Wednesday 10 December 2014

How did the Web change Media Studies?

My first semester in the masters is close to the finishing line, and naturally that means I have loads of coursework deadlines. Two of these are blog posts I have to write about the effect the Web has on academic disciplines. Since they are supposed to be blog posts, I thought I'd share them here as well. Any feedback until Friday will be most welcome, because I can still amend the hand ins until then!

In comparison with disciplines like maths or philosophy, media studies is a very young field in academics.  It started in the United States in the 1930s, with the analysis of television and radio broadcasts, and really found its place in the 1960s through the work of Marshall McLuhan, who coined the famous aphorism “the medium is the message”. Initially, media studies was concerned with ‘big stuff’: TV and radio broadcasts, or newspapers. In short: everything that reached masses. Some of this was related to technology, as a means of distribution, but it was not central.

The world, for media studies, was easy. There was a specific device for each of the possible media types: a TV set or cinema for audio-visual content, a radio for pure audio content, paper (as in newspapers, books or magazines) for printed content. These were all nicely separated, and could be analysed in the same manner. There was no need to differentiate the media types very clearly, because when multiple devices are needed to consume the different media types, the devices do the definition for you.

Media studies would then analyse the different aspects of the media, looking at the content of each category, analysing and comparing it, investigating who owned the corporations that produced it, how these are controlled and regulated, and how they influence the masses they reach. It would analyse why media affects people in a certain way, how a defined effect could be achieved by a specific media type, and generally how media content was created.

Most of all, media studies knew exactly what their field was, how it was defined and where its borders were. That is past tense, because this changed with the increased use of technology. First of all, the differentiation between media types became more complicated: desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and most recently wrist watches, allow us to play the morning show off our favourite radio station, read the guardian over lunch, and watch the BBC evening news – all on the same device. We no longer need one device for each of the different media types.

So media content is now differentiated by content type, not by device. But the simplicity still isn’t coming back. Because after all that our devices can do for us, there is still that one thing that binds them all together, and combines all these things that used to be distributed across the different groups in the good old days. There used to be producers and receivers. There used to be broadcasters and the audience. And while there was some formal or informal communication from the audience to the mass media, it was really quite clear who belonged to which group and did what as a result. The producers created content, the broadcasters distributed it, and the audience received and consumed the content. This is no longer the case.

The web, especially the web 2.0, is dominated by user generated content. There are blogs allowing every individual with a web connection (local regulations allowed) to generate and distribute their own written content. There are podcasts that everyone can nowadays record and publish from their smartphones, which might be seen equivalent to radio shows. There is YouTube, where users can upload their own videos. Some of these YouTube channels reach an audience that some TV stations would envy.  And of course there are all the platforms for social interactions. There is Twitter and Facebook, allowing us to share links to interesting content at a click, enabling a completely new form of distribution of any content to masses only limited by internet access. This has sparked new phenomena, like viral memes, or (online) mobs that form extremely fast and can have massive influence; in positive, for example in the Arab spring, but also negative, for example in #gamergate.

And with all this, with the web spread across the globe and everyone able to become a producer, media studies still isn’t quite sure what the web actually is. There is a couple of ideas circulating, about how the web either fits into the categories media studies is used to, or how it is changing the entire discipline.

On one side, the web is seen as ‘yet another type of media’, and added to the pile described earlier. In this case, the web is understood in the same framework as television, radio and newspapers, and analysed and critiqued in the same way. If the web is indeed ‘just another form of media’, then it needs to fit and be analysed within the criteria used by ‘media studies 1.0’. The content can be deconstructed to investigate its function and wider context. The owners can be seen in power-networks and their influence mapped. The influence of the media text can be analysed in regards to its impact on culture, ideology and identity. Or: nothing changes, really.

One of the actors arguing for this view is David Buckingham. He suggested that the existence of the web alone does not mean a revolution, and that theories of ownership and access still apply. For example, influential websites are still owned by large corporations, so ownership cannot simply be disregarded. Potentially, the old power-relationships that apply to the offline world are simply continued online. Or, if they change, this in itself needs to be analysed. In regards to media education, Buckingham argues that although children nowadays grow up with media and might know the formats better than their teachers, they still need to learn about the underlying concepts and wider context, in order to become critical participants of the new media world.

On the other side, the web is seen as a revolution that does not only change society – with its distribution, 40% of the global population connected to it and the implied effect on societies – but also the field of media studies itself. If the rise of the web indeed is a revolution of the media landscape, then that revolution has to be reflected in the academic study of media itself. Media studies has to become media studies. 2.0, to be able to analyse it accordingly. This means that media studies has to analyse not only ownership, but the entire audience, including the changed relationship between producers and audience. This has been argued for example by William Merrin and David Gauntlett.

Merrin opened his blog about Media Studies 2.0 in 2006, to collect articles for his own teaching. In his first post, he presented his idea about Media Studies falling behind their students in the use of new media, and no longer being able to teach it so long as the students knew more about the topic than he himself did. He developed this thought further and proposed that the field of media studies has to ‘upgrade’ due to the changes in media reception that the web has brought about.

Gauntlett sees the rise of the web as a fundamental change in how we interact with media. As a result, we cannot analyse the web in the same way we used to analyse media content previously. The categories themselves have changed because of the web and our interaction with it. Consumers turn into prosumers, who are not only consuming media but interacting with it and producing new content at the same time.

The debate about the future of media studies is extremely interesting, and it is still ongoing. And somehow I wonder whether the indicated definition of Media Studies 2.0 makes the field a synonym of Web Science.