Our description of the eras of mass communication theory begins with a review of some of the earliest thinking about media. These ideas were initially developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, at a time when rapid development of large factories in urban areas was drawing more and more people from rural areas to cities. At the same time, ever more powerful printing presses allowed the creation of newspapers that could be sold at declining prices to rapidly growing populations of readers. Although some theorists were optimistic about the future that would be created by industrialization, urban expansion, and the rise of print media, many were extremely pessimistic (Brantlinger, 1983). They blamed industrialization for disrupting peaceful, rural communities and forcing people to live in urban areas merely to serve as a convenient workforce in large factories, mines, or bureaucracies. These theorists were fearful of cities because of their crime, cultural diversity, and unstable political systems. For these social thinkers, mass media symbolized everything that was wrong with nineteenth-century urban life. They singled out media for virulent criticism and accused them of pandering to lower-class tastes, fomenting political unrest, and subverting important cultural norms. Most theorists were educated elites who feared what they couldn’t understand. The old social order was crumbling, and so were its culture and politics. Were media responsible for this, or did they simply accelerate or aggravate these changes?
The dominant perspective on media and society that emerged during this period has come to be referred to as mass society theory. It is an inherently contradictory theory rooted in nostalgia for a “golden age” of rural community life that never existed, and it anticipates a nightmare future where we all lose our individuality and become servants to the machines. Some version of mass society theory seems to recur in every generation as we try to reassess where we are and where we are going as individuals and as a nation wedded to technology as the means of improving the quality of our lives. Each new version of mass society theory has its criticisms of contemporary media. It is surprising that the Internet has not yet become the focus of a new version of mass society theory. These criticisms do exist, but they have not yet become popular in the way that complaints about television, radio, movies, newspapers, even comic books, came to dominate public discourse in previous eras. Perhaps this is a sign that mass society notions have ceased to be relevant. Or more likely, the Internet is still relatively new and its threats to social order are still too ambiguous to be taken seriously by elites.
Thus, mass society theory can be regarded as a collection of conflicting notions developed to make sense of what was happening as industrialization allowed big cities to spring up and expand. Mass society notions came from both ends of the political spectrum. Some were developed by people who wanted to maintain the old political order, and others were created by revolutionaries who wanted to impose radical changes. But these ideological foes often shared at least one assumption—mass media were troublesome if not downright dangerous. In general, mass society ideas held strong appeal for any social elite whose power was threatened by change. Media industries, such as the penny press in the 1830s or yellow journalism in the 1890s, were easy targets for elites’ criticisms. They catered to readers in the working and other lower social classes using simple, often sensational content. These industries were easily attacked as symptomatic of a sick society— a society needing to either return to traditional, fundamental values or be forced to adopt a set of totally new values fostered by media. Many intense political conflicts strongly affected thinking about the mass media, and these conflicts shaped the development of mass society theory.
An essential argument of mass society theory is that media subvert and disrupt the existing social order. But media are also seen as a potential solution to the chaos they engender. They can serve as a powerful tool that can be used to either restore the old order or institute a new one. But who should be trusted to use this tool? Should established authorities be trusted to control media—to produce or censor media content? Should media be freely operated by private entrepreneurs whose primary goal is to make money? Should radical, revolutionary groups be given control over media so they can pursue their dreams of creating an ideal social order? At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, fierce debate erupted over these questions. This conflict often pitted traditional elites, whose power was based on an agrarian society, against urban elites, whose power was increasingly based on industrialization and urbanization.
Among these elites, the most powerful were those who controlled the factories and other forms of industrialization. They have come to be referred to as capitalists, because their power was based on the profits they generated and then reinvested. In time, these urban elites gained enormous influence over social change. They strongly favored all forms of technological development, including mass media. In their view, technology was inherently good because it facilitated control over the physical environment, expanded human productivity, and generated new forms of material wealth. They argued that technology would bring an end to social problems and lead to the development of an ideal social world. Newspapers would create an informed electorate that would choose the best political leaders; the telegraph would bind together diverse, contentious communities into a strong and stable union; and the telephone would improve the efficiency of business so that everyone would benefit. But in the short term, industrialization brought with it enormous problems— exploitation of workers, pollution, and social unrest.
Today, the fallacies of both the critics and advocates of technology are readily apparent. Mass society notions greatly exaggerated the ability of media to quickly undermine social order, just as media advocates exaggerated their ability to create an ideal social order. These ideas failed to consider that media’s power ultimately resides in the freely chosen uses that audiences make of it. All mass society thinkers were unduly paternalistic and elitist in their views of average people and the ability of media to have powerful effects on them. Those who feared media exaggerated their power to manipulate the masses and the likelihood they would bring inevitable social and cultural ruin. Technology advocates were also misguided and failed to acknowledge the many unnecessary, damaging consequences that resulted from applying technology without adequately anticipating its impact.