Monday, December 13, 2010

How New Are New Media? (Essay)

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...Image via WikipediaThe transmission of data between two different locations isn’t a new method of communication; the concept actually pre-dates the introduction of the first computers. ‘Telegraph systems and telex machines can be considered early precursors of this kind of communication’ (Wikipedia, 2010, [Internet]). The expansion of the Internet in the 1990’s and the ‘Dot-com bubble’ have had a significant impact on culture and communication. The world of computer hardware, software, email and social networks is for most the latest communication and information frontier. The novelty aspect is there but how new is new media?

All media were once “new media”; to understand what can be considered as emergent media we have to distinguish new media from traditional media. ‘Most technologies described as “new media” are digital, often having characteristics of being manipulated, networkable, dense, compressible, interactive and, allegedly, impartial. New media is not television programs, feature films, magazines, books, or paper-based publications - unless they contain technologies that enable digital interactivity, such as graphic tags containing web-links’ (Wikipedia, 2010, [Internet]). The main threat to traditional media will be its ability to understand, implement and embrace these new interactive tools. The Internet gives people the opportunity to share their knowledge; blogging, microblogging, social networks and web streaming are revolutionising the publishing world. The abundance of personal choices in communication is slowly draining the profit from traditional mainstream media. Communicating through traditional media, professional journalists gather and report the news they deem newsworthy, publishing content through large corporations, “new media” alternatively enables the audience to become the media themselves. The free exchange of information online enables anyone or any idea to “go viral” and become a global phenomenon. There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about globalization. Technology, most notably the Internet, is perhaps the most visible aspect of this and in many ways it’s driving force. The Internet has continued to mature and experience growth, driven by consumption, with greater amounts of online information, knowledge and the emergence of social networks and Web 2.0 applications. Web 2.0 is a term commonly associated with user-generated content and interactive web applications, although it’s wrong to make the assumption that this is the second generation of the World Wide Web.

Facebook and Twitter are the obvious examples, both gaining popularity with Internet users and experiencing growth at an explosive rate. Comedian Jimmy Carr summarised the popularity of the two most influential social networking sites at Engage 2010. “No one will overtake Facebook and Twitter," said Carr. "They're like The Beatles and Elvis. They were the first” (Internet Advertising Bureau, 2010, [Internet]). The debate over whether they’re fads or sustainable business models has yet to be resolved. Their popularity though is indisputable, and they have become synonymous with the new media revolution. Twitter incidentally still doesn’t have a use case, which is categorical with new media - ‘We might say that new media, when they first emerge, pass through a phase of identity crisis, a crisis precipitated at least by the uncertain status of the given medium in relation to established, known media and their functions’ (Gitelman, Lisa. and Pingree, Geoffrey, 2003, [Internet]). Although vastly popular, “new media” often prefer imitation to innovation, acquiring talent and popular start-up services instead of unveiling untested products developed in-house. Facebook even attempted to acquire Twitter in 2008, back when the microblogging service was first gaining traction, for $500 million of its stock, which also included a cash component (Swisher, 2008, [Internet]). They often advertise their newness by depicting old media. The first printed books looked like manuscripts, radios played phonograph records, and the Web has "pages." Through this constant imitation, technological advances reinforce the age-old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Admittedly the rise of new media has increased communication between people all over the world. Facebook and Twitter being an ideal way to generate interest, engage the audience and draw them in through participation, discussion and debate. The audience has a relentless demand for information, as it happens, which has seen the emergence of the real-time web as the Holy Grail. This enables users to receive information and provide feedback as soon as it’s published, rather than through a system that periodically checks for updates. The most successful examples of real-time web are Facebook's newsfeed and Twitter. This approach makes the experience more like instant messaging with the benefits being increased user engagement, although reliability of the source is often brought into question.

It’s interesting how the focus tends to be different between traditional and new media organisations. The emphasis of new media is on the personal brand, the ability for the journalist to have their own voice and engage readers which isn’t the case at traditional media companies. Traditional media is elitist in topics, language, scope, circulation and outlook. Being new means more democratic, providing space and voice to others. Lisa Gitelman and Goeffrey Pingree argue that no medium new or old exists as a static form. The emergence of a new medium is always the occasion for the shaping of a new community or set of communities, a new equilibrium. A new medium offers positive and negative possibilities, instances of both risk and potential. The Internet offers unprecedented possibilities for communication, but still has the ability to threaten national or ethnic cultural traditions and provoke backlash on privacy in this “connected” age.

To conclude, this essay set out to understand the “newness” of new media. As Walter Benjamin cautions, "Newness is a quality independent of the use value of the commodity” (Benjamin, 1940, p. 11) Are there new problems in “new media” or is it the same kind of problems only in a new setting? It’s all down to a matter of emphasis. Many are using new media and interacting with “user-generated” content and treating it as something new and that has to be taken into consideration. Overall “new media” is an evolution of existing practices with the objective to monetize and distribute content.

Benjamin, Walter. (1940) The Arcades Project. Eiland, Howard. and McLaughlin, Kevin. (ed.) trans, Tiedemann, Rolf. (1999) Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 11.

Gitelman, Lisa. and Pingree, Geoffrey. (2003) What's New About New Media? New Media, 1740-1915. [Internet] < > [Accessed 10 December]

Internet Advertising Bureau. (2010) ‘Facebook and Twitter are ‘like Elvis.’ [Internet] < > [Accessed 10 December]

Swisher, Kara. (2008) ‘When Twitter Met Facebook: The Acquisition Deal That Fail-Whaled.’ Boom Town. [Internet] < > [Accessed 10 December 2010]
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