What is ‘New Media’? (1998 & 2006)

[Originally published in 1998 and republished April 27, 2006, in Corante’s Rebuilding Media]

I earlier this week wrote that:

    The radical changes the newspaper industry needs to implement arise from a more true understanding by that industry of why newspaper readership began declining well before the Internet was opened to the public; about why one billion people worldwide have gone onto the Internet after it was opened to the public (they didn’t do it to read traditional media on computer screens), and about why all that plus the misnamed and illusionary ‘fracturing’ of media audiences requires semantic solutions.

At the root of that problem is a misunderstanding about what the New Medium actually is; a misunderstanding by almost all companies that broadcast programs or that publish newspapers or magazines.

I’ve long been reluctant to explain this misunderstanding only because I’ll need a long post to explain it. This is that post, a new version of my 1998 essay What is New Media? (which is currently being taught in the journalism, film, technology, and game design courses at several universities in North America and Europe). It’s 3,200-words long, but I consider it the most important thing I have ever written except for the original essay. I need to have this new version online because I plan to refer to it in future postings, specifically those about what radical changes that media companies need to implement.]

Misunderstanding ‘New Media’

A newspaper isn’t a medium, nor are newspapers media. Magazines aren’t media nor is a magazine a medium. Television isn’t a mediumnor is radio nor are radio or television stations media. A website isn’t a medium nor is the Internet media.

Companies that broadcast programs or that publish newspapers or magazines are having problems understanding and adapting to why andhow one billion consumers are now using Internet-based technologies to receive news, information, and entertainment.

Those companies have the problems simply because they misunderstand the meaning of media or medium. It is that starkly simple. Their misunderstanding of these terms– not the new technologies that consumers use — is the root of the companies’ problems.

Ask their executives if they work in the ‘Mass Media‘ (the Mass Medium) and they will be correct if they reply yes. But almost all will take that a step further — a misstep — and say that their broadcast, newspaper, or magazine is a medium.

Rhetoricians and cognitive linguists refer to that extra step as metonymy: the use of a well-understood or easy-to-perceive characteristic of something to stand for either a much more complex whole or for some aspect or part of it. (Another example of metonymy is use of the name Hollywood to describe the entire film industry worldwide)

Broadcast and publishing executives mistake Mass Media as a catchall phrase for all possible media, as if no other medium can exist except as a Mass Medium. Moreover, they extend this mistaken meaning of medium to cover their own broadcasts or publications.

So entrenched has the contemporary misunderstanding of the terms media and medium become that the mistake limits the abilities of most publishing or broadcasting executives to comprehend what exactly is a medium or the media in which they work.

So, what are media, what is a medium?

I’ll answer, explain how only three media exist and how previously just two did, and define the New Medium (‘New Media’). But let’s first take a moment to look at how today’s colloquial meaning of media or medium is a relatively recent mistake.

If you were to ask a person in the year 1506, 1606, 1706, 1806, or 1906, medium they used for their news, they wouldn’t understand what you asked. They simply wouldn’t comprehend your use of the word medium. (Indeed, if you had asked anyone in 1506, 1606, or 1706 what medium they used to get their news, they might think you were accusing them of using a witch to tell them about current events — a serious crime back then!)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the colloquial meaning of medium is a latecomer to the publishing industry. It dates only from around 1880 — a quarter millennium after publication of the first daily newspapers and 150 years after publication of the first magazines:

    Medium (‘mi:diem), sb. and a. Pl. Mediia, -iums. [a. L. Medium, neuter of medius middle, cogn. With MID a.] A. sb 5. a. An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. spec. of newspapers, radio, television , etc. As vehicles of mass communication . Also attrib. And in pl. (see MEDIA) 1880 Coach Builders’ Art Jrnl. I. 63: ‘Considering your Journal one of the best possible mediums for such a scheme.’

The colloquial plural media is even more a latecomer. The OED says it dates from only a few years after rise of the first commercial radio stations and is a term borrowed from the advertising industry:

    Media (‘mi:dia), sb. pl. [Pl. F MEDIUM sb., prob. After mass media.] Newspapers, radio, television, etc., collectively, as vehicles of mass communication. Freq. attrib. or as adj. Also erron. As sing. in same sense. 1923 [see mass medium].Mass medium (,maes ‘mi:diem). [f. MASS sb. + MEDIUM sb.] A medium of communications (such as radio, television, newspapers, etc.) that reaches a large number of people; usu. In pl. mass media.
    1923 S. M. FECHHEIMER in N. T. Praigg Advertising & Selling v. 238 (title) Class appeal in mass media. Ibid. The several million readers of a big mass medium. G. SNOW in Ibid. 240 ‘Mass media represents the most economical way of getting the story over the new and wider market in the least time.’

I’m not playing semantics here. When I state that the publishing and broadcasting industries’ colloquial usages of the terms medium andmedia are wrong, I’m not trying to define new meanings for those terms. Instead, I’m returning to the previous meanings that those terms had had for millennia (prior to the Advertising Industry coining the current colloquialism in 1923). That is the key to understanding what is the New Medium or, even for that matter, what is the Mass Medium.

Discard Preconceptions and the Misunderstanding

There is a saying about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: that what makes it difficult for some people to comprehend is its simplicity. That you don’t need to acquire more information to understand it, but that you must instead discard preconceived notions that block your understand. There is a similar saying about Quantum Theory.

Understanding the New Medium is like that, too.

To understand the New Medium, discard the colloquial meanings of medium and media. Don’t confuse a Medium for its Vehicles. What most people today think are media are actually vehicles within a medium.

A newspaper isn’t a medium, nor are newspapers media. Magazines aren’t media nor is a magazine a medium. Television isn’t a mediumnor is radio nor are radio or television stations media.

Likewise, a personal computer connected to the Internet isn’t a medium and the millions of computers connected to the Internet aren’tmedia. Neither is a website a medium nor are websites media. The World Wide Web isn’t a medium nor is e-mail a medium nor is the Internet itself a medium or media.

Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, telephones, billboards, personal computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and e-mail all arevehicles for conveying information within a medium or media. These vehicles aren’t the media or a medium in which they operate.

To understand the difference between a vehicle and a medium for information or communication, you merely need to comprehend how the terms medium, media, and vehicles are correctly used when discussing transportation.

Although there are numerous types of vehicles, only three transportation media exist:

Land was the aboriginal transportation medium; it was the first transportation medium. Humans have walked on it since time immemorial. We still do. But we’ve also built vehicles to help convey us in this medium: carts, chariots, carriages, bicycles, trains, automobiles, trucks and lorries, etc.

Water is the second transportation medium. Human’s usage of it as a transportation medium is almost as old as humanity’s use of land, dating from whenever the first human attempted to ride a floating log or to swim across a stream, river, or lake. We’ve since created vehicles to convey use in this medium: rafts, canoes, barges, sailboats, ships, submarines, etc.

Before I list the third transportation medium, please note some characteristics of these two traditional transportation media, because you’ll find that these characteristics have analogues in informational or communicational media:

  • Note first that humans’ usage of those two ancient transportation media predate technology. Technology has merely extended our speed and carrying capacities in these media.
  • Also note that humanity’s uses of these two media aren’t necessarily dependent upon technology. Most of us can walk and swim without using any technology.
  • And note that each of the vehicles for these media is limited by its medium. Trains don’t operate on water nor do steamships operate on land. Indeed, land and water have mutually exclusive characteristics as media and reaches. Mutually exclusive advantages and disadvantages. This will become an important point when we bridge — no pun intended — this analogy towards informational and communicational media

For many millennia, anyone who needed transportation faced a choice of using either one of these two transportation media. His choice would have been based upon where that medium reached or its carrying capacity.

For examples, water vehicles have almost global reach but not to landlocked places. Most water vehicles also have much greater carrying capacities than do land vehicles. But most land vehicles can deliver anyone door-to-door, a capability that most water vehicle can’t provide (unless they are in Venice).

For almost all of recorded history, humans have used the medium of water and its vehicles for most of their long distance transportation needs, but have used the medium of land and its vehicles for most of their daily transportation needs. A third transportation medium had been inconceivable.

That was until 1903. Or, more accurately, 1783, which was when two French brothers named Montgolfier used their era’s technologies to build a vehicle that opened an new transportation medium. Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne Montgolfier built a huge globe of sackcloth and paper, covered it with a huge fishnet, let hot air from a fire rise beneath it, put their friend Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier into a basket hung beneath the globe, and then let him rise in this balloon into the sky. Aviation was born. The Sky became a transportation medium.

In 1903, after studying 18th Century experiments by the German Otto Lilenthal with airfoils and gliders, the Wright Brothers married an engine to a glider and made aviation practical for everyday use. Last year, airlines took more than 4 billion passengers through the transportation medium of the sky. Among this medium’s vehicles are balloons, parachutes, gliders, airplanes, helicopters, and spacecraft.

Note that this new transportation medium is entirely dependent upon technology, unlike use of the two other transportation media. The sky isn’t a natural medium for humans; people can walk and swim without technology, but cannot fly.

Note too that the vehicles of this new transportation medium can operate either of the water or land media go. Anywhere on Earth. Though the transportation media of Land and Water have mutually exclusive reaches, this new transportation medium — the Sky — encompasses the reaches of both land and water. It overcomes the complementary advantages and disadvantages of the two prior, traditional media.

So, let’s now take this analogy about media back from transportation to communications and information. What’s it to do with the traditional media companies and the problems they have understanding and adapting to why and how one billion consumers have begun using Internet-based technologies to receive news, information, and entertainment?

Only Three Media Exist

Just as only three transportation media exist, only three communications media exist:

As with transportation media, two of these communication media are ancient and people’s usage of the two arose independent of technology. However, the third medium is relatively new and is entirely dependent upon technology:

Oddly, the first and earliest of the three communications media is the only one not to have a commonly accepted name, not even misnoner. I call it the Interpersonal Medium.

This aboriginal medium arose in basic animal communications, predating humans and technology. Interpersonal conversation is the basic form of this medium. It is the most heavily used communication medium. Technology has mereely extended its speed and reach. Vehicles that human later built for it include the postal letter, telephone call, and electronic mail.

Just as the transportation medium of Land (or, for that matter, water) has some unique characteristics, so too does the Interpersonal Medium of communications. Its two hallmark are:

  • Each participant in it has equal and reciprocal control of the content conveyed.
  • That content can be individualized to each participant’s unique needs and interests.

However, those hallmark advantages have corresponding disadvantages:

  • The equal control, and also the individualization, of the content degrades into cacophony as the number of participants increases. The more people participating in a conversation, the less control each has over its content and how well that content matches the participant’s individual needs and interests.

For those reasons, this medium is generally used for communications only between two people. Some academics that study communications refer to it the ‘one-to-one’ medium, although many marketers misapply that term to the New Medium.

The Mass Medium is the second communications medium.

Most people mistake the Mass Medium as a byproduct of technology and don’t realize how old it really is. Like the Interpersonal, the Mass Medium predates technology. It originated with the utterances and speeches of tribal leaders, kings, and priests. Technology has merely extended its speed and its reach to global dimensions.

Some vehicles in the Mass Medium are oratory, sermons, edicts, , scriptures, plays, books, newspapers, billboards, magazines, cinema, radio, television, bulletin boards, and
webcasting.

Communications in the Mass Medium generally go from a one person (for examples, a leader, a king, priest, publisher, or broadcaster) to many people (the tribe, mass, audience, readership, listenership, viewership). This is why some academics term it the ‘one-to-many’ medium, but most people colloquially refer to it as Mass Media, despite it being only one medium for communication.

The hallmarks of the Mass Medium are:

  • That exactly the same content goes to all recipients.
  • That the one who sends it has absolute control over that content.

However, the corresponding disadvantages of the Mass Medium are:

  • Its content cannot be individualized to each recipient’s unique needs and interests and that the recipients have no control over that content.

Like the Interpersonal, the Mass Medium isn’t necessarily dependent upon technology. For example, an actor or speaker can perform before the masses without any technology.

Before I define the third communications medium — explaining what the New Medium really is — please again note how the prior two media have reciprocal advantages and disadvantages, similar to how the transportation media of land and water have mutually exclusive characteristics

  • The Interpersonal Medium can deliver an individualized message but generally just to one person at any time.
  • The Mass Medium can simultaneously deliver or display to an almost infinite number of people, but its messages cannot be individualized for each recipient.

Likewise:

  • The Interpersonal Medium allows each participant equal control over the content.
  • The Mass Medium allows control over the content by only one person.

Those mutually exclusive characteristics of the Interpersonal and Mass media had meant that anyone who wanted to communicate faced achoice: He could communicate either the same information to everyone or else custom-tailor the information for just one recipient. He couldn’t custom-tailor information to a mass of recipients; that would have been inconceivable.

That was true until about a dozen years ago.

The New Medium

But then — just like how then-new technologies were used a century ago to make the sky a new and practical medium for transportation — new technologies have now been used to create the New Medium for communications. It is a new communication medium that, like Sky for prior transportation media, bridges the mutually incompatible characteristics of prior communications media.

Among the technologies needed to create this New Medium were the invention of digital communications during the late 1940s, invention of the Transport Control/Internet Protocol ((TCP/IP) during the late 1960s, ARPANET’s creation of the Internet and other people’s invention of the personal computer during in the 1970s, and to lesser extents the invention of the HyperText Transport Protocol (HTTP) in the late 1980s, opening of the Internet to the public in 1992, and invention of the graphical browser software later that year. Those and other technological innovations converged to create a new communications medium that has characteristics inconceivable even a decade ago.

The hallmark characteristics of the New Medium are:

  • Uniquely individualized information can simultaneously be delivered or displayed to a potentially infinite number of people.
  • Each of the people involved — whether publisher, broadcasters, or consumer — shares equal and reciprocal control over that content.

In other words, the New Medium has the advantages of both the Interpersonal and the Mass media, but without their complementary disadvantages.

  • No longer must anyone who wants to individually communicate a unique message to each recipient be restricted to communicating with only one person at a time.
  • No longer must anyone who wants to communicate simultaneous messages to a mass of recipients be unable to individualize the content of the message for each recipient.

Again, please note that the New Medium for communications, as with use of the transportation medium of the sky, is entirely dependent upon technology unlike its two preceding media. It is not a natural communications medium for humans; it does something that a human cannot naturally do without technology.

Colloquially known as ‘New Media’ or ‘the New Media’, the New Medium is not whatever content or device is used online (or wirelessly, on an iPod, etc.). Any item of content is generally independent of any medium. Likewise, most vehicles and devices are generally independent of medium. (There obviously are exceptions: You won’t receive much content plugging newsprint into the Internet or using a canoe as a transportation vehicle on land.)

Some Misapplications

Simply because the New Medium encompasses the characteristics and the reach of both of its predecessors and therefore can easily perform each of those media’s capabilities, many people mistake the New Medium as merely an electronic extension previous media.

This misunderstanding is particular prevalent among publishing and broadcast executives or others who’ve worked in the Mass Medium. They see the New Medium and its vehicles only as a paperless or antenna-less form of Mass Medium — a perspective that neglects the New Medium’s full potential.

A website can be a vehicle to display Mass Medium content, which indeed is how most newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts use it. However, that merely replicates online the hallmark limitations of Mass Medium vehicles and doesn’t take advantage of the New Medium’s ability to display a precise match of specific information to each and every recipient’s individual needs and interests, however different those receipients may be.

Moreover, because each recipient in the New Medium shares with all publishers and broadcasters equal and reciprocal control over what that recipient gets — either by each recipient’s choices of which publishers’ or broadcasters’ websites to visit or else increasingly by mechanisms that allow the recipient to aggregate that content without visiting each of those publishers’ or broadcasters’ sites — these New Medium consumers are leaving behind the traditional Mass Medium’s packaging of information.

Each is migrating towards whatever mix of content most precisely matches her own uniquely individual needs and interests. This is why more than one billion consumers have migrated into the New Medium; it allows them more precise satisfaction of their needs and interests. They didn’t migrate into the New Medium to read, see, or hear a Mass Medium package of information online — information they were receiving from traditional Mass Medium vehicles in more readily usable forms.

Nevertheless, almost all publishing and broadcasting companies still make the mistake of providing only the traditional Mass Medium package of information online. Many of those companies also mistakenly term themselves interactive merely because they now also operate online.

Interactivity, as long ago defined by Dr. Jonathan Steuer in the Journal of Communications is “the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time.” That is a far cry from simply letting the user read Mass Medium newspaper, magazines, or broadcast content that has been shoveled online.

Within the next ten years, most New Medium consumers will be receiving information from each’s choice of myriad broadcasters and publishers, perhaps too many for any individual consumer to name or even realize. (Early adopters of tag-driven XML, advanced RSS, and ‘peer-to-peer’ technologies have already begun making such use). Because these many consumers will be sharing content choices and control with all publisher and broadcasters, the New Medium serves not just a ‘one-to-one’ or ‘one-to-many’ medium but a ‘many-to-many’ one.

Publisher and broadcasters who don’t make full use of the New Medium will likely be left behind and wither during this new century.

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