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Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Individual in Communication Research: Part V

This is the fifth and final part of a series tracing the history of how the idea of the "individual" has been understood in the history of media research. In this part, I discuss the advent of the digital age, and how it subsequently resulted in a theoretical crisis - as scholars struggled to understand the new connections being forged between the people and disruptive technologies.

Read part 1 here.
Read part 2 here.
Read part 3 here.
Read part 4 here.


 A Brave New World: The “Individual” and the Digital

The digital revolution and the rise of the internet towards the end of the 20th century provides us with the next big setting to debate the lingering “problem of the individual”, and its relationship with new media technologies.

One tangible effect that the irruption of the internet has had is the proliferation of information outlets and the rise of new actors. Despite the skepticism of some commentators (Hindman, 2009; Hindman, Tsioutsiouliklis, & Johnson, 2003), this change has brought scholarly focus on what is called the “paradox of profusion” (Neuman, 2016). On the one hand, the internet has led to an explosion in the number of media outlets available to individuals for consumption. On the other hand, as human beings, individuals suffer from some innate cognitive limitations and psychological biases that prevent them from making full use of this wide spectrum of sources. The debate can also be reframed as one which considers the drive of human agency in the face of a changing media structure. Any attempt to understand the social dynamics of media effects in this “new” media environment thus requires an approach that is structurationist in nature (Giddens, 1984; see also J. G. Webster, 2014, Chapter 6); one that borrows key ideas from both subjectivism as well as objectivism, but more importantly discards the subjectivist’s lack of social context and the objectivist’s focus on isolated structures.

A large body of scholarly work has pondered over the relative importance of structure and agency in understanding the relationship between the “new” media and the individual. Early proponents of the internet included techno-optimists like Nicholas Negroponte and Yochai Benkler who celebrated the internet as a platform with immense liberating potential (Benkler, 2006; Negroponte, 1995). Others however, like the legal scholar Cass Sunstein espoused a more cautionary view, and warned about how harmful such a personalized space could become (2001). The debate has changed a lot since then, but has also, at its core remained the same. The unprecedented rise of social networking and the ubiquity of digital marketing has only fanned the discussion along and given birth to new jargon: echo chambers, filter bubbles, and algorithmic curation – among others. The overarching general question however remained: what does the internet mean to the individual, and what effects does the “new media” environment have on them?

A useful starting point for theorizing about media effects in changing media environments is the concept of a “media regime”. A media regime is, to borrow the definition of Bruce Williams and Michael Delli Carpini “a historically specific, relatively stable set of institutions, norms, processes, and actors that shape the expectations and practices of media producers and consumers.” (2011, Chapter 2). The changing regime results in different ways in which people get exposed to media, intentionally or otherwise. During the golden age of network television for example, people got exposed to news just by turning on the television every evening, irrespective of whether they wanted to see the news or not. The advent of cable television led to fears that because of the choices now available to them, individuals would turn away from news and focus on other programming instead. This led scholars to debate over what should be considered politically relevant information in this “post-broadcast democracy” (Prior, 2007). Williams and Delli Carpini suggested that the various lines between genres of media (for instance, between news and entertainment) were blurring, that the differences between them had never been theoretically useful, and that “if the real and potential political impact of non-news media is acknowledged, then the media regime defining the discursive environment we live in must include norms and rules that can apply across a range of media and genres, and that work to enhance their democratic utility”  (2011, Chapter 2).

The same features that had characterized the transition from network television to cable, are even more pronounced in the case of the internet. The proliferation of media outlets have led to concerns that audiences – in a throwback to Festinger (1957) and selective exposure theory (Zillman & Bryant, 1985) – would begin to fragment and that individuals would only expose themselves to the kind of media outlets they favor. This can potentially reduce the “common space” for deliberation that several theories consider central to the smooth functioning of a democracy (Calhoun, 1992; Habermas, 1962) and have several harmful effects on the political process at large. The “media effects” of such an environment, would not just happen at an individual level, but also, more insidiously, at a societal level (MacDougall, 2005; Margolis & Resnick, 2000; Stroud, 2008; Sunstein, 2009, 2017). This conceptualization has rekindled interest in uses and gratifications research as well, as scholars have tried to understand how individuals choose media outlets in today’s high choice media environment (Diddi & LaRose, 2006; Kaye & Johnson, 2002; Lee & Ma, 2012; Yuan, 2011).

Other scholars opine that the new media regime is different from the old, not just because of the proliferation of channels and audience fragmentation, but also because it entails “the decline of social conformist identity processes”, and a “shift towards more flexible identity formations” (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008). They go on to describe the new media environment as one that undermines the dominant “media effects” and heralds a “new era of minimal effects” – wherein the persuasive power of information is greatly reduced as people increasingly and selectively expose themselves to the media they like. Others have however challenged this hypothesis. Building off of the work of Williams and Delli Carpini, they have argued that the nature of political information has changed, and that even if individuals are to restrict themselves to agreeable media sources (evidence for which is scant) they do experience attitude reinforcement – which also qualifies as a “media effect” (Holbert, Garrett, & Gleason, 2010). This can concerningly, affectively polarize publics (Iyengar, Sood, & Lelkes, 2012; S. W. Webster & Abramowitz, 2017).

One of the reasons for the disruption that the digital age has brought forth, is how the internet has lowered the “entry barrier” for new actors. The cost to be “on the internet” has drastically reduced (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). These new actors, who constitute either the so-called “new” media – news websites not anchored to any traditional media house – or self-styled opinion leaders who have garnered a loyal following (Croteau, 2006; Deuze, 2003; Meraz, 2009) are transforming several of the normatively understood traditional functions of the media. Journalists, for instance, are no longer the only gatekeepers online (Barzilai-Nahon, 2009; Castells, 2012; Groshek & Tandoc, 2017). The power of legacy media to effectively set the public agenda has also reduced (Conway, Kenski, & Wang, 2015; Lim, 2006; Meraz, 2009; Wallsten, 2007). Some scholars have theorized how online media platforms operate upon a “network media logic”, a “logic distinctly different from – though overlapping with – that of the mass media” (Klinger & Svensson, 2015). Some have called this environment as one characterized by “curated flows” of information (Thorson & Wells, 2016). Yet others have lamented, perhaps a bit too negatively, that the internet has potentially brought about the “end of mass communication” (Chaffee & Metzger, 2001). Broadly therefore, there is a sense that the internet has not just transformed the functions of the media, but has also, by undermining some of the established theories in the field of communication research, thrown the field into some sort of theoretical crisis. Paradoxically, it has also reinforced the validity of certain theories from the past. Personal influence, for instance, continues to be a dominant force, and the internet has only enabled newer ways for interpersonal communication to unfold, be it in the case of diffusion (Brady, Wills, Jost, Tucker, & Van Bavel, 2017; Zhang, Zhao, & Xu, 2016) or social movements (Barberá et al., 2015; González-Bailón, Borge-Holthoefer, Rivero, & Moreno, 2011). If anything, the internet has strengthened the idea that what matters the most for understanding social process, is not media (as it is normatively understood). Nor is it just the individual. It is in fact, the social context of the individual, and the manner in which they receive messages from transitory, and constantly evolving media regimes.

The final, and possibly more significant change that the advent of the internet has brought about is that communication channels are no longer unidirectional. In many ways, this change is seismic. Earlier theories of mass communication had always assumed (and not many people thought that this assumption would ever need to be revisited) that messages moved from the media to individuals. The internet undermined this assumption by making the informational channels bidirectional. This aspect of the “new media regime” is often overlooked in mainstream media effects research but enjoys favorable attention in the world of marketing. It is also the subject of much critique in cultural studies. Marketing research has over the years been relentless in its pursuit of discriminating between individuals. This is because, the more marketers know about individuals, the more they can convert them into buyers and consumers (Turow, 2011). The internet has facilitated this activity by allowing online advertisers to glean information about individuals surreptitiously by way of their routine browsing activity. The power of this “data extraction” is so huge, that it has become the one thing that is able to completely support the business model of the “new media regime” today (Turow, 2017). As Joseph Turow and Nick Couldry have argued, “data extraction” is the one fundamental feature of today’s media environment that sets it apart from all other media environments in the past (2018). They raise an important concern regarding the pernicious nature of this new age media and that is the creation of “underlying data profiles of individuals which enables them as more, or less, valuable to sellers” This in turn causes segmentation – an “industrialized social discrimination” –at an “unprecedented speed, scale and intensity”. In some very fundamental ways therefore, the advent of the internet has raised new, hitherto unprecedented questions about the “individual” and their relationship with society and media.


This essay has traced the history of the “problem of the individual” and has focused on the various theories that decades of communication scholarship has used to try and understand the relationship between individuals and media. As I have discussed, the power dynamics between individuals and media have been scrutinized in various ways during different periods in the past: the early theories considered a “direct” relationship between media and individuals, but over time, the focus has shifted more to understanding the social context of this relationship. While many general questions have remained the same at their core, surfacing only in different forms at different points in time, technological innovations and the transformation of media environments has kept raising new questions as well.

The point of theory is to achieve a holistic understanding of a certain topic of interest. In a fast transforming field such as communication, theory can often have a hard time in keeping up with change. However, it is only through rigorous theorizing about such changes, that we can really hope to understand social processes in their entirety. It is my hope that this essay has synthesized some of the recurring ideas in this field, highlighted ones that are new, and made an informed statement about the state of media effects research today.



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