a seamless and continually negotiated web of  meaning, practices, tools, resources, and relations” (p. 317). The technology and the interpersonal processes are intertwined; they can’t be separated.

References

Bardzell, J. (n.d.). New media theory primer. Retrievedfrom http:www.allectomedia.com/blog/

Lievrouw, L. (2009, April). New media, mediation, and communication study. Information, Communication & Society, 12, 303-325.

Silverstone, R. (1999, April). What’s new about new media? New Media & Society, 1, 10-12.

Yzer, M.C. (2008, September). New communication technologies, old questions. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 8-20.

Of pine trees and old media

East Texas pines

I thought it appropriate to begin a blog about New Media with a photo of the raw materials of old media: “trash” pine trees planted for pulpwood in the late 1940s. The pines in the photo are in our back yard. They are more than 100 feet tall, and they are almost 70 years old.

The property owner planted pines on his land after World War II, planning to harvest them later for the pulpwood needed to make paper. But he apparently changed his mind when he realized he could make more money selling the property to a developer in the mid-1950s.

The developer built the houses but didn’t cut down all the pine trees. Sixty years later, most of the pines are gone, cut down by homeowners weary of cleaning pine straw off the roof and having pine trees fall into their kitchens and bedrooms. We’ve kept most of the pines on our property. There were 31 in our front and back yards when we moved here in 1991; about 25 are left.

In a way, the pines are an anachronism. They were planted to be sold as pulpwood, but then the land they were growing on became more valuable than they were. The pines lost their original purpose, yet some have managed to hang on and grow tall for more than 60 years.

I think “old media” — newspapers, magazines, radio, television — have the same kind of tenacity as our pine trees. Some venerable old media organizations are hanging on, refusing to die quite yet. But they are aging, along with most of their audience, and much of today’s literate technocracy is passing them by.

The fate of our pine trees is uncertain. We won’t cut them down as long as we’re living here, but I doubt they’ll last long after we leave. Pines aren’t trendy and they’re messy trees. Most of our neighbors cut their pines down long ago.

We don’t know how long old media organizations can survive. But they are failing, and they have little chance of survival unless they adopt some New Media characteristics.