The Utility of New Media
Humans communicate for an endless number of reasons. However, what is common to all communications is that they serve a purpose. While some communication may be accidental or undeliberate, it still serves a purpose even if they were unplanned by the individual communicating, and as such they may very well be worth studying. However, it is the purposeful communications that are at the center of this investigation. It is common to view communications as serving either a transactional or an emotive goal. One communicates to inform others or to engage them. At times the goal of communication is the matter that is transmitted between those who are communicating, while at other times it is the relationship formed between the communicators that is the purpose and center of the process. Contemporary media meshes these two purportedly distinct goals of communication and bridges them. In that sense, it can be all or nothing—a purveyor of a fuller, more meaningful and more effective process or a source for limited, opportunistic contact aimed at conveying a self-serving purpose while revealing very little to the other participants in the transaction.
It would be useful to illustrate this point by distinguishing between communication and information and, consequently, by grasping the effect contemporary media have on these two distinct foundations of human interaction. Indeed, communication and information are such closely associated terms that they are often used interchangeably to define the same phenomenon (Schement, 1993). However, this interchangeability is unhelpful when trying to understand their role in affecting the human condition. One way to help us distinguish between the two is through the closely related terms information richness and communicative presence.10 It is widely accepted that the richer the information being transferred, the more effective the communication process (Daft & Lengel, 1984). At the same time, “presence” is higher when the media are more interpersonal (than mediated)—hence intimate—and the interaction is more synchronous than asynchronous—hence immediate (Kaplan & Haenlin, 2010). Presence can be seen as a “quality of the communications medium” (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976, p. 65). However, despite the intuitive meaning attributed to this quality, it is more often than not defined and conceptualized differently (Lowenthal, 2010). Biocca and Harms (2002) define presence as a “sense of being with another in a mediated environment” (p. 10).
Information richness and communication presence contribute to the sociality of human interaction as a growing level of human interaction is being mediated. The amalgamation of richness with measures of presence allows contemporary media to provide more effective communications than the previous generation of media. Overcoming barriers of so-called information poverty and creating the opportunity to interact in a more intimate and immediate way as a result of the four characteris- tics—abundance, mobility, interactivity, and multimediality—help define the difference between media generations. Mediated communications were perceived as less socially effective when they were unidirectional, so the mass media of the twentieth century—radio and television—were less socially effective, for example, than the telephone. At the same time, the telephone itself, while providing an interpersonal and synchronous experience, was until recently a very “poor” medium, able to transfer only voice. The upgraded social quality of contemporary media reflects the fact that they allow those with the opportunity to partake in the experience they provide the capability of being social on levels that are richer and allow more presence at the same time. Users have been able to generate content using everything from typewriters to video cameras for decades; what contemporary media allow them to do is distribute their content (Napoli, 2010), share it, and create rich content with others who are physically removed from them.
Clearly, different interpretations and effects may be identified and hypothesized when it comes to the disruptive nature of contemporary media and their introduction into social life. For example, while the telephone may be seen as a unimedial communication device, hence one that conveys poor information, its high level of presence can contribute to a meaningful sociality. This is lost in contemporary, more information-rich and accurate media, such as instant messaging and email, whose potential for asynchronous responses lowers the intimacy of the communication. These latter forms of communication are described as a “shield [for] the writer from the view of the reader...It is a place to hide” (Turkle, 2011, p. 187). The “always-on” nature of contemporary media, which may contribute to the immediacy of communication, has disrupted long-standing social norms to the extent that while 89 percent of US residents in a recent study attested to the fact that they have used their phone during their most recent time with others, and 86 percent report that someone else in their group used their cellphone during the gathering, 82 percent disap?proved of that behavior, stating that it lowered the quality of the human interaction (Rainie & Zickuhr, 2015).
These contradictory social effects of contemporary media can even exist within the same particular social networking application. As Seligman (2011) notes, the chat and message functions of Facebook, which are as private as a personal conversation, have the capacity to provide for a truthful conversation even more than a face-to-face interaction, because “the relative impersonality of writing text instead of speaking allows for bolder, more open communication” (Seligman, 2011, p. 419). This is due to the fact that the textual clarity of the conveyed message can overcome the vagueness that sometimes accompanies a conversation in which sounds, tonality, gestures, and the like may have an effect. At the same time Facebook’s public functions through wall posts and widely shared comments are not intimate by nature of the fact that they are shared with a vast audience; they lack a specific target and are characterized by impulsiv- ity and, thus, convey a less effective message.