In an era characterized by technologies that enabled one-to-one and one-to-many communication, media studies have been dominated by the relationship between producers and consumers of information, focusing on the effects of media. Digital media, whose communication paradigm includes one-to-one and one-to-many, also includes many-to-many communication, forcing those involved in media studies to reconsider commonly held beliefs and theoretical frameworks in light of the new technology (Quinn, 2011). Which theoretical approaches are most useful to cultivate in accounting for the fundamental changes brought about by new media, and conversely, which theoretical approaches may no longer be relevant? In order to account for the fundamental changes that have occurred and are likely to occur, it is useful to consider the media ecology to understand the how changes in the media technology may alter society as a new equilibrium is achieved. Already, the introduction of digital media has wrought unanticipated changes in the ecology and had a surprising impact on the world.
The introduction of many-to-many relationships in media is based on the internet; ubiquitous, global, social, and cheap, digital media allows consumers to also be producers and share information in ways not possible in the era of broadcast (Shirky, 2009). Additionally, the number of possible interactions in the network is the number of participants squared; meaning the number of interactions will larger than ever before in human history (Shirky, 2009). Symbolic interactionism states that meaning is created as a process negotiated through interaction between people (Nelson, 1998). As the number of interactions grows, what new meaning will be created and what possible impacts can it have on society?
Consider the recent Arab Spring, where millions of people across many countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, organized, protested, in most cases created significant social change, both intended and unintended. “It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator” (Nelson, 1998, p. 1). Suddenly, people throughout the region were sharing their discontent and inspiration via social media, and in the process, circumventing traditional state-sponsored media entirely. What new meaning did the image of the shopkeeper convey and how did it galvanize a country and ultimately an entire region? A recent report from the Dubai School of Government found “empirical evidence suggesting that the growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change” (Dubai School of Government, 2011, p. 24). The democratization of media ultimately led to the democratization of some countries long known for autocratic rule.
When viewed through a lens of media ecology, it appears that in certain autocracies, like Egypt and Tunisia, digital media has given people a capability to circumvent traditional broadcast media, ultimately becoming an agent of social change. What new equilibrium will come about as governments grapple with digital media? Will governments embrace social media to develop a more participatory political process or perhaps seek new media technologies that allow them to control or shape the new flow of meaning? Of course, both are already occurring in different parts of the world. Shirkey described President Obama using social media to mobilize his base of supporters and engage them in the political process during his campaign and described China’s wholesale shutdown of Twitter on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in an attempt to control the risk of digital media. It is clear that both governments and mainstream media will seek ways to tap into the vast flows of meaning that span the network interactions in an attempt to either harness, subvert, or control digital media in an effort to maintain their gatekeeper role.
Given that digital media has begun to erode the power of traditional media gatekeepers, what of the gatekeeper theory, associated theories like agenda-setting, framing, and semantics and their relevance for the future? Some suggest the internet has rendered gatekeeping passé (Williams & Carpini, 2000), however, gatekeeping will likely remain relevant as along as mainstream media are part of the media ecology, albeit with less significance given that information flows freely. Additionally, gatekeeping will likely remain relevant in media-savvy countries like China that maintain tight control of all media.
It is clear that digital media will be a revolution in media unlike any the world has seen. Perhaps generations from now, media historians will discuss digital media as more revolutionary than even the printing press. Those in media studies have an unparalleled opportunity to rethink existing media theory in light of the changes taking place all over the world as society comes to terms with the new technology. Many existing perspectives, like media ecology and symbolic interactionism, will continue to provide useful insights to media scholars, while others, like gatekeeping may become less germane.
Dubai School of Government. (2011). Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter Arab Social Media Report (Vol. 1, pp. 1-30). Dubai: Dubai School of Government.
Nelson, L. D. (1998). Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionsm Retrieved July 23, 2011, from http://www.colorado.edu/communication/meta-discourses/Papers/App_Papers/Nelson.htm
Quinn, S. (2011). Module 2: theoretical perspectives and challenges of digital communication, from http://csuglobal.blackboard.com/courses/1/FALL11A-8-COM305-1/content/_320329_1/dir_xid-44757_2/com305_2.html
Shirky, C. (Producer). (2009, July 23, 2011). How Social Media Can Make History. Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html
Williams, B. A., & Carpini, M. X. D. (2000). Unchained reaction: the collapse of media gatekeeping and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Journalism, 1(1), 61-85.