Monday, December 12, 2011

To What Extent has the Rise of Communications Media Affected Patterns of Social Interaction? (Essay)

Symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969: 2) can be used to explore how individuals act and evaluate meanings, how meaning is generated through social interaction and how meaning is interpreted according to encounters. In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted that “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” In the age of reality television and video-sharing websites, it could be argued that has been achieved. Anything, or anyone, has the potential to become a viral phenomenon, and ordinary people can become celebrities overnight. The rise of communications media has overcome barriers and ‘made the boundaries of all social spaces more permeable’ (Meyrowitz, 1994: 67). Through social networks individuals identify with each other and communicate on mass, sharing information and experiences. These connections extend social interaction rituals, allowing celebrities and public figures to become more accessible, thus creating an ‘illusion of intimacy’ (Horton and Wohl, 2004: 375). The ability to connect and interact with anyone online has provided more freedom, but this virtual ‘self’ influences both online and real-life ‘performances’. We act differently; more confident and aggressive online which seems to compensate for the restrains we might feel in real life. As these ‘personas’ become more and more connected and entangled, there’s potential for it to become less easy to separate them. The derivative of Andy Warhol’s prediction could be that in the future, everyone will eventually become obscure for fifteen minutes.

In order to understand how advances in communications media influence social interaction, it is necessary to analyse ‘the dynamic relations between producers, texts, technologies and interpretive audiences’ (Laughey, 2007: 78). Technology is changing the world; telecommunications have progressed from the early use of visual signals and audio messages to email, social networks and video-sharing services. The capacity and demand to exchange information in ‘real-time’, across significant distances is growing at an exponential rate. Real-time is when individuals respond to actions as they’re published, the exact time an action becomes visible being equal to the time it takes to ‘select, check, suspend, regroup and transform the meaning’ (Blumer, 1969: 5). The huge volume of this information produced means that there’s more emphasis on relevance, validity and first impressions. Erving Goffman’s self-presentation thesis can be used to explore the techniques deployed by individuals and groups to perform an expression of themselves to others. Goffman’s theories are mostly concerned with face-to-face encounters, but they can be applied to mediated forms of interaction. His model for understanding social interaction is the theatrical stage with individuals performing roles. The word person, in its first meaning, is a mask (Park, 1950: 249). The mask being a metaphor that everyone is basically playing a role; and it’s in these roles that we know each other and ourselves. At one extreme Pinocchio (1940), attempts to present himself in a light that is favourable to him when confronted about school attendance. He projects the claim that he’s telling the truth, but the impression he gives off doesn’t convince those present. If you feign the truth then your nose will grow. At the other extreme, we find the performance in The Invention of Lying (2009) to be cynical, deluding others for ‘self-interest’ but the expression is believed as an absolute truth and the ‘audience’ don’t question the validity of the performance. These are extreme examples, but indicate that obtaining fact lies beyond the time and place, such factors as the knowledge possessed about the individual need to be considered.

Society is organised on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him [/her] in an appropriate way. Connected with this principle is a second, namely that an individual who implicitly or explicitly signifies that he has certain social characteristics ought in fact to be what he claims he is (Goffman, 1959: 24).

Web-based social networks have made it possible for individuals to maintain social connections, share interests, activities and control expressions of themselves online through self-presentation techniques. William Shakespeare’s phrase “All the world’s a stage”, could have been referring to today’s Internet driven era. Facebook has become the largest theatrical stage, where individuals perform to their social connections, providing updates, sharing music, photos and videos. Goffman divides these ‘stage-managed regions’ of self-representation into two parts: ’front’ and ‘back’. On Facebook, individuals attempt to accurately represent themselves, the ‘front’ region through pictures, status updates and shared personal information. Consciously omitting flaws and presenting themselves how they would like to be received. The ‘back’ region emerges through tagged photos and regrettable actions that might create an unfavourable opinion. Facebook provides extensive privacy controls to protect individuals and options are available to remove any unwanted items from the timeline. Positioned as the essential form of interaction for our generation, the LA Times reported recently that ‘Facebook had passed 800 million users’, if the social network was a country, it would be the third largest in the world. Stretching across continents and bringing people together, new media technologies have no boundaries. Individuals from different backgrounds are able to interact with each other in real-time and inhabit the same social spaces.

People are no longer defined by physical boundaries or places (where we are) but rather networks of information and knowledge (what we know) – facilitated by new media technologies that have no sense of place (Laughey, 2007: 85).

Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) draws on Goffman’s notion of front and backstage behaviour, analysing electronic media and ‘how media can affect social situations and the social networks with which individuals identify.’ These media environments enable participants to share knowledge, regardless of literacy skills and develop interpersonal relationships. These are maintained without ever meeting in person, with information exchanged without a face-to-face encounter, which includes facial movements, gestures, and tone of voice. Increasingly television and electronic media, especially social networks and video-sharing services like YouTube, have led to public figures becoming more accessible and backstage behaviour being witnessed by millions. Kanye West has been involved in several high profile controversies. The Washington Post reported on the benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina, where he criticised George W. Bush claiming that he didn’t “care about black people.” The visual text is more significant than the opinion because those involved appear uncomfortable, displaying uncharacteristic behaviour. There have also been several incidents at music award ceremonies, where the rappers public performances have led to widespread criticism. Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross, Andy Gray and Jeremy Clarkson are other notable celebrities that have caused outrage in recent years. Politicians have also been exposed to high profile controversies, George W. Bush had a gaffe-prone leadership and Gordon Brown was caught on microphone describing a voter as a "bigoted woman". Britney Spears being the most controversial, with her breakdown being played out through the media. Meyrowitz suggests that a new type of behaviour has evolved, referring to this as ‘middle-region,’ which forces media personalities to be more accountable for their actions. Video-sharing websites though provide an alternative, creating Internet celebrities that are ordinary people whose backstage region can gain them widespread recognition. These ordinary people come from different backgrounds, achieve Internet fame and receive significant publicity. Social interaction around these video-sharing services produces interesting results, providing amateurs the means to gain exposure, respond to popular issues and reach an audience. YouTube comments have admittedly established a bad reputation for the value that they contribute to the videos, but essentially the only reading should be achieved through the visual text.

YouTube has become the go-to website for finding topical and obscure streaming video clips, but everyday experiences also indicate how fleeting such access can be. Viewers and academics have quickly come to treat the site as an informal archive of television texts (Hilderbrand, 2007: 48).

John B. Thompson argues that media ‘help to maintain and renew our sense of identity, tradition and belonging’. YouTube rather than displacing corporate media, the video-sharing service recirculates footage, childhood memories and nostalgia. Another example is the challenges that face traditional print media, as advertising revenue and online distribution have changed how media is being consumed. The main threat will be its ability to understand, implement and embrace new interactive tools. The web still has ‘pages’, renewing existing news reading practices, and online distribution has the potential to reach further, provide more revenue and protect the environment. Thompson refers to ‘everyday encounters with media, especially television,’ as ‘mediated quasi-interactions’, which has the effect of bringing global events and issues close to home. Thompson was concerned with the process of interaction between media producers and audiences, and ‘the degree of reciprocity and interpersonal specificity’ (Thompson, 1995a: 84), that is available through other forms of interaction. The Internet has changed that because instantaneous exchanges, through which audiences can feed back their opinion, have become the norm. Twitter trending topics and hashtags are a contemporary example whereby conversation, grouped around syntax, contributes to interaction between media producers and audiences. The micro blogging service incorporates many of the concepts considered, bringing distant actions into everyday interaction with others.

The media are actively involved in constituting the social world. By making images and information available to individuals located in distant locales, the media shape and influence the course of events and, indeed, create events that would not have existed in their absence (Thompson, 1995: 117).

These dynamic relationships are complex, Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1990) is mostly concerned with face-to-face interaction and how information is conveyed through conduct and appearance. Attempting to recreate a representation of ‘self’ online isn’t straight forward; Facebook encourages exchanges between friends and reproducing ‘real-life’ relationships. The relationship status is the most significant because it has become a passive-aggressive way to validate the ‘real-life’ connection and confirm that the person is exclusively involved with their partner. There’s so much emphasis on this in popular culture that the relationship is only considered official when displayed on the profile. Goffman refers to this as ‘hyper-ritualised mediated self-representation’, where media reproduce, artificially, what we learn about ourselves through face-to-face interactions (Laughey, 2007: 84). This can expand opportunities, but ‘online fronts’ can also be used to mislead and misrepresent. These advances are significant but ‘an alternative to, rather than accentuation of, face-to-face interaction’. Thus, the self-representation theory then can be interpreted as being ideological. Meyrowitz’s theory of placelessness, claims that media technologies make information and knowledge more accessible, they provide the shared domain but language and signification is presumed rather than asserted. The absence of technological, educational and social exclusion from Meyrowitz’s argument could be compared to The Matrix (1999) where knowledge is uploaded directly into the mind. This concept works in a simulated reality but fails to represent authenticity. Thompson’s theory of mediated quasi-interaction does maintain and renew, adapting to the ‘material and cultural conditions’. Audiences contribute to the dissemination of media messages, but also play an important role in the distribution. Thus an extension of his theory could be mediated quasi-production.

The Internet has extended communities, created subcultures and provided companies with more reach to maintain audiences. These technologies have also exposed the focus on popularity, numbers and selfishness. Search engines provide the most popular results, follower counts and comments are layered across web pages and advertisers create this idealistic way of life. Thus ‘serve as a common resource for judging the adequacy of self and others’ (Glassner, 1990: 215). Let’s consider the advantages that communications media offers children, these include access to educational materials and communication tools, but as well as expanding opportunities they’re being exposed to situations beyond their years. The ability to connect and interact with anyone online has provided more freedom, but technology has led to misrepresentation, increased backlash and enabled protest groups to become more organised. During the UK riots in 2011, rioters coordinated through the BlackBerry Messenger system, built into BlackBerry handsets and free to use (The Guardian, 2011) causing widespread disruption.  The Occupy Movement, which is an international protest movement, have used social media to raise awareness and bypass authorities. These acts are seen as deviance and often referred to as ‘criminal activity’. Howard S. Becker considers this to be a social construction, a ‘consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender’ (Becker, 1991: 9). This could be interpreted as there being no right or wrong anymore, and that there's only popular opinion. Becker’s labelling theory provides an insight into the interaction between mainstream and deviant cultures but, often these groups find that it’s difficult to be represented correctly when they’re labelled as villains. The media contribute to maintaining and renewing this objective view, and this misrepresentation means that groups become disenchanted. Protests are inevitable, especially when people come together to act collective for a greater purpose. The Internet provides a greater reach to be heard, although being relevant is difficult when there are so many opinions competing for attention.

It appears that the rise of communications media has not only affected social interaction but shaped society. Real-time conversations across significant distances are the norm, access to information, education, news and other data is instantaneous. Technology creates possibilities, providing the ability to build and maintain virtual relationships. Progress has been made but more problems have gained visibility and self-representation has taken on added importance. Goffman’s model for understanding everyday social interactions is the theatrical stage and through communications media, individuals attempt to accurately represent themselves and inhabit the same social spaces.  People are no longer defined by physical places, and networks of information have arisen where collectively knowledge is shared and the meaning is interpreted. Social construction can be used to stereotype through the mass media, although popular opinion appears to challenge media institutions. The patterns of social interaction are changing all the time, perhaps that’s always been the case but more acknowledged through communications media. What’s certain is that through the Internet we have a gateway to infinite possibilities.

Ball, James. and Brown, Symeon. (2011) Why BlackBerry Messenger was rioters' communication method of choice. The Guardian. [Internet] < > [Accessed 9th December]

Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interaction: Perspective and Method. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glassner, B. (1990) Fit for postmodern selfhood, in H. S. Becker and M. M. McCall (eds) Symbolic Interaction and Cultural Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 215 – 43.

Goffman, E. (1990) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Hilderbrand, Lucas. (2007) YouTube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge. Film Quarterly. University of California Press. Vol. 61, No. 1. p. 48

Laughey, Dan. (2007) Key Themes in Media Theory. New York: Open University Press.
Meyrowitz, J. (1994) Medium theory, in D. Crowley and D. Mitchell (eds) Communication Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity. pp. 50 – 77.

Moraes, Lisa de. (2005) "Kanye West's Torrent of Criticism, Live on NBC". The Washington Post. [Internet] < > [Accessed 08 December, 2011]

Olivarez-Giles, Nathan. (2011) Facebook F8: Redesigning and hitting 800 million users. [Internet] < > [Accessed 08 December, 2011]

Park, Robert, Edgar. (1950) Race and Culture. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press. p. 249.
Thompson, J. B. (1995) The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. Cambridge: Polity. p. 117.