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.


Bardzell, J. (n.d.). New media theory primer. Retrievedfrom

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.


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