Converging forms of communication? Interpersonal and mass mediated expressions in digital environments

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Converging forms of communication? Interpersonal and mass mediated expressions in digital environments

Until the second half of the 1990s, the differences between mass mediated and interpersonally mediated communication were relatively clear, and mass communication was the main analytical focus within studies of media and communication. Studies of mediated interpersonal communication such as letters and phone-calls gained less attention (although there were exceptions such as (Aronson, [1971] 1979; Fischer, 1988; Pool, 1977). E-mail and interpersonal, dyadic instant messages, sms/mms and phone-calls remain forms of media that support private communication between people (i.e. content is not generally accessible). However, the implementation of digital and network technology has increased possibilities to construct and publish content, available to anyone with access to the Internet: the individual has become a potential mass communicator. Similarly, mass media increasingly develop arenas where readers/users can express themselves. Letters to editors and call-ins have traditionally been of great importance (McNair et al., 2002), but digital technology opens up for more audience-generated content within the mass media. People are encouraged to share their thoughts and points of views: commenting online articles; texting strong opinions to TV-debates; and texting and sending camphone-photos to sms-based television shows (Beyer et al., in press).

Personal expressions (text, photos, videos or other creative content) are abundantly available online. In addition, collective arenas of communication, such as MetaFilter and Wikipedia have become popular. In a broader perspective, the totality of the Internet can be seen as a collective product: a gigantic arena of collaboration, which to a large degree is a result of non-institutional and non-professional contributions (a central argument of web 2.0 and long tail-discussions).

The above-described blurred boundaries between forms of communication and forms of media constitute the point of departure for this article. Are different forms of communication converging? Is the distinction between interpersonal and mass mediated communication still useful?

In the first part of the article I discuss the significance of media materialities as well as social negotiation for the transformation of communication forms. I also explicate the concept of communication by investigating practices of interaction, participation and integration. The development and public appropriation of digital technology has increased the visibility of the social significance of mediated interpersonal communication (e.g. the amount of attention given to computer-mediated communication as compared to previous research of letter-writing and phone-calls), and blurred the differences between interpersonal and mass-mediated communication (e.g. complicating Thompson’s differentiation between mediated and quasi-mediated interaction).

In the second part of the article, I analyse examples of conversations/discourses within personal and private weblogs, Underskog (a geographically specific social calendar combined web log for people in different cities in Norway), MetaFilter and reader-discussions following articles published in the online version of the Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet ( I discuss the character of the specific communication processes concerning aspects of interaction, participation and social integration.

The concluding part summarises the analysis, and pinpoints the nuances of the research questions presented above. The concept of convergence is initially of value in discussing the development of forms of communication such as the practice of private individuals functioning as potential mass communicators, and the increasing use of audience-generated content within mass media. However, the conversations, discourses and networks that are supported are very different despite an apparent blurring of boundaries of practices. The article illustrates how conceptualising forms of communication has become increasingly complex, yet still of central importance. While initially useful, the concept and meaning of convergence can easily disguise the very different character and social functions of discourses within for instance a private weblog, MetaFilter and audience-generated content within a mass media setting.

Methodological approach

The analyses of the four chosen examples are relatively brief and cannot be connected to either quantitative content analysis or qualitative text analysis, but comes closer to a structural analysis of the characteristics of threads regarding interaction, participation and integration. These concepts are discussed theoretically in the next part and operationalised in the analytical section of the article. Four cases were chosen as representing (yet not representative of) digital environments of personal, collaborative and mass media kinds. Data from qualitative interviews with 15 young Norwegians form an additional empirical basis in order to defend a focus on interaction in personal weblogs, as recent research indicates that commenting is not necessarily a significant part of weblogging practices.

Media materialities and social practices of communication

In the following part I discuss the significance and social appropriation of media technologies. I further look into social practices of interpersonal and mass mediated communication by theoretically expounding on the three variables of interaction, participation and integration. These qualities are employed in the subsequent empirical analysis aiming to elucidate if and how forms of communication are converging. As Scott E. Caplan illustrates, a number of scholars have already suggested that distinctions between interpersonal and mass communication are converging and that boundaries have become blurred as a result of emerging forms of computer-mediated communication (Caplan, 2001). Caplan suggests that a new system of hyperpersonal communication has materialized, which cannot be analysed with reference to either interpersonal or mass communication theories. According to Caplan, hyperpersonal communication systems are fundamentally different when it comes to the characteristics of message receivers (access only to restricted verbal and nonverbal cues), message senders (highly controlled self-presentations), and the message exchange process (un-constrained by time and space).

I have three objections to Caplan’s suggested third system of communication. Firstly, Walther’s original concept of hyperpersonal, a very useful concept per se, is hardly apt to describe a third system of communication, as it rather describes quality-aspects of communication (Walther, 1996). A distinction between mediated interpersonal communication and hyperpersonal communication is a fuzzy one, as mediated interpersonal communication often has hyperpersonal characteristics. Secondly, proposing a third system of communication seems to be an easy and un-necessary option instead of explaining the complex relationships that exists between forms of communication. Thirdly, a distinction between three separate systems of communication implies a danger of working against fruitful theoretical links between different disciplines of media and communication. As Patrick O’Sullivan argues, the dichotomy that exists between interpersonal and mass communication research is artificial and detrimental to the advancement of communication research as a whole (O'Sullivan, 1999). My approach in the following theoretical discussion cannot be limited to a specific research tradition. The intention is to focus on relevant aspects of theories that consider the mediated relationship between interacting parties as well as the social significance of various forms of communication (whether mass or interpersonally mediated).

Media materialities and social negotiation

One fundamental question that needs to be taken into account in a discussion of possible convergence-tendencies between forms of communication concerns the specific role of (media) technologies. Friedrich Kittler was an early proponent of the convergence-thesis, claiming that digital technologies erase the differences among individual media as any medium can be translated into any other thanks to the binary code structure of digital technologies (Kittler, [1986] 1999). There is clearly a media determinist premise in this argument. Suggesting that communication forms are converging is a logical next step and equally media determinist. Whether or not communication forms are converging, it is of vital importance to acknowledge the significance of media materialities in the development of communication practices. Media materialities are essentially determining for the semantic and social aspects of communication (Gane, 2005; Hutchby, 2001; Innis, 1951; Kittler, [1986] 1999; McLuhan, [1964] 1997). As Robert Cathcart and Gary Gumbert show, the role of the medium has especially been an ignored aspect of interpersonal communication:

“It is difficult to find an interpersonal communication text or resource book which treats the subject of the media as a significant factor. The role of the media in personal communication has, by and large, been overlooked” (Cathcart and Gumpert, 1986: 27).

Since then, the exponential growth of the Internet has had theoretical consequences for media studies overall, resulting in an increased focus on medium theory and the role of specific media technologies in communication processes (Holmes, 2005).

Recognising the importance of the materiality of (media) technologies does not automatically imply a technological determinist position if combined with a more hermeneutic model of technological development: technology develops in social, political, engineering and economic environments and derives its full meaning from our appropriation, interpretations and experience of it [e.g.] (Barnet, 2003; Feenberg, 1999; Holmes, 2005; Lüders, 2006b). A combined socio-technical approach has become common and conceivably normative for constructivist sociology of technology. A fundamental theoretical contribution comes from Wiebe E. Bijker and Trevor Pinch’s argument about flexible interpretations of technological artefacts. Technical principles alone cannot explain the success or failure of technical artefacts but have to be considered in relation to negotiating processes between social groups (e.g. designers, developers, customers) (Pinch and Bijker, 1989). Technological development is as such socially constructed. In a related vein actor-network theory maintains that technology can only be comprehended by studying the relations between nodes or actants. As such actor-network theory can be described as a semiotic method emphasising the study of the symmetry between human and non-human actants in practices (Latour, 1992).

The extensive use of digital personal media for social purposes is mirrored in widespread research [e.g.] (Bargh et al., 2002; Baym and Zhang, 2004; Boase et al., 2006; Haythornthwaite, 2002; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Lüders, 2006a; Tidwell and Walther, 2002). Interpersonal communication processes and media-technologies used for interpersonal communication can no longer be said to be under-researched. With its focus on converging forms of communication, this article is situated at the outskirts of interpersonal communication research. Interestingly the Internet as a underlying media technology facilitates mass media forms as well as personal media forms, yet mass communication and interpersonal communication regularly cross the borders between mass media and personal media (Lüders, 2006b)1. The communicative environments still differ considerably when it comes to social implications and the character of interaction, and neither technology nor specific media forms neutrally facilitate communication processes. Bluntly and boldly stated, the exact something cannot be expressed through a letter, a text-message, an e-mail and a weblog.


A premise for discussing possible converging tendencies between interpersonal and mass communication, is that there at least has existed a distinction. The key-word to explore in this context is interaction. In a classical mass communication model, there is no symmetrical interaction between senders and receivers. This has been called ‘para-social interaction’ by Donald Horton and Richard R. Wohl or ‘mediated quasi-interaction’ by John Thompson (Horton and Wohl, [1956] 1979; Thompson, 1995; Thompson, 2005).

The interaction, characteristically, is one-sided, nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible of mutual development. There are, of course, ways in which the spectators can make their feelings known to the performer and the technicians who design the programs, but these lie outside the para-social interaction itself (Horton and Wohl, [1956] 1979: 33).

Horton and Wohl make an apparently obvious yet still very important observation, which becomes especially relevant as digital personal media are increasingly used to initiate contact between members of the audience (horizontally) and between members of the audience and performers in mass media (vertically): interpersonal interaction may take place within a mass mediated environment (e.g. a chat on the TV screen) or outside (e.g. e-mails to a program-host), yet it is questionable whether this changes the fundamental asymmetrical relationship between mass media institutions and the audience.

Mass mediated forms of communication give an illusion of intimacy and friendship (Cathcart and Gumpert, 1986; Meyrowitz, 1986; Thompson, 1995). Mediated interpersonal communication, e.g. a telephone conversation, is traditionally much more symmetrical. The relationship between forms of communication and forms of media are, however, not clear-cut. Although electronic and print media have mainly been used for mass communication purposes, this is by no means due to essential characteristics of mass media technologies:

The term “mass”, however, is not intrinsic to media. It is a characteristic of only some media, such as the electronic media, that are extremely efficient delivery systems for bringing messages to huge, undifferentiated audiences. Any of today’s “mass” media could be utilized for “non-mass” purposes, such as point-to-point communication, e.g., a “ham” radio operator talking to a friend on the other side of the world (Gumpert and Cathcart, [1979] 1986: 13).

Letters can similarly be tokens of interpersonal relationships or formal and standardised information sent out to an unfamiliar mass of receivers (Thayer, [1979] 1986). Lee Thayer argues that it is the use of the medium which is decisive for whether a given medium is a communication medium or a mass communication medium (ibid: 42-43) (an argument which situates Thayer as a scholar with an instrumental perspective on technology). The widespread appropriation of digital technology has blurred the distinction between mass communication and interpersonal communication and emphasised even more strongly that there is no easy and straightforward connection between (inter)personal communication and personal media on the one hand, and mass communication and mass media on the other hand. (Lüders, 2006b). Media forms such as e-mail or web-logs are used for both mass communication and interpersonal communication and can consequently be said, using Thompson’s choice of concepts, to facilitate both mediated and mediated quasi-interaction. Hence a central question which will be addressed in the analysis concerns how to understand the characteristics of relationships in public and semi-public mediated forms of interaction. In any case, mediated communication (whether mass or interpersonally mediated) has to be understood and discussed in the context of appropriate technological realities and not compared to a (still dominant) face-to-face conversation ideal (e.g. Avery and McCain, [1982] 1986; Moores, 2005: 81-83). It makes little sense to argue that mediated interaction is inferior to face-to-face interaction with reference to a lack of a full phenomenologically experienced presence and less reciprocity between communicants. Computer mediated communication is still not as rich in cue systems as face-to-face communication, but contrary to earlier perspectives on social presence, social context cues and information richness, recent research proves mediated interaction to be very personal, dealing with significant issues and fostering real social relationships (for discussions of media richness and “cues-filtered-out” perspectives, see Berger, 2005; Fortunati, 2005; Haythornthwaite and Wellman, 1998; Hu et al., 2004; Tanis and Postmes, 2003; Walther, 1996; Walther et al., 2005).

Social integration

Personal media facilitate the maintenance and construction of social networks and relationships between individual users (e.g. Baym and Zhang, 2004; Boase et al., 2006; Haythornthwaite, 2002; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Lüders, 2006a). Consequently, a discussion of communication and interaction needs to consider the social or ritual functions of communication. As the interactional roles and relationships differ significantly between interpersonal and mass mediated forms of communication, the ritual significance is also likely to differ. However, this is not to imply that quasi-social relationships typical of mass communication do not have real social significance. Mass communication is an essential part of the social symbolic process of constructing and maintaining reality and the representation of (sometimes illusory) shared beliefs (Carey, 1989). As David Holmes emphasises, broadcast media have an essential social integration role despite an apparent lack of direct or symmetrical interaction (Holmes, 2005). Instead mass mediated integration relies heavy on audience identification and recognition. Brent D. Ruben similarly argues that the study of communication is the study of human individual and collective symbolic integration: it is how we come to know and be in relationship with our world both in terms of personal intracommunication as well as interpersonal and mass communication (Ruben, 1986). Hence, communication cannot be fully comprehended simply by focusing upon interaction in the form of source, message and receiver (ibid. 142).

How then, can the social functions of communication-processes be examined? The ritual perspective on communication is vital in the following analyses, although first some of its implicit views on communality and communication have to be refined. Interaction-based perspectives and ritual perspectives on communication have a common fundamental danger of romanticizing communication as facilitating sharing, communality and understanding between individuals (Chang, 1996; Peters, 1999). If communication and interaction is seen to enable to close the gap between solitary subjects and a transcendence of difference, the difficulties of communication are not taken seriously into account. Theoretical communication models do actually include the importance of interpretation (Eco, 1977; Hall, [1973] 1999; Luhmann, [1996] 2000), yet a stronger emphasis of the problem and perhaps impossibility of shared understandings is valuable. From a ritual perspective on the other hand, we communicate not so much to share information, but because of human needs for fraternity. Mass communication facilitates a sense of belonging, security and community (Holmes, 2005: 123). Hence, this intersubjective position, implying a kind of transcendental ideal, is a common problem and peril of both interaction and ritual views: communication is to overcome the distances between us. John Durham Peters manages to articulate the conundrum and the blessing of communication, describing dialogue as two people taking turns broadcasting at each other, whereas dissemination covers forms of communication where messages are cast out, not aimed at specific others and with less chance of obtaining replies (Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Peters, 1999). By this Peters suggests that face-to-face talk is just as laced with gaps as distant (mediated) communication. There is nothing wrong with broadcasting per se as a form of communication, but Peters reminds us that there is always an abyss between us, and communication is merely our hope to bridge this abyss. Yet Peters appears to be an advocate of human reciprocity and the ritual significance of human relationships, arguing that communication is not about the sharing of truths. Communication is a significant quality of human existence as it proves the importance of significant others in our lives, but it does not imply a transcendental meeting of minds.


The expansion of means does not lead to the expansion of minds (Peters, 1999), and modern individuals seem to have basic everyday needs for an arsenal of personal and mass media. These needs are a fundamental part of human life. We use media to communicate and maintain social relationships, and the use of media has integrating functions (diversified integration into different and varying sub-cultures will not be discussed here). However, the concepts of interaction and integration do not suffice as analytical tools of digital communication forms. An analysis of the relationship between interpersonal and mass mediated forms of communication becomes more nuanced if including a discussion of the notion of participation, and moreover an examination of the relationship between participation, interaction and integration. Participation is here used in a non-normative sense, i.e. merely referring to non-professional partaking in mediated environments without an explicit focus on deliberative democratic theories.

It must be noted that layperson participation in mass media have a long history (McNair et al., 2002; Wincour, 2003; Ytreberg, 2004). In radio and television formats which include audience call-ins, performances are formatted: non-professional participants are expected to meet requirements of performance connected with the format (Ytreberg, 2004: 689). The contrast to user-comments in certain digital media-forms is considerable as there appears to be a lack of interest and ability for editorial screening of expressions before publication. The 2005 revision of the Code of Ethics of the Norwegian Press is a telling example. The increasing amount of user-generated content led to a discussion of whether these contributions should be edited before being published. The board in the Norwegian Press Association decided not to include such a paragraph into the Code of Ethics, but emphasised that editors have a responsibility for removing contributions that break with good press-ethics. Using the words of Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, the Norwegian media system can hence be said to follow a “publish, then filter” model attempting “to amplify the signal-to-noise ratio, separating the meaningful information frorm the chatter” (Bowman and Willis, 2003: 18).

Whether motivation is idealistic or commercial (or both), there is little doubt that mass media institutions see increased user-participation as vital in their future development. A forceful web 2.0 discourse focusing on catchphrases such as ‘collective intelligence’, ‘architecture of participation’ and social software (O'Reilly, 2005) is taken seriously by the media industry. One of the main tasks in the below analysis is to examine the relationship between participation and interaction, and to indicate the ritual significance of this these practices. Can some of these practices be described as participation without interaction, i.e. close to Peters’ concept of dissemination (messages being cast out, not aimed at specific others and with less chance of obtaining replies)? Also, considering the heterogeneous and relatively larger audience of online newspapers, will participation here suffer especially from lack of interaction and reciprocity between participants?

The discussion so far has focussed on communication in terms of interaction, social relationships, sharing and participation. As a result, despite the above warnings about excessively romantic perspectives, communication appears too restrictedly concerned about human social needs and creating connections. Clearly this is a significant part, but it may overshadow individual expressive needs. We express ourselves as a way of being in the world. Our expressions are then responded to or not, and interpreted or misinterpreted. Practices of being in the world clearly has social motivations and implications, yet it is essential not to reduce individual expressions to be solely concerned about sociability.

In the next part I analyse how conversations in different digital media forms differ when it comes to characteristics of interaction, participation and integration.

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