New Media Theory: Social Media In Context


“The Media” is a multi-faceted entity that manifests itself in nearly every aspect of daily life. It influences (and is conversely influenced by) a wide variety of factors, including technology, the economy, social issues, politics, and widespread culture in general. This is especially true when we consider the contemporary culture of The Information Age, where the Internet is accessible on an incredible range of platforms and devices. The emergence and rising popularity of social media is a testament to the effectiveness of convergence culture in conveying information to an audience.

This newfound global reliance on social media raises interesting questions about the relationships between technology, the media, and society. Many media theorists have offered perspectives on this topic in the past — McLuhan, Enzensberger, Baudrillard, Bolter and Grusin, to name a few. Applying their theories to contemporary media may offer insights into both current trends and the future of new media.

For example, it would not be unreasonable to label communication theorist and renowned media philosopher Marshall McLuhan as a technological determinist. A technological determinist is one who believes that society, culture, and the media are all primarily driven by advancements in technology. Perhaps the most famous subscriber to this ideology is Karl Marx, and Marxist economy is based on the idea that productive technology is the root of social change. A technological determinist would argue that a rapidly-changing technological landscape can have a dramatic impact on society.

McLuhan’s two most famous essays, The Gutenberg Galaxy and The Medium is the Message, both stress the idea that technology and the media have the ability to shape social landscapes on a global scale. When the Gutenberg printing press introduced movable type to the Western world, this opened the floodgates for technological advancements that would allow for widespread communication across the globe.

McLuhan repeatedly used the phrase “Global Village” to describe humanity’s adaptation to communications technology, reinforcing his stance that technology is a driver of social change. Although Marshall McLuhan died before the advent of social media, his philosophies still ring true, regardless of if they’re applied to the postal system or Twitter.

In “The Medium is the Message,” McLuhan again claimed that the medium chosen to relay information to an audience was of equal or greater importance to the message itself. Technology and the media are nearly synonymous in the context of McLuhan’s writings, and the phrase “The Medium is the Message” speaks for itself. McLuhan believed that the context of communication and the methods of delivery were worthy of being studied, and that media theory had a significant impact on the foundations of social communication.

When we look at the phrase “the medium is the message” in a modern context, it becomes clear that McLuhan’s arguments hold up to this day. We live in a world saturated by the media. Now that the convergence of technology has made social media accessible to everybody, everybody has a message to send, and the medium in which they do it is of extreme importance.

The modern consumer has an unlimited number of media options to choose from, each with their own context and message. If the same message is presented across two different media forms, the consumer will interpret it in two different ways. For example, would a consumer rather trust news gathered on a Twitter stream, or news read on the New York Times website?

This question feeds directly into the work of two other media theorists, Bolter and Grusin. In Remediation: Understanding New Media, Bolter and Grusin studied the impacts of remediation in a rapidly changing technological landscape. Their book was published in the year 2000, right when the Internet was transitioning from a remediated library to a conduit for television, film, and virtually all forms of information.

Bolter’s and Grusin’s research went into great detail about how new media strives to strike a balance between hypermedia (the combination of multiple media forms) and immediacy (the illusion that the content is being transmitted without great influence by the media). These principles are reflected greatly in social media as well. In contemporary media, the roles of “producer” and “consumer” are oftentimes interchangeable, and the direct connection between the two parties leads to a great degree of immediacy in content. As more and more forms of media continue to arise (as a product of the modern development landscape), new and different interactions between producer and consumer will follow.

While McLuhan, Bolter and Grusin all extensively talked about the role of technology and the media as it pertains to transmitting information, Enzensberger and Baudrillard take a more political approach and address the social nature of media. Enzensberger’s Constituents of a Theory of the Media incorporates a large degree of Marxist philosophy into the discussion of media theory, which Baudrillard’s reply (melodramatically titled Requiem for the Media) shares.

Enzensberger stresses that media is capitalistic in nature, and that wide-scale reform of the media would only be achievable through means of a decentralized producer system. He uses the example of wage-earners having access to tape recorders to illustrate the potential for a social voice in the media. While Baudrillard reacts positively to this notion in his response to Enzensberger, he argues that genuine interaction between media producers and consumers would be the only way to truly revolutionize the media.

In a way, both Enzensberger and Baudrillard got their wish with social media. Contemporary social media sites like Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter serve as communities for like-minded individuals to share content without any oversight from a centralized and capitalist organization. These websites also serve as a hub for genuine interaction between producers and consumers, often in the form of “Ask Me Anything”- style comment threads. Social media puts the media in the hands of the consumer, which could be described as a very socialist approach to media. Everybody with an internet connection has equal access to publishable content.

Because of the rapidly-changing nature of media in the Information age, it is difficult to predict how the future of digital media will play out. If recent media trends are any guide, however, it could be safe to assume that the trend of media producers and consumers coexisting in one cross-media environment will continue. As new media technologies continue to develop, new contexts in the media will emerge, and more opportunities for genuine producer-consumer interactions will form. And finally, remediation will ensure that media will continue to evolve, replacing and merging with earlier media forms in our increasingly interconnected social landscape.