In recent decades, DEFINING AND REDEFINING MASS COMMUNICATION the number and variety of mass communication theories have steadily increased. Media theory has emerged as a more or less independent body of thought in both the social science and humanistic literatures.
This is intendedas a guide to this diverse and sometimes contradictory thinking. You will find ideas developed by scholars in every area of the social sciences, from history and anthropology to sociology and psychology. Ideas have also been drawn from the humanities, especially from philosophy and literary analysis. The resulting ferment of ideas is both challenging and heuristic. These theories provide the raw materials for constructing even more useful and powerful theoretical perspectives.
If you are looking for a concise, definitive definition of theory, you won’t find it in this book. We have avoided narrow definitions of theory in favor of an inclusive approach that finds value in most systematic, scholarly efforts to make sense of media and their role in society. We have included recent theories that some contemporary researchers consider unscientific. Some of the theories reviewed are grand; they try to explain entire media systems and their role in society. Others are very small and provide narrower insight into specific uses or effects of media.
Our selection of theories for inclusion in this book is based partly on their enduring historical importance and partly on their potential to contribute to future scholarship. This process is necessarily subjective and is based on our own understanding of mass communication. Our consideration of contemporary perspectives is focused on those that illustrate enduring or innovative conceptualizations. But before we embark on that consideration, we need to offer definitions of some important concepts.
When an organization employs a technology as a medium to communicate with a large audience, mass communication is said to have occurred. The professionals at the New York Times (an organization) use printing presses and the newspaper (technology and medium) to reach their readers (a large audience). The writers, producers, filmmakers, and other professionals at the Cartoon Network use various audio and video technologies, satellites, cable television, and home receivers to communicate with their audience. Warner Brothers places ads in magazines to tell readers what movies it is releasing. But as you no doubt know—and as you’ll be reminded constantly throughout this text—the mass communication environment is changing quite radically. When you receive a piece of direct-mail advertising addressed to you by name, and in which your name is used throughout, you are an audience of one—not the large audience envisioned in traditional notions of mass communication.
When you sit at your computer and send an e-mail to twenty thousand people who have signed on to a Listserv dedicated to a particular subject, you are obviously communicating with a large audience, but you are not an organization in the sense of a newspaper, cable television network, or movie studio. The availability of lightweight, portable, inexpensive video equipment, combined with the development of easy-to-use Internet video sites like YouTube, makes it possible for an “everyday” person like you to be a television writer and producer, reaching audiences numbering in the tens of millions.
Although most theories we will study in this text were developed before our modern communications revolution, they are not useless or outmoded. But we must remember that much has changed in how people use technologies to communicate. One useful way to do this is to think of mediated communication as existing on a continuum that stretches from interpersonal communication at one end to traditional forms of mass communication at the other. Where different media fall along this continuum depends on the amount of control and involvement people have in the communication process. The telephone, for example (the phone as traditionally understood—not the one you might own that has Internet access, GPS, and some 500 other “killer apps”), sits at one end. It is obviously a communication technology, but one that is most typical of interpersonal communication:
At most, a very few people can be involved in communicating at any given time, and they have a great deal of involvement with and control over that communication. The conversation is theirs, and they determine its content. A big-budget Hollywood movie or a network telecast of the Super Bowl sits at the opposite pole. Viewers have limited control over the communication that occurs. Certainly, people can apply idiosyncratic interpretations to the content before them, and they can choose to direct however much attention they wish to the screen. They can choose to actively seek meaning from media content, or they can choose to passively decode it. But their control and involvement cannot directly alter the content of the messages being transmitted. Message content is centrally controlled by media organizations.
As you’ll see when we examine the more contemporary mass communication theories, new communication technologies are rapidly filling in the middle of the continuum between the telephone and television. Suddenly, media consumers have the power to alter message content if they are willing to invest the time and have the necessary skill and resources. Audiences can be active in ways that are hard to anticipate, and the consequences of this activity may not be understood for decades to come.
The instant popularity of downloading music from the Internet demonstrates that a generation of young adults is willing to invest the time, acquire the skills, and purchase the technology necessary to take greater control over the music they consume. We have seen this process play out even more recently, and possibly even more dramatically, with the overnight success of video and social networking websites like YouTube and Facebook, and we’ll surely see it repeated again and again as we actively engage the technologies that allow us to create and control media content that is important to us. As this happens, there will be profound consequences for our personal lives, the media industries, and the larger social world.
As communication theorists Steven Chaffee and Miriam Metzger explain, “Contemporary media allow for a greater quantity of information transmission and retrieval, place more control over both content creation and selection in the hands of their users, and do so with less cost to the average consumer” (2001, p. 369). Technology writer Dan Gilmor (2004) explained the situation more succinctly when he wrote that the world is now populated by “people formerly known as the audience.”