Networked Computer Media and the Middle Ground

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Davis Foulger
Oswego State University

Characteristic-based comparative typologies have found that networked computer media, including the world wide web, computer conferencing, e-mail, and instant messaging, occupy a middle ground between clusters of more traditional media. This is a satisfying result insofar as it turns the traditional dichotomy between interpersonal and mass media into a continuum that includes a variety of network-based interpersonal mass media. It is an unsatisfying result in that it denys the essential uniqueness that inheres to these networked computer media.


This observation appears to apply to all known networked computer media.


Characteristic-based media taxonomies, like those provided by Bretz (1971), Ciampa (1989),
Foulger (1992), and Hoffman and Novak (1996), provide a useful starting point
for describing understanding the relationships between media. Indeed, Foulger
(1992) proposes that they can provide a window through which the capabilities
of new media can be understood, and through which the possibilities for new
media can be projected. The very different taxonomies of Bretz, Ciampa, Foulger,
and Hoffman and Novak each list a wide variety of media (28 for Bretz, 35 for
Hoffman and Novak, at least 43 for Ciampa, and 52 for Foulger) and organize
them in interesting ways.

Taken in aggregate, these sources suggest that it may be useful, at least for
summary purposes, to group human communications systems as follows:

Propinquitous Interactive Media, including Intimacy, Face-to-face Interaction,
Social Dancing, Small Group Interaction, Brainstorming, Family Interaction,
Participatory Games and Sports, Classroom discussion

Live Presentational Media, including Speeches, Lectures, Town Meetings, Judicial
Proceedings, Ritual Ceremonies, Legislative Assemblies, Mobs, Theatrical
Performance, Bonfires, Political Rallies, Live Musical Performance,
Sporting Events, Puppet Shows

Static Art Media: including Cave Paintings, Bas Relief, Oil Paintings,
Dioramas, Quilts, Pottery, Sculpture, Architecture, Animatons, Photographs,
Filmstrips, Holographic Recordings, Signs, Billboards

Correspondence Media: including Letters, Notes, Memos, Business Correspondence, Telewriting,
Telegrams, Telex, Facsimile, Tape Letters, Personal Video, Recorded
Telewriting, Electronic Mail

Publishing Media: including Books, Daily Newspapers, Magazines, Video Recordings
(Videotapes, DVD Video, etc.), Weekly Newspapers, Journals, Recordings
(Records, CD's, Cassettes), Newsletters, Merchandise Packaging, On-line
information, Online databases, Online services, Electronic Publications,
Multimedia Documents (VideoText), Billboards, Direct Mail Advertising,

Telephonic Media: including Telephone, Teleconferencing, Intercom, C.B. Radio,
Ham Radio, Family Radio, Videophone, VideoConferencing, Internet Telephone (CU
See Me), Instant Messenger

Dynamic Art Media: including Silent Film, Motion Pictures, Film
with Subtitles, Talking Animatons, Lightboards

Broadcast Media: including Broadcast Television, Cable Television,
Satellite TV, Digital TV, Radio, Talk Radio

Interactive Mass Media: including Hypermedia, Video Hypermedia,
Computer Conferencing (Newsgroups, ListServes), Cooperative Composition, Voice
Mail, Electronic Bulletin Boards, Streaming Audio and Video, Voice-into-text
concurrent interaction, Virtual Reality, Interactive Television

Most of these groupings are visible in the attached "visual representation" of
what Foulger (1992) refers to as "media space". Many are also visible in a
similar two-dimensional representation by Hoffman and Novak (1996). Although
neither resort to pictorial representations, both Bretz (1971) and Ciampa (1989)
capture a number of these groupings in their tabular summaries (Bretz; Ciampa).
Almost one hundred media are identified above, and the interested reader
should have no trouble identifying more, including a variety of additional
networked computer media. The interesting question, however, at least for the moment, is not what is
missing, but what is in the middle. In both the Hoffman and Novak (1996) and
Foulger (1992) characteristic-based typologies, computer and network based media
reside in the middle ground between, in particular, correspondence, telephonic,
broadcast, and publishing media. Most networked computer media show an
affinity for one or another of these clusters. Some, including hypermedia and
computer conferencing systems, don't show such affinities.

This is a satisfying result in many respects. Almost all media that exist prior
the arrival of networked computer media fall fairly cleanly into the category of
either interpersonal medium (e.g. propinquitous interactive, live presentational,
correspondence, or telephonic) or mass medium (e.g. publishing, dynamic art,
broadcasting, or static art). Only Ham and Citizens Band radio suggest any
difficulties with the dichotomy (e.g. they broadcast interpersonal content).
Networked computer media, however, destroy any illusion that the interpersonal
and mass media content can be treated dichotomously. Computer conferencing and
web hypermedia, in particular, are both intepersonal in aspect and mass in reach
(potential audience size and persistence).

It is also an unsatisfying result in some respects. Tom Novak, in a private
e-mail, comments: "I don't really believe this conclusion. It suggests to me
that the variables used to classify media don't include any dimensions on which
the Web is truly different. That is, the key dimensions that differentiate
the Web are being left out." This may well be the case. Bretz (1971) compares
media based on five characteristics. Hoffman and Novak (1996) use eight.
Foulger's (1992) typology is based on only twelve media characteristics. While
Ciampa's (1989) ad hoc comparisons do not depend on a consistent set of
characteristics, he does develop a between 2 and 9 characteristics (depending on
how you count) that provide a basis for many comparisons.


It is possible to envision a much larger set of characteristics on which media
can be usefully compared. Indeed, a data set has been constructed that compares
over 130 media on over 180 characteristics. These characteristics themselves be
usefully organized into the following clusters:

Characteristic Participants in media.

Characteristics of Consumer/Audiences

Characteristics of Creator/Performers

Message Modalities

Feedback Modalities

Interface Characteristics

Transmission Characteristics

Storage Characteristics

Feedback Characteristics

Marketplace Characteristics

Performance Characteristics

Production Characteristics

Message Characteristics

It is thought that analysis based on this broad range of characteristics of
media may reveal the additional dimensions of media that Tom Novak suggests
will properly differentiate the web and other networked computer media from more
traditional media.

Pattern status: