LAUGHEY'S Media Theory Blog

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Archive for October, 2010

Media interaction: the ultimate paradox?

Do we (audiences/consumers/users) interact with the media we encounter? Or do we merely receive/consume media? Many new media specialists, quite rightly, stress the fundamental fact of interactivity in today’s hi-tech age. And pressing the red button is the tip of our interactive iceberg. We can facebook and join social network campaigns to attack Ryanair customer service, save Wispa bars, bring back the old GAP logo, etc.  We can blog, vlog, buy/sell on eBay, choose the football game we want to view and the camera angles from which to view it. We can talent-spot (and be spotted) thru MySpace, happy-slap thru YouTube, binge-shop thru SMS (the phenomenon in which participants text each other with a random request – say, to buy peanut butter in one’s local food store – leading to mass selling-out of that product and mass confusion over subsequent purchasing orders).

The imminent re-publication of John Fiske’s seminal books on consumer resistance and the cultural economy of active audiences (Television Culture, Reading the Popular, etc.) coincides with an age of unprecedented media choice and interactive use.

Yet looking back at a classic in the media theory canon - Robert K. Merton’s Mass Persuasion (1946) – draws our attention to the fact that there’s nothing new about media/social interaction. Merton, a pioneer of the focus-group interview, deployed the method to explore the relationship between a well-known American radio presenter and her listening public. What he found amounted to the difference between propaganda and persuasion. Whereas propaganda is a one-way process in which media communications are imposed upon people, Merton argues that persuasion

involves a higher degree of social interaction between the “persuader” and the “persuadee” and it permits the persuader to adapt his argumentation to the flow of reactions of the persons he is seeking to influence (Merton 1946: 38-9).

The closest contemporary equivalent to Merton’s case study is the phone-in. Listeners to BBC Radio 5 Live will be familiar with the persuasive (some might say, seductive) daily tones of Victoria Derbyshire, Nicky Campbell et al. Of course, the phone-in is a long-established radio programming format. Whether persuasion occurs or does not is a moot point. But media interaction, though apparently a contradiction in terms (J. B. Thompson uses the term mediated quasi-interaction [see Key Terms] because he considers the process to be essentially non-reciprocal), has actually always existed in a form akin to what Merton calls reciprocal interplay - that intangible entity obsessed over by programme-makers, advertisers and market researchers, who exhaust so much time and money trying to measure it.

The age of mass media concealed what was, nevertheless and all along, a two-way process of communication (except in the case of coercive propaganda). Today’s click culture is more overtly interactive, with the emphasis firmly on overtly rather than interactive.

Final thought: is the mouse the most used yet least theorised technology ever invented? For the sake of interactionist endeavour, I hereby introduce the discipline of mouse studies – and call on (indeed, click on) others to write about it as a matter of urgency.

Media Studies 1.0/2.0 article

Media theory lecturer Liam French (University College Plymouth MARJON) has written a succinct and thought-provoking piece on the MS1.0/2.0 debate in the latest MeCCSA newsletter (page 10). As French rightly points out, I’m considerably closer to the 1.0 than the 2.0 camp – not least given my now-notorious malteser metaphor for MS 2.0 (Key Themes, page 198). Since I wrote that book, my views are little different, though my rejection of MS 2.0 doesn’t mean I’m a new media cynic. Far from it, many developments in digital media over the last twenty years or so have had a positive impact on political, social and economic progress. My eBay article in the Journal of Consumer Culture, for instance, is distinctly optimistic and lambasts the easy-way-out chosen by those (mostly Marxist) critics who simply tar new/social media with the same brush as traditional, corporate, late-capitalist, dominant-hegemonic ones. I disagree fervently with the idea that users of eBay, facebook, twitter and other Web 2.0 platforms are effectively doing unpaid work in the interests of advertisers, market researchers, big business, etc.

Nonetheless, the theoretical tools we use to understand new media shouldn’t be determined by the advent of the techologies themselves - this is the assumption underpinning MS 2.0. On the contrary, theory should be informed by research, facts and evidence. And the evidence so far suggests new media are not radically changing the social world – they exert an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary influence, which means the ideas that precede us remain fundamental to the ways we study media today.

Think of Google – the most spectacular product of Web 2.0. Google is great – we can search out information in less than a nanosecond, Google Maps zoom us into every street in every town, and hell, Google even allows access to a substantial portion of the world’s book-list. And these are just a few of Google’s digital-economy assets. I use it all the time – at a guess, I average 8-10 Google searches daily.

But Google is not a pro-democratic, knowledge-building technology of the kind envisaged in Daniel Bell’s post-industrial society ideal. It’s a multi-billion dollar conglomeration of business and political interests that invades people’s privacy, infringes on their intellectual property rights, permits state censorship of its search results so as to satisfy the whims of emerging economies – and, most worrying of all, Google no longer performs purely algorithmic calculations of numbers of clicks (i.e. user traffic) on web pages. Instead, Google Ads and sophisticated software tie-ins mean web firms can effectively pay for Google’s love. And guess what – Google is now so big, it can strangle (or buy out) a competitor faster than it can perform a search on it. Microsoft-owned MSN/Hotmail and facebook likewise work together to enhance their respective market-share and deter the competition. Google/YouTube and eBay/PayPal do much the same (in each case, the former owns the latter).

But political and economic facts aside, the most telling evidence in defence of MS 1.0 is that twenty-first-century media are yet to register social change on the scale of the telegraph, or the telephone, or the printing press for that matter. So we’ve got mobile broadband? What difference does it really make? Are we any better off than we were before this so-called digital revolution? Which brings us on to McLuhan and medium theory – for my students, our next topic of discussion on our journey through the long history of media thought.