The new terms of engagement

As I have just returned — again! — to graduate school while the “media landscape” is in flux, the articles in this course are a welcome orientation to what’s current in research on “new media” and “interactivity.” I have spent countless hours over coffee – okay, maybe it was something a little bit stronger – pondering with colleagues the nature of new media, all that it encompasses and implies, and how it’s changed our lives. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the ramifications exponentially expand and interconnect into a dizzying array of configurations. We all have our stories about how in the last few years media technologies have changed our everyday lives. More importantly, how new media and interactivity have changed the way we do our jobs.

For me, the impact is often personal. The fatality count climbs daily on Paper Cuts, a website and blog that tracks the loss of newspaper jobs. Recently, the generation of reporters and editors that started in journalism right before I did at the Austin American-Statesman accepted early retirement buy-outs. Those of us with graying hair that can remember when cigarette smoking and pica rulers were common in newsrooms can get really passionate about what all this means. And yet — let’s hear it for “new media” and “interactivity” — how did I find out about what was going on with my friends? On Facebook. Via email.

Again, much of what I think about when I think about new media and interactivity is anecdotal without a theoretical basis or reference point. To even talk about these issues seems to require at the very least, a common vocabulary. So when we discuss “new media” and “interactivity,” what exactly are we talking about? As it turns out, even the “experts” don’t know, according to the findings in an academic journal article we will discuss in class tonight.

In the meta-analysis published in New Media & Society, researchers Tami K. Tomasello, Youngwon Lee and April B. Baer looked at publication trends between 1990-2006. From the onset, the task required ascertaining “key words” commonly used in database searches for studies in which different researchers used different terms in reference to new media, interactivity and so on. Various publications contextualized and framed issues in accordance with various disciplines.  Essentially, again, the problem seemed to be one of defining terms. Although “new media” and all that it means overlaps with concerns common to various disciplines — sociology, education — it turns out that the majority of the work, according to this study, is being conducted in communications-related disciplines. Also, by applying the diffusion theory articulated by Everett M. Rogers, one of the readings covered in last night’s discussion, researchers suggest that the field of research on “new media,” itself, is operating or diffusing in the academic journal community much as it had in the culture, through a process of early adoption, transmission and so on, and made obvious when during this time period several journals changed names. The Critical Studies in Mass Communication became Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Journal of Broadcasting changed its title to Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

While the Rogers article we discussed last night was published in 2003, this one is more current, covers a larger period of time and talks about diffusion as a process of assimilating a new focus within a discipline not just in a culture or marketplace. In their conclusion, these researchers articulate an astounding paradigm shift in terms of prior approaches to media studies: … “from examining media effects to studying how individuals and groups adapt to and reshape new communication technologies.” An acknowledgement that studying “new media” involves dramatically rethinking basic theories about communications and the nature of the communication. Media “effects” then is no longer one-way. It’s “interactive.”

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