Communication Media

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Davis Foulger
Oswego State University

How are new communication media invented? How are existing communication media optimized to solve problems? Why do some prospective communication media succeed while others fail? What can be done to maximize a new communication medium's prospects for success?


This observation appears to apply to all known communication media, including network computer media.


A medium of communication can be usefully defined as being any system that enables the flow of messages between one or more creators of messages and one or more receivers of messages. The range of media therefore includes such simple systems as face-to-face communication, in which human modalities, light, and air provide all that is physically necessary to enable communication and such complex media as television, in which a broad range of intermediate elements (e.g. mediators) are used as a system to route messages from a small number of message creators to a large number of message consumers.

Communication theory is not always focused on media. Theories of communication also focus on such issues as language (linguistics, grammer, nonverbal), communicators (meaning, information processing, perception, relationships, disclosure, attraction, and conflict), and messages (presentation, information, and persuasion).

Communication theory has looked at media from a variety of perspectives. Systems theories, for instance, generally examine the constituent elements of media. Reules theories examine the constraints that we impose on ourselves when we use media. Diffusion theories look at how messages and new innovations, including media innovations, disperse through socieity. Mass media theories largely focus on the effects of media. Reinforcement, agenda-setting, functional, uses and gratifications, and dependency theories are all oriented on the effects of media.

No current theory attempts to describe how communication media are invented or how they subsequently evolve.

New communication media appear to be invented in five interrelated "spheres" of invention. These spheres of invention include:

* Mediators
* Characteristics
* Uses
* Effects
* Practices

Mediators are the fundamental building blocks of media, and include such things (using the telephone as an example) as telephones, telephone wires, telephone switches, operators, and billing systems. All media entail mediators. Even face=to-face communication depends on human modalities and the natural resources (air and light) that allow them to function. Mediators can be put together in a variety of ways such that, in combination, they enable a set of Characteristics.

Characteristics are the essential capabilities and generic attributes of a medium. A given medium will allow a message to be constructed in a particular number of modalities, travel across certain units of space and time, and to reach an audience of a given size. It is possible to characterize a medium in terms of hundreds of generic characteristics, and to compare media based on those characteristics. Various combinations of characteristics enable a set of Uses.

Uses are the things people use media to accomplish. There are a variety of such uses that have been identified within specific research traditions, including the uses and gratifications approach. It is not possible to successfully use a medium, however, without some effects.

Effects are the thngs that happen as a result of using a medium. Effects can be very positive such that they encourage increased use of the medium. They can also be very negative such that they provoke a backlash against a medium. Most successful media experience some measure of both. It should be noted, here, that effects aren't simply something that happens. They are, in a very real sense, inventions of the people who decide that a particular effect or set of effects is real and worthy of attention. Indeed, there are specific rhetorics of media effect that, when observed, allow one to conclude that a particular effect of media is real. Several of these rhetorics are enacted, or at least exposed, through media practices.

Practices are things people do to help maximize or minimize the effects of media. People will seek to maximize what they perceive to be the good effects of media by behaving in ways that maximize a medium's potential for a particular effect. They will also seek to minimize what is perceived to be the negative effects of media by constraining particular behaviors within media. Indeed, in some cases, the actions taken to constrain or enhance behavior will be so substnantial as to require a fundamental change to the medium through the introduction of new Mediators.


The invention of any medium of communication will entail activity in all of these spheres. The evolution of media to resolve specific problems can occur in one or more spheres, with results that will often be observable in other spheres.

New media will be physically constructed in the sphere of mediators, with people and technology arrainged to obtain a specific set of characteristics. The process of selecting mediators may not (and probably will not) be thought of in those terms, but the effect of creating a particular arraingement of mediators that enable a flow of messages is to create a proto-medium with a specific set of characteristics.

Those characteristics will, to a large extent, determine a mediums potential for success, as it is a mediums characteristics that determine the kinds of things it can be used for. Media whose characteristics are highly similar to existing successful media are unlikely to succeed, while media with distinctive and useful characteristics are more likely to find a wide usership.

The more distinctive those characteristics are, the more uses a new medium is likely to have, and the more successful it is likely to be, and the more effects it is likely to have.

Those effects will, depending on the perspective of those effected, be both positive and negative. Indeed, effects that might be regarded as some (advertisers, for instance) to be good may be perceived as bad by others.

Both positive and negative effects, once identified, become the basis for practices. Strategic practices generally attempt to optimize what are perceived as the positive effects of media by repeating successful usage strategies. Rules generally attempt to constrain what are perceived to be the negative effects of media by limiting the behavior that is perceived as causing the negative effects.

Mediators, characteristics, uses, effects and practices interrelate in specific ways.

In the cycle of media (mediators to characteristics to uses to effects to practices to mediators), broad characteristics of media can be created, optimized, and changed.

In the cycle of genre (uses to effects to practices to uses), the specific uses of a medium can be modified within a comparatively more stable medium.

All of the spheres of invention in media are subject to negotiation, both within individual spheres and through the interaction of the spheres in the cycles of media and genre. Hence media are dynamic entities that can be evolved by their users to solve specific problems.

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