The Meanings of New Media

In parallel to addressing complicated methodological questions, it’s going to be important to outline what exactly is meant (in the context of my research) by “New Media”. The term is one of those that means different things to different people, varying according to where they work, what pre-conceptions they hold, and of course, the way you phrase the question. It encompasses both the socio-cultural and the technical. Pasted below are some definitions of New Media gathered from a simple Google “definition: ” search.

Which of these (click to enlarge!) make most sense to you? What about if you were a Professor of Chemistry, or a Researcher in Archaeology? What would they mean – or imply – if you were Head of a Journalism School; but were also wearing a slightly different hat and taking part in some PR activities on behalf of your institution? Some Universities now have Social Media policies in place that tentatively suggest best practices although their focus often seems to be on using Social Media as a sort of PR and outreach “toolset” – without any great attention paid to the fine-grained ways in which different New/Social Media concepts and techniques may or may not apply to different members of the faculty at different stages.

Blogs, wikis, social bookmarking sites; articles or multimedia objects with comments pages embedded – these are naturally enough included in just about all definitions. So too are online community art projects. But what about, say, ebooks? They are New Media, yes, but are they Social Media? Do they allow for that key element around which I hope to structure my data analysis – participation? It might be argued that the ability to quickly publish documents in ebook formats makes them a participatory media. But this is taking part in a quite solitary way: your engagement is more with the carrier than with a group. If someone annotates or makes a comment on an ebook, you will probably never know about it. Where is the innovative dialogue and debate – distinct from more traditional kinds?

These questions really matter since I will need to identify precisely the examples I want to use within data gathering exercises. Selecting various instances or types that may or may not be somewhere on the participatory spectrum will certainly be valid as “controls” or to provide contrast and illuminate findings. Texture and tone are as important as polarities.

As Zizi Papacharissi has pointed out, older forms of print and broadcast media, which by their very nature aim to communicate with people and get them talking, have always been Social and interactive. They have always had the potential to effect social change (even if unintentionally). So, to contrast “Traditional Media” with digital variations by calling these “Social” may be misleading. She prefers “New Media” (as a way of not over-emphasising the social aspect) and I think that making the same distinction will be helpful.

Still, this imprecision and fluidity of meaning is why approaches derived from psychology (such as Repertory Grids or Semantic Differentials) will be appropriate to my work. These introduce something approaching objectivity to the measurement of the subjective – and can allow us to find out which concepts or connotations people associate with “New Media” – before we try to find the connections and differences between them. By letting interviewees/subjects speak for themselves to identify constructs or respond to paired adjectives, we try to avoid the introduction of bias on both sides. Knee-jerk responses such as “New Media is just a flash in the pan” or “Well, I think Facebook is really cool” are not what will get us to the heart of the matter.

To take one example, Sarah Kjellberg nicely summarises the ways in which blogs should be understood as evolving hybrid genres, full of rich and subtle socio-technical characteristics that vary depending on purpose, use, author, audience and time. Blogs (like other New Media) are “shaped by individuals at the same time as they shape social practices”. That’s the sort of approach that might well get us to the heart of things.


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3 responses to “The Meanings of New Media”

  1. dick hartley says :

    I think that the wikipedia definition is by far the most helpful. Sorry i cannot be there again this morning but got to go to a Faculty level meeting


    • musingfrommanchester says :

      No bother. We had a very lively meeting! πŸ™‚ My task now is to write up some mini literature briefs on two core aspects of the project – 1. a history of studies that have looked at academics, communication, and academic engagement with new technologies; 2. participatory theories.

      Totally agree with you about Wikipedia – it’s usually very reliable when it comes to tracking and understanding emerging tech trends.

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