After a lengthy discussion with @amcunningham and @kevfrost on Twitter last night, I’d thought I’d tackle what I believe “social media” to be. Let me first say that I am not a Professor of Communications Theory, and therefore my “reading around” the subject is minimal. However, it’d be nice to just share my thoughts with you.
Our discussions first took us to a paper about “mediated communication” and its definition. The authors believe it to be this:
Communication that involves a process by which a message, or communication, is transmitted via some form or medium.
Pardon their repetition of the word “communication” in that one! They also continue to say that “unmediated” communication is:
Any type of communication that is not transferred with the assistance of a third party.
The article continues to describe a scenario whereby two people talking to each other would be unmediated. However, if it were to be written down, given to another person to pass on, or given over the telephone then this would be mediated. This description made me think of a linear model of communication, which I later found out to be the “Aristotelian View of Communication”:
Here, Aristotle uses the word “rhetoric” to describe the communication medium. If you think in this way, you’re in good company! However, I’m still not convinced. Is communication really that linear? Do you listen and not then process the rhetoric in your own mind to pass on to others? My belief on communication means matches this paper by Davis Foulger (2004) who describes an “ecological model”. I’d definitely recommend reading at least some of Foulger’s thoughts. Here, I’ve slightly adapted his model to suit this discussion:
The model describes the two roles of creator(s) and consumer(s) who both imagine and create, and observe, attribute and interpret messages. The message is embedded within media, which is “codified” by language(s). The consumer(s) may provide feedback when they reply or pass on the message to others, and have a perspective on or “relationship” with creator(s). In this cyclical exchange, language(s) and media continue to evolve through the social interactions of the two parties. For clarity, I’ve also added in an environment(s) “wrapper” which could be the physical world, or a digital platform such as Twitter or Facebook.
Foulger continues to assert some “propositions” of which I believe the first is the most telling: all communication is mediated. Totally agree. In the Aristotelian View it is hard for me to imagine any form of communication that will not subsequently be written down, or transformed in any way by the listener(s). Even if the rhetoric is intended for a sole person, how it affects them will probably relate in triggering another communication event. So, how is this word “social media” different to this take on communication? I don’t think it is, much. However, what the tools afforded by “social media” do provide is an enhanced way for creator(s) and consumer(s) to embed their messages, to provide feedback, and also to forge relationships. Consider some of Foulger’s other propositions: 5.2 states that “the medium shapes the possibilities associated with a message” which is true of digital as well as analogue media; 4.2 which states that “messages are an approximation of the meaning a creator of messages intends”; and, 4.3 which states that “interpretation of the messages consumed from a medium is approximate”. What this says to me is that once the initial message has been shared, it becomes a “copy” of itself when next exchanged. Thus, its intended meaning may change. That is why I made the word “message” plural in the diagram.
Finally, to me the “social media” debate is one around the affordances of media rather than providing any ground-breaking theories behind communication. So, “social media” provides “new” means to enable feedback, relationships, and message-passing between creator(s) and consumer(s). With that in mind, I do believe that the paternalistic Aristotelian View of communication is becoming increasingly outdated in that the lines are blurred between creator(s) and consumer(s). What do you think?
Edit: I guess I could’ve gone into Shannon’s (1948) “Mathematical Theory of Communication” or Shannon and Weaver’s (1963) “Mathematical Theory of Communication” and related model. The model extends the Aristotelian View but still depicts a linear communication process which fails to satisfy the affordances of modern technologies. But, another time.