Analysing Digital Culture 101: The Impact of New Media
Nowadays, media are so present in our everyday life that we tend not to notice their influence and power anymore. Because of this, the Analysing Digital Culture series explores the key approaches to the analysis of new-media and reflects on their social and cultural significance from different theoretical perspectives. The series touches on some of the most popular debates on digital media such as their economy, their emancipatory and limiting power, the content recommendation systems, the circulation of memes and viral content, and the selfies culture.
Analyzing Digital Culture 101 will be divided into the following chapters:
Digital Culture 101: The Impact of New Media
Digital Culture 101: Media and Democracy
Digital Culture 101: Online Business Models
Digital Culture 101: Recommendation Systems
Digital Culture 101: Cultural Meaning of Memes
Digital Culture 101: The Attention Economy
Digital Culture 101: The Impact of New Media
The field of media studies struggled for a while before starting to be considered worth researching and studying. McQuail and Deuze (2020) explain in their book that for a long time the common thought has been that media was mere entertainment and as such it was a topic not important enough to be approached in an academic way. Thanks to academics like Marshall McLuhan (1966) who defined media as extensions of the human body in his work titled "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" the power of media to influence everyday life was given more thought. As a matter of fact, McQuail & Deuze (2020) explain that today it is acknowledged that very little is left outside of media: from smartphones to television and books our lives are impregnated with media. With time, the types of media pervading our lives has changed and today they mainly consist of data and content. The more modern media are defined as “new media” to distinguish them from “mass media” that address the audience as one singular unit, such as television and radio (McQuail & Deuze, 2020). New media are much more specific and personal. Not only do they include the direct participation of the audience but they also mediate our perception of time and space, by influencing our world view. New media alters our perception, values and relationships by influencing reality, every individual, and society.
New media's influence on our perception of the world
An example of media's deep effects on reality is their contribution to the contemporary perception of time. In the 21st century, temporality of daily life is structured very differently from the one of the second half of the 20th century. Back in the day, time was perceived through tv programs. Morning entertainment was addressed to women who were at home taking care of chores, while evening programs were based on what was considered as the men’s general interests (McQuail & Deuze, 2020). Today temporality is structured by media in two levels with the very interesting promises of being “24/7” available for us and providing the “real timeness” of events. Crary (2017) explains that the term “24/7” refers to the constant provision and production of content that aims at earning as much attention as possible at whatever time of the day, since in capitalism attention becomes a currency. The writer uses this term also to address our attention to digital media products, which is pushed to its limits. The movie titled Her (2013) is focusing precisely on this idea of a limitless presence of media in our life to the point where the protagonist has the desire to create a romantic and intimate relationship with an artificially intelligent voice. Despite the movie portrays a fictional and exaggerated relationship between humans and media, it discusses an existing issue which is the infinite and 'always-on' culture of the artificial digital media products (Crary, 2017). As a matter of fact, in real life this can be seen in the rise of remote jobs that thanks to technology can be done anywhere and at any time (Grover et al, 2022). However, always being able to work does not match with the physical finitude of human beings and can result in an overwhelming amount of work and absence of personal space and time. In fact, the finitude of human life is one of the barriers that the 24/7 culture of digital media cannot overcome (Crary, 2017). Because of its many limits, humans will never be able to compete with the ability of the machinic timeless time. Also, Crary (2017) explains that the concept of ’real-timeless’ indicates how computers receive data and give output or response back to their user in a short amount of time. This concept has been created by the media and it also addresses the live social activities and events that happen in our world that are mediated through media platforms; in other words, it consists of the experience of the now. Even if today different ways of delivering content live exist, television keeps trying to capture attention by insisting on the idea of having privileged access to the live (McQuail & Deuze, 2020). However, as Weltervrede (2014) explains in her essay titled "The Politics of Real-time: A Device Perspective on Social Media Platforms and Search Engines", real time cannot be considered flat, linear, or singular because depending on the delay of reception of the audience multiple "real times" are created.
The big changes in our perception of time caused by the media are only part of the effects they have on reality. According to John Durham Peters’s (2015) understanding of media “and/as nature,” the concepts of “media” and “environment” become virtually interchangeable because media are embedded in nature and became part of our environment. Peters’s theory considers media as natural and cultural "modes of being" that constantly shape who we are and how we act; at the same time. Today's environment includes cars, cell towers, screens, televisions, computers, and phones because they are elements that we are used to see in our surroundings everyday. Nowadays so many of our actions include their use that media's use became essential and natural to satisfy basic needs such as working or meeting friends. As a consequence of this phenomenon, they also become invisible in many people's eyes, as water might be invisible to fishes (Peters, 2015). With this metaphore, Peters (2015) means that we are used to media as much as fishes are used to water; we use them so often that we tend to not notice and think about them anymore, as fishes might not think about water everytime they swim. However, the film Lo and Behold (2016) shows that this is not always the case. In the documentary the people interviewed discuss their reaction to wireless radiation, described to be the cause of their suffering. Despite the fact that their statements have no scientific basis, many of them explain how this started with the explosion of the use of cell phones and the consequent installation of cell towers. This points out that some people are immune to this disappearance of media in our environment because their integration in it makes them live a life of distress and pain.
New media's influence on individuals
Peter-Paul Verbeek (2011) explains that every technology plays an active role in shaping people's thoughts and decisions. He explains that technologies are not mere instruments but important tools that have moral significance and mediate our perception of things. Verbeek claims that every type of technology does more than fulfilling its function because it shapes what we do, how we experience the world, and mediates our morality. Consequently, every time there's a technological innovation we should not fall into the simplistic question of whether it is bad or good; instead, we should explore how it affects our norms and values. As a matter of fact, technologies interfere with our behaviour and persuade us to change it. According to Verbeek, the reason for this is that morality is always built into technology. He argues that every tool has affordances, scripts, and nudges. Affordances consist of the design that allows users to act or do something; scripts indicate the design that encodes particular norms and values; while nudges are non-inhibiting encoded scripts that push people towards a certain use without forcing them.
If we apply Verbeek's theory to a new media example like Amazon's Alexa, we can see that the affordances of this service consist of a virtual assistant that you can ask questions to and get answered. In Alexa's case, the scripts include the hierarchy established by the tool that makes the user demand and Alexa obey. These scripts also present encoded nudges that in Alexa lean towards sexism and racism. The reason for this is explained by Ian Bogost (2018) in The Atlantic. The writer explains that the choice to give Alexa a female voice and name with white traits establishes the robot as an “obedient female presence, eager to carry out tasks and requests.” This is a similar case to the movie Her (2013) where the protagonist Theodore falls in love with an AI named Samantha that has a white female voice given by the American actress Scarlett Johansson. The important difference between Samantha and Alexa is that in Theodore's case the AI's gender and origin can be chosen. As Bogost (2018) explains, Alexa's users do not have the option to give it a Jamaican accent or a male voice. This is problematic because it reinforces the ideas of white supremacy and male dominance. Nevertheless, since Verbeek pushes us to analyse in depth the moral significance of technology, it also has to be mentioned that Alexa's scripts could be read as a solution to the needs of blind people. The nudges of this service can help promote this type of service for those who need it. In both cases, the application of Verbeek's theory on new media like Alexa proves that media can have a strong influence on our lives.
New media's influence on society
The transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 has been particularly impactful because it deeply changed society and the way people relate to each other. Tim O'Reilly (2005) considers it a real paradigm shift, so a very important step in evolution that altered our view of the world. New media are considered to be born with the creation of Web 2.0, so the internet as we know it today (Kenton, 2022). With the creation of the world wide web concepts like 'information universe' or 'virtual community' gave birth to the digital culture we live in today, despite it keeps evolving every day (Stevenson, 2018). The term 'information universe' addresses the endless gathering of highly organized and automated information that was made possible by the internet and available to everyone. This deeply transformed how knowledge is produced and managed. Today the internet is the major source of information we have, and whoever has a computer or a smartphone can access an endless amount of data. The internet search engine Google claimed that its purpose is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ (Stevenson, 2018). Today social media has a similar role of educating and spreading information. Grover (2022) explains that once a post is published users try to understand and learn from it, either by observing other people’s actions or by actively participating. Today Google and social media’s presence has become so dominating over alternative offline sources of information that whoever does not possess such devices is disfavored and incapacitated to carry out basic actions, and even marginalized.
The term 'virtual community' addresses the gathering of people and the thatexchange of ideas and practices in a virtual space which is differentiated from the offline world. Stevenson (2018) explains that with social media many of our social interactions and activities were moved to a virtual plan. This concept is visible in Facebook’s mission “to create a ‘social graph’ [...] a universal mapping of social relationships” (Stevenson, 2018). This is done in order to put in contact people with similar interests but from different places, and overcome geographical limits. In his letter to the platform users, Zuckerberg claims that “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.” On top of interconnecting people from all over the world, the virtual community also raised a sense of participation and collaboration by giving users the possibility to share and comment, making themselves heard. This promoted the development of global culture, so shared practices and beliefs by people coming from different countries (Johnson, 2017). The phenomenon of changes in personal preferences and beliefs caused by the contact with people with different cultures and backgrounds is described by Grover et al (2022) as acculturation. The rise of global culture and acculturation has been facilitated by the feature of social media called hashtags. Hashtag indicates the symbol # followed by a keyword generated by the user and it is a system that gathers different users' opinions on one topic (Grover et al, 2022). As a matter of fact, thanks to hashtags and many other features, today social media give voice to people and promote intercultural discussion and understanding (Johnson, 2017).
By reading theories from different media scholars, it becomes clear that the media strongly mediate reality and our perception of it, our thoughts and values, and how we relate to other people. Our understanding of time and space has been changed by the always-on culture that consists of being constantly active everywhere we are. As a result of this, human finitude is pushed to its limits and put in distress (Crary, 2017). The multiple new media that we use every day and without which we could not satisfy basic human needs also altered the environment because today they are incorporated in it (Peters, 2015). According to Verbeek’s (2011) theory, media can reshape our thoughts and values in different ways, depending on the types of features they have. The reason for this is that every technology always has embedded moral values. New media also altered how society is structured. Not only they reorganized how knowledge is stored and spread, but they also created a new culture and new ways for people to connect and gather (Grover et al, 2022; Johnson, 2017). These points prove that media are not just tools we use to entertain ourselves but rather a constant influencing presence that shapes our lives.
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