Distinctions in the Study of New Media
The New Media
One mark of communication research of the last twenty or so years has been the growth of interest in the adoption, implementation, and effects of new communication technologies, and in new versions of older technologies. Of course, "technology" itself is not a new concept to human communication. It relates distantly even to those tools our ancestors used to expand their communications beyond their naturally endowed capabilities. The stones our ancestors used to scratch their marks on rocks, the fires they used for signaling, or the sticks they used for counting were all early technologies of a sort. More advanced tools, and more technological inventions, were writing, the printing press, papermaking, the telegraph, photography, the telephone, and broadcasting. Indeed, much of the history of human communication is marked by the "science of the practical" -- that is, the uses of technologies to extend our communication capabilities.
When we refer in this book to the "new media," we mainly mean those media technologies, mostly electronic and digital, that are undergoing expansion in our times. The key technologies underlying the new media include microelectronics, computers, and telecommunications networks. A medium might be as singularly "new" as interactive videodiscs, yet there are many examples where "new" represents an extension of an older medium -- for example, the computer-switched telephone network, the teletext system that uses part of a television signal, and the teleconferencing system that mixes voice, data, and image. Table 1-1 provides a summary of many of the traditional levels of communications and their expansion through new media.
As shown in Table 1-1, the new media facilitate all levels -- from intrapersonal to mass -- of the communication process. Technologies such as microelectronics expand the capabilities of existing communications systems, often making these systems less expensive, more reliable, more portable, and allowing content to be more independent of physical contact than such traditional channels as letters or face-to-face conversations. Computer technologies allow users to process communication by altering the structure of interactions and by editing, storing, and retrieving content. Telecommunications networks allow users in diverse locations to communicate with each other and to expand their social structure to include others whom they had not known before.
These new capabilities allow for changes in human communication behaviors on intra- and inter-personal levels, in groups, organizations, and in mass audience contexts. They raise questions about the potential of new media, about how they are adopted and implemented, what their effects may be in both immediate and long-range contexts, and, above all, about the larger social questions concerning their benefits to humanity. It is therefore important that we expand our capabilities for studying the new media just as the technologies themselves have expanded.
In this first chapter, we discuss major distinctions of new media and associated distinctions of research in this area.
New Media -- Components and Combinations
One major area of development is in the transmission of human messages through telecommunications systems. These technologies are, either singularly or as a part of other systems, contributing to new possibilities for human interaction. Some are newer than others, but all are currently an important part of new media.
Optical transmission systems involve the modulation of light waves as a communications carrier. Two common forms are the highly focused "laser" beams and the optical fibers that serve as communications channels. Optical systems have the potential to be far less expensive than traditional telecommunications systems. They have a large signal capacity and are freer of interference than electrical or electronic systems. Much of the planned expansion of the public switched (telephone) network will use optical fiber technology.
Communications satellites are broadcast relay stations that, because of their position above the earth, can disseminate signals over a wider area than a land-based station. When in an orbit matching the movement of the earth's surface (called a "geosynchronous" orbit), earth stations can easily "lock on" to the satellite and need not incorporate expensive tracking mechanisms. As satellites become able to broadcast increasingly powerful signals, earth stations can be reduced in size, making satellite communication much less expensive and more widely available.
Coaxial cable allows for the simultaneous transmission of many individual messages, including moving video images, which require large bandwidths. Cable is known for its application in the distribution of television signals to homes. However, modern cable has many enhancements; these include two-way or interactive transmission; simultaneous delivery of voice, data, and images; and applications ranging from security systems to remote reading of home electric or gas meters.
Microwave relay systems allow for the line-of-sight transmission of many simultaneous voice, data, and image signals from tower to tower. As a substitute for wired telecommunication systems, these relay stations have greatly reduced the cost of building telecommunications networks.
Cellular mobile telecommunication systems include a network of low-power broadcast grids where every cell has a different frequency so that many callers can share the overall network. As callers travel from one cell to another, their communication channel is automatically shifted to one of the different frequencies.
Local area networks are dedicated communication networks often used to link individuals in a building, buildings in a complex, or the geographically separated units of a single company or organization. These networks typically bypass the local telephone network. A major application is an integrated communication network in modern office buildings, a system sometimes referred to as "shared tenant services."
Value-added common carrier networks use various combinations of the preceding transmission channels to provide reliable, less-expensive telecommunications service. "Value added" refers to the offering of processing capabilities such as storage and forwarding of messages at a later time, least-cost routing, error-checking, and detailed accounting records. A particularly significant characteristic of such networks is their use of packet-switching, which breaks up a message into small packets; sends each one along the fastest, cheapest, or most reliable route; and reassembles the packets at the destination computer.
One of the most important contemporary trends in telecommunications is the digitalization of signals. When in digital form, signals can transfer voice, data, and image information easily in the same network. Digital signals can include their own "routing" instructions. There is a move toward a world standard in digital networks; this standard is called the integrated systems digital network -- ISDN for short.
The computer is as much a communication technology as it is computational in that it facilitates the movement, storage, and reproduction of messages. But whereas communication technologies typically only change the energy form of messages for purposes of transmission, computers can change the messages themselves. In this respect we can think of a computer receiving messages as "programs" to act on other messages as "data." But even more applicable to communication research is that computers are integral parts of most modern telecommunications systems. Some of the world's most sophisticated computers serve as "switches" for major communications networks. Moreover, miniaturized computerlike components enable the operation of most transmission and receiver technologies, ranging from telephones to television sets.
Some contemporary computer concepts and designs are as follows:
Microprocessors integrate all the circuits necessary for the basic computing operation on one miniature medium, which is called a chip. These chips are the basis for computerized functions in various types of equipment, such as those mentioned above. When microprocessors are combined with data input-output and memory devices, the combination represents the essentials of a microcomputer.
Personal computers are the popular models of microcomputers now found in homes, schools, and offices, often selling for under $5,000. Currently, they are single-user-oriented, but they are increasingly being designed for simultaneous multiple users and multiple tasks.
Minicomputers have a greater computation capacity and speed than personal computers, can often run several programs simultaneously, and serve multiple users connected through multiple terminals attached to a local area or value-added network. Minicomputers sell in the $10,000 to $500,000 range.
Mainframe computers are the traditional computers found in large installations and originally affordable only by large businesses, government, and the military. These computers serve many simultaneous users ("time-sharing") and usually cost millions of dollars. Many of the capabilities of the older mainframes are now provided by minicomputers.
Supercomputers are the high-speed mainframe computers originally used for military and scientific purposes but are now coming into wider use in business and design applications. They are the most expensive of the computer types.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the creation of program materials that reflect human intellectual capabilities for learning, reasoning, adapting, guessing, and simulating. AI has led to advances in robotics, vision, language processing, and decision making. Some communications applications include the design of large networks, monitoring communications satellites, engineering design, online information systems that "learn" from a user's prior searches, and motion picture animation.
New Service Applications
Rather than considering specific examples of telecommunications, computing, or combined systems, we often consider new media in terms of a particular type of service. Some examples include the following:
Teleconferencing is a meeting of three or more people in two or more separate locations held via interactive electronic communication. Three main types of teleconferencing are video teleconferencing, audio conferencing, and computer conferencing.
Teletext is an information service that allows individuals to request frames of information for viewing on a home television screen. The frames are transmitted in the vertical blanking interval of a conventional television broadcast signal, and the "lines" of information for teletext are located above the picture visible on the television set. Each of the several hundred frames that are broadcast in an ongoing cycle of broadcasts can be chosen by an individual via a keypad and, after decoding, viewed on a television set.
Videotext is an interactive information service that allows individuals to request frames of information from a central computer for viewing on a video display screen. The number of frames or lines of information is limited only by the capacity of the computer in the videotext system. Videotext requires a request channel (unlike teletext), so it is much more interactive in nature. The most common and accessible form of videotext is the online data-base, containing bibliographic materials, trend data from historical data-bases, full text of articles, the latest news, and much more.
Interactive cable television provides the ability to send text and graphic frames, as well as full video pictures, to home television sets via cable in answer to requests that the viewer enters on a keypad. The diversity of content is potentially unlimited. The cable typically serves as the request channel as well as the conduit for the requested information or programs, although some hybrid systems use telephone lines. The source computer is usually capable of polling and tabulating responses and accepting orders for services or products.
Computer-mediated communication systems consist of a main computer that stores and processes message content; it is connected to users by telecommunications networks. Two main types of computer-mediated communication systems are electronic messaging and computer conferencing (of which computer bulletin boards are a simpler, more nonprofit form). The users of an electronic messaging system typically belong to a single organization. In contrast, the users of a computer conference are often at scattered locations with their terminals linked by a wired network, including those provided by telephone companies.
High-definition television is a system that increases the scanning lines over the current U.S. standard of 525 lines, or the European standard of 625 lines, to up to 2,000 lines. This change provides a much clearer and detailed image. Such images lend themselves to many applications, such as computer-aided-design, instructional and scientific systems, image processing, or simply a high-quality image for home entertainment (including large-screen displays).
Low-powered television allows for television stations with a small broadcasting radii, which would result in more alternative stations. Ideally, this form of television could lead to the development of neighborhood broadcast stations, a trend away from the "mass" orientation of traditional television.
Special Qualities of New Media
Although the new media share many characteristics with traditional media, there are distinctions that suggest possible implications for human communication. As the basis for examples, we will briefly discuss three such qualities: interactivity, de-massification, and asynchroneity. These qualities are defined below; their distinctions among traditional communication channels are summarized in Table 1-2.
The degree to which participants in a communication process have control over, and can exchange roles in, their mutual discourse is called interactivity. By mutual discourse, we mean the degree to which a given communication act is based on a prior series of communication acts. Bretz (1983) proposes that a high degree of interactivity implies a third-order dependency: A's response to B depends on B's prior response to A's initial communication acts. By exchange of roles, we mean the ability of individual A to take the position of individual B and thus to perform B's communication acts, and vice versa. In the example of a third-order interaction, both A and B are respondents to the other's communication, so they are fully able to exchange roles. By having control, we mean the extent to which an individual can choose the timing, content, and sequence of a communication act, search out alternative choices, enter content into the storage for other users, and perhaps create new system capabilities. By participants, we mean at least one individual communicating with at least one source of information, or two or more individuals using a common medium. We call them participants instead of sources and receivers because of their coequal roles in exchanging information and constructing meaning.
Using the concepts of mutual discourse, exchange, control, and participants, we can compare the degree of interactivity in a videotext system and a teletext system. A teletext system, B, broadcasts a stream of several hundred pages of information, and the user, A, responds by selecting one or more of these pages to display on a television screen. Because there is no two-way link in a teletext system, there is no possibility for an exchange of roles (i. e., the user does not send any information to add to the content of the system), so the level of discourse is only second-order. However, the user has considerable control over the timing, content, and sequencing of these pages. In some teletext systems, the user can store these pages for later use, thus extending the degree of control. Participation is limited to a communication process between the user and the system (which makes the pages accessible from a data-base of pages) rather than directly between individuals. However, the user does communicate with the wider system of data-collectors, data-entry personnel, system and page designers, and vendors, to name a few.
Now consider the degree of interactivity in a videotext system. Because there is a two-way link between the user and the videotext data-base, there is the possibility for an exchange of roles to a certain degree. Whether roles can be exchanged is a matter of debate. The distinguishing criterion may be whether the "communication act" must involve cognition by all participants. If that is the criterion, no communication with a nonhuman participant is truly interactive. One perspective is that the information available is just as fixed during a particular videotext communication session as in a teletext session, so roles cannot really be exchanged -- that is, the videotext system cannot take the user's role and conduct original searches for information. However, it can be programmed to conduct the same search on new or more recent sets of information, and, with artificial intelligence, it can be programmed to learn from how the user makes requests and from what sets of information are requested.
A different perspective argues that because later sets of information are dependent on the user's response to prior sets of information, a third-order relation exists. However, it is clear that the user has considerably more control with videotext than with teletext not only because of the far greater amount of content available, but also because of the ability to revise continuously the kinds and amount of content communicated. Because of their two-way link, most videotext systems also allow participants to exchange messages with other participants, further extending the degree of interactivity experienced in using this new medium.
Face-to-face discussions are generally felt to have the greatest degree of interactivity because of their potential for fulfilling the conditions of mutual discourse, exchange of roles, user control, and participation. However, note that there are many situations in which one or all of these conditions are not met in an actual conversation. An extreme case of a military recruit in boot camp standing in front of the drill instructor suggests that social conditions can remove most of the potential for interactivity in a face-to-face communication situation. Further, some new media offer even a greater degree of control by the user than are possible in face-to-face conversations. For example, interactive videodiscs (Chapter 11) designed for educational purposes can provide the student with greater access to, and control of, visual, audio, and textual content than can a classroom teacher.
Perhaps our present examples emphasize what is fundamental to determinations of interactivity in any medium. The users' social situation and the nature of the communication process are the primary determinants of the degree of interactivity, as well as the characteristics and capabilities of a particular technology.
To the degree that a special message can be obtained by each individual in a large audience, the new media are also de-massifying. Such individualization likens the new media to face-to-face interpersonal communication (except that they are not face-to-face). The potential de-massification of the new media means that they are, in this respect at least, unlike mass media. De-massification means that a certain degree of the control of mass communication systems moves from the message producer to the media consumer. The reader of a newspaper like The Sunday New York Times also has a type of control in choosing to read certain news items and ignoring the rest.
The new communication technologies are also asynchronous, meaning they allow for the sending and receiving of messages at a time convenient for the individual user rather than requiring all participants to use the system at the same time. For example, say an electronic message is sent to you on a value-added computer network. You may receive it on your home or office computer whenever you log on the host computer. Unlike a telephone call, electronic messaging systems avoid the problem of "telephone tag" that occurs when you call someone who is unavailable, and they return your call when you are unavailable. But, of course, the new media cannot guarantee that the intended receiver will ever read the message or respond to it.
Some Distinctions of New Media Research
New media research does not necessarily reflect new methods for research nor an entirely different focus from traditional media research. For one, as we discuss in Chapter 2, the media of communication have long been a focus for research, including such technologies as film, radio, or television in their times. What we do point out, however, is that some of the distinctions of new, and especially interactive, media raise new challenges for research. The new media are extending the dissemination, interaction, or consequences of human communication. We suggest that one task of communication researchers is to understand these distinctions.
As for methodology, we take the position (Chapter 3) that the new media researcher should understand and take advantage of alternative research designs, including use where appropriate of multiple research methods or "triangulation." Accordingly, we examine briefly a variety of methods as they may apply to new media research, including, for example, mathematical modeling, controlled experiments, quasi-experiments, surveys, longitudinal studies, field studies, archival and secondary research, futures research and forecasting, content analysis, case studies, and focus groups. We also suggest the consideration of alternatives to conventional research methods and designs as found in critical or interpretive approaches.
Much of this volume, then, focuses on those special considerations of the study of new media that should allow us to evaluate new media and their applications with equally innovative research strategies. As with developments in the media, these research approaches are more extensions than replacements of traditional research methods.
The Research Challenge
Most of the aforementioned qualities of new communication technologies have the potential to change the way we adopt, implement, or react to new media. Also, we can see how many new media open options for changing the environment for communication. For example, do group processes change when participants in a meeting use teleconferencing rather than interact face-to-face? What are the effects of thirty to fifty channels of cable television, videocassettes, teletext, or high-definition displays? Will they increase the amount of time viewers spend watching television, the type of television programming, or cultural and political consequences of that content? Computers have vastly increased the capability of storing personal information about citizens, increasing the possibility that government and educational, health care, and business organizations will share this information. What are the dangers in this? Should there be new laws regarding privacy and access to data? Do citizens deserve the right of free access to data or exchange as they do free speech? And then there is the equity issue: To what degree are all citizens benefiting from the new communication technologies? Are we moving into a society where most citizens will have greater opportunities for information and expression with the new technologies? Or are we moving into an era of increased social stratification -- the information rich versus the information poor?
These are the types of questions that intrigue researchers of the new media. They range from the study of individual people interacting with specific technologies to a broad inquiry of the consequences of these new media in different societies.
In this book, we consider the new media as those media technologies, mostly electronic and digital, that are growing in use in our times. The new media themselves consist primarily of combinations of telecommunications, computing, and user devices. These underlie such new media services as teleconferencing, teletext and videotext, interactive cable television, and computer-mediated communication to name a few.
We suggest that many new media have special qualities important to consider in research. These include interactivity, or the exchange of communicators' roles in an exchange; de-massification, or the quality of personalized messages as against mass-oriented ones; and asynchroneity, or the ability to exchange messages at times convenient to the individual users of a communication system.
Finally, although we consider possible research methods for new media as mainly extensions of existing methods, we propose that the new media researcher should consider alternative methods, or even multiple methods, and to attempt a triangulation of methods.
Copyright © 1988 The Free Press