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MCM 151: Please read and take notes on Chapter 8 in the textbook.

Formatting: 12 font, Times New Roman

Media, Society, Culture and You by Mark Poepsel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License, except where otherwise noted.
1. Media, Society, Culture and You
2. Digital Culture and Social Media
3. Media Literacy and Media Studies Research
4. Film and Bricolage
5. Television through Time
6. Music Recording, “Sharing” and the Information Economy
7. Radio Broadcasting, Podcasting and “Superbug Media”
8. Digital Gaming
9. Newspapers and Digital News
10. Advertising, Public Relations and Propaganda
Accessibility Assessment
Review Statement
Media, Society, Culture and You
“Society not only continues to exist by
transmission, by communication, but it may
fairly be said to exist in transmission, in
communication.” — John Dewey in Democracy and
Education, 1916
Bronze bust of John Dewey sculpted by Jacob Epstein,
1927. Photo by user known as Cliff, CCBY. Source:
The purpose of this chapter is to define media, society
and culture broadly. Additionally, the term
“communication” is defined in its many forms.
Chapters 2 and 3 deal with communication theory in
more detail. Digital culture is covered in depth in
Chapter 2. We will discuss media literacy and media
studies in Chapter 3, but we have to learn to walk
before we run, as the saying goes.
The Role of Mass Media in Society
More than one hundred years ago, John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education that society is not
only supported by various forms of communication but also enveloped in communication. Dewey
reiterated what philosophers and scholars had noted for centuries: small groups, larger communities
and vast institutions — all the things that make up a society — function in relation to how
communication flows within and between groups.
There are different forms of communication. At the broadest level, communication is an exchange
of meaning between people using symbols. The most common symbols we use are verbal and written
words, but there are also many forms of nonverbal communication such as American Sign Language.
What sign language, verbal communication and written communication have in common is the use
of abstract symbols to convey meaning. Whether you say “thank you” in face-to-face communication,
send someone a card with the words “thank you” written on it, or use nonverbal cues to express thanks,
the meaning is the same.
2 Media, Society, Culture and You
Interpersonal communication generally refers to
the exchange of meaning between two or more
people on a personal, often one-on-one, level.
Interpersonal communication can be verbal or
nonverbal. Most often, it happens in face-to-face
settings. It differs from mass communication,
which involves sharing meaning through symbolic
messages to a wide audience from one source to
many receivers. Sometimes, particularly in
communication, messages
conveyed using computers, it can be difficult to tell
the difference between interpersonal communication
A boy smiles as he stands next to a Christmas tree.
and mass communication because individuals can
send messages intended only for other individuals that might quickly reach large numbers of people.
Social media platforms are often structured in ways that allow interpersonal messages to “go viral” and
become mass messages whether the original sender intended to address a mass audience or not.
It is not the type of message that determines interpersonal or mass communication. It is the way the
message is distributed and the relationships between sender and receiver(s). This text will continue
to grapple with the overlap of interpersonal communication and mass communication structures on
networked communication platforms, but first, another form of communication commonly studied in
academic settings should be introduced.
Organizational communication is the symbolic exchange of messages carrying specific meaning for
members belonging to formal organizations. In practical terms, it is the internal communication that
helps governments, businesses, schools and hospitals to run.
People working together in organizations get usually things done by communicating directly with
one another or in small groups. Organizations cannot function without communication.
Organizational communication effectiveness can influence the success or failure of businesses and
other social institutions. Thus, communication does not merely happen within organizations; it is an
essential part of the way they are structured. Organizational communication is a separate field of study,
introduced well in this YouTube video.
Successful communication, whether intended for personal use, for use within an organization, or for a
wide audience, can help people to understand each other and to get things done.
If good organizational communication is necessary for groups to function with a formal purpose, mass
communication is essential for societies to function. Societies are made up of formal organizations of
various sizes. Usually, the larger the group, the more complex its communication structures.
Communication structure refers to a combination of information and communication technologies
(ICTs), guidelines for using those technologies, and professional workers dedicated to managing
Media, Society, Culture and You 3
information and messages. In the mass communication field, communication structures are more than
computers and transmission networks. The guidelines for using networks to create and distribute
messages for mass consumption are a matter of corporate policy as well as law.
It has been noted that a society is made up of small groups, larger communities, and vast institutions.
A more complete definition of the term comes from the field of sociology. A society is a very
large group of people organized into institutions held together over time through formalized
relationships. Nations, for example, are made up of formal institutions organized by law. Governments
of different size, economic institutions, educational institutions and others all come together to form a
By comparison, culture — the knowledge, beliefs, and practices of groups large and small — is not
necessarily formalized. Culture is necessary for enjoying and making sense of the human experience,
but there are few formalized rules governing culture.
Mass communication influences both society and culture. Different societies have different media
systems, and the way they are set up by law influences how the society works. Different forms
of communication, including messages in the mass media, give shape and structure to society.
Additionally, mass media outlets can spread cultural knowledge and artistic works around the globe.
People exercise cultural preferences when it comes to consuming media, but mass media corporations
often decide which stories to tell and which to promote, particularly when it comes to forms of mass
media that are costly to produce such as major motion pictures, major video game releases and global
news products.
More than any other, the field of mass communication transmits culture. At the same time, it helps
institutional society try to understand itself and whether its structures are working.
The Mass Media Dynamic
The mass media system is an institution itself. What sets it apart is its potential to influence the thinking
of massive numbers of individuals. In fact, the ideas exchanged in organizational communication and
interpersonal communication are often established, reinforced or negated by messages in the mass
media. This is what it means for societies “to exist in transmission, in communication.” Different types
of communication influence each other.
But the mass media are also shaped and influenced by social groups and institutions. This is the nature
of the mass media dynamic.
Individuals and groups in society influence what mass media organizations produce through their
creativity on the input side and their consumption habits on the output side. It is not accurate to
say that society exists within the mass media or under mass media “control.” Social structures are too
powerful for mass media to completely govern how they operate. But neither is it accurate to say that
the mass media are contained within societies. Many mass media products transcend social structures
to influence multiple societies, and even in societies that heavily censor their mass media the news of
4 Media, Society, Culture and You
scandals and corruption can get out. The mass media and society are bound together and shape each
Almost everything you read, see and hear is framed within a mass media context; however, mere
familiarity is no guarantee of success. Products in the mass media that fail to resonate with audiences
do not last long, even if they seem in tune with current tastes and trends.
The Mass Communication Origin Story
In his book, John notes how, in the early 20th century, the mass media were beginning to connect
large institutions in new ways. The production of mass media messages accelerated with the
development of the telegraph and the popular newspaper. The spread of telegraph technology that
began in the mid-1800s continued through the early 1900s to network the globe with a nearly
instantaneous information transmission system. Much of the growth of newspapers occurred as a result
of improvements in telegraph technology.
Thus, a primary function of the global mass communication
system is to save time. People have a need to understand what is
going on in the world, and they desire entertainment. Global
electronic telecommunication networks collapse space by
transmitting messages in much less time than the older, physical
delivery systems.
The dynamic between society and mass media that is so
prevalent today developed throughout the 20th century. Starting
near the end of the 1800s, communication flows began to move
at electronic speeds. More people knew about more things than
ever before, but scholars are quick to point out that
communication is not synonymous with understanding.
Dewey wanted to focus on educating people so that they could The television station’s webpage at
live and work well in societies heavily shaped by global KOMU, a local affiliate owned and
telecommunication networks. For him, education was the operated by the University of Missourimeaning of life and the global information and communication Columbia, is constantly on display in the
system needed to be molded into an educational tool. Many of newsroom.
us still hold out hope for Dewey’s educational goals, but as ICTs
have advanced over the past century or two, it has become clear that the mere existence of global mass
communication networks does not ensure that societies will learn to coexist and thrive.
This can be difficult for people to acknowledge. Shortly after the widespread dissemination of the
telegraph, the radio, broadcast television and public internet access, some form of communication
utopia was imagined or even expected. The telegraph collapsed space. Radio enabled instantaneous
mass communication. Television brought live images from one side of the globe to the other for even
larger mass audiences, and internet access gave individuals the power to be information senders, not
Media, Society, Culture and You 5
just receivers. At each step hope and imagination flourished, but social and cultural clashes persisted.
Communication systems can be used as weapons. The evolution of mass communication tools is the
story of increased capacity to do the same good and evil things people have always done in societies
and between them.
Looking beyond technological utopianism — the idea that new technologies (particularly ICTs) will
lead to greater social understanding and better conditions for the global population — we are left with
a tedious but massively meaningful project. We must find ways to coexist with other societies even
as we are constantly aware of our differences and of possible threats that may have existed before but
now are much easier to see.
Perhaps if we are to make the best of our digital global communication network, it would help to
track the evolution of different forms of mass communication. This text very briefly touched on the
continuum from telegraph to widespread internet adoption, but the first mass medium was ink on
The First Mass Medium
The first global medium, besides the spoken word, was neither the internet nor the telegraph. In fact,
it was not a mass medium at all. It was paper. Via trade routes, messages in the form of letters moved
around the world in a matter of weeks or months. It was global communication, but it was slow.
The development of a global telegraph network made it possible for messages to spread in minutes.
When the telegraph was wed to mass-consumed newspapers, the world saw the rise of fast, global, mass
communication that had the power to potentially influence large groups of people at once.
Books transmitted messages widely and inspired literacy, but they did not establish a channel for
consistent, timely communication meant for mass audiences. After the Gutenberg printing press was
developed around 1440, the Gutenberg Bible was slowly mass produced and disseminated around
the Western world. It opened up access to sacred texts that had been bound up for centuries by
large institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, and its dissemination helped fuel the Protestant
Reformation. Still, it was an outlier. Most other books, even those that were mass produced from
around the 1500s to the 1800s were not disseminated as widely as the Gutenberg Bible. They were
simply too expensive.
Nevertheless, mass literacy slowly paved the way for mass newspaper readership to emerge in the
20th century. After the telegraph was invented and developed for wide-scale use and after the cost of
printing newspapers dropped, publishers could share news from around the globe with mass audiences.
The newspaper, specifically the penny press, was the first mass medium.
6 Media, Society, Culture and You
What distinguished the penny press was
affordability. These papers were published in tabloid
format, which used small-sized pages and was
cheaper to produce. Penny papers were written for
and read by working class audiences starting in about
the 1830s. They covered all manner of current events.
Soon, major institutions such as political parties and
unions developed their own papers to cover the
topics that suited their agendas and to promote the
cultural values that they held dear.
The front page of the Cincinnati Penny Paper from
Monday, May 16, 1881. From: George Edward Stevens’
article “From Penny Paper to Post and Times-Star: Mr.
Scripps’ First Link” in the Cincinnati Historical Society
Bulletin No. 27, 1969, public domain. Source:
Wikimedia Commons.
Mass Media Growth and Consolidation
As mass production of all sorts of manufactured goods
grew during the 20th century, so did advertising
budgets and the concept of brands. Brand advertising
became fuel for the mass media, and as profitability
rose, newspapers were bought up and organized into
chains throughout the 20th century. Many newspapers grew their audience as they merged.
Partisan papers gave way to a brand of news that strived for objectivity. The profit motive mostly
drove the change. To attract a mass audience, newspapers had to represent various points of view. This
pushed some of the most opinionated citizens, particularly strong advocates for workers, to the fringes
of mass discourse. Some advocates developed alternative media offerings. Others went mostly unheard
or plied their craft directly in politics.
At the same, throughout much of the 20th century, the journalism workforce became more
professionalized. Professional norms, that is the written and unwritten rules guiding behavior decided
on by people in a given field, evolved. Many full-time, paid professional journalists stressed and
continue to stress the need to remain detached from the people they cover so that journalists can
maintain the practice and appearance of objectivity. Journalists emphasized objectivity in order to
remain autonomous and to be perceived as truthful. The norm of objective reporting still strongly
influences news coverage in newspapers as well as on most mainstream radio and television news
That being said, the practice of maintaining objectivity is being called into question in our current
hyper-partisan political media environment. Other strategies for demonstrating truthfulness require
journalists to be transparent about how they do their work, about who owns their media outlets, and
about what investments and personal views they may have. Chapter 9 covers news norms and their
evolution in greater detail.
At the heart of the ethical discussion for professional journalists is a sort of battle between the need to
be autonomous to cover news accurately with minimal bias and the need to be socially responsible.
Media, Society, Culture and You 7
Social responsibility in the study of journalism ethics is a specific concept referring to the need for
media organizations to be responsible for the possible repercussions of the news they produce. The
debate goes on even as more and more platforms for mass communication are developed.
Beyond advancements in ink-on-paper newspapers (including the development of color offset
printing), technological developments have contributed to the diversification of mass media products.
Photography evolved throughout the 20th century as did motion picture film, radio and television
technology. Other mass media presented challenges and competition for newspapers. Still, newspapers
were quite a profitable business. They grew to their greatest readership levels in the middle-to-late
20th century, and their value was at its high point around the turn of the 21st century. Then came the
Stewing in our Own Juices
With the rise of global computer networks, particularly high-speed broadband and mobile
communication technologies, individuals gained the ability to publish their own work and to
comment on mass media messages more easily than ever before. If mass communication in the 20th
century was best characterized as a one-to-many system where publishers and broadcasters reached
waiting audiences, the mass media made possible by digital information networks in the twenty-first
have taken on a many-to-many format.
For example, YouTube has millions of producers who themselves are also consumers. None of the
social media giants such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Qzone and Weibo (in China), Twitter,
Reddit or Pinterest is primarily known for producing content. Instead, they provide platforms for
users to submit their own content and to share what mass media news and entertainment companies
produce. The result is that the process of deciding what people should be interested in is much more
decentralized in the digital network mass media environment than it was in the days of an analog oneto-many mass media system.
The process of making meaning in society — that is, the process of telling many smaller stories that add
up to a narrative shared by mass audiences — is now much more collaborative than it was in the 20th
century because more people are consuming news in networked platforms than through the channels
managed by gatekeepers. A mass media gatekeeper is someone, professional or not, who decides what
information to share with mass audiences and what information to leave out.
Fiction or non-fiction, every story leaves something out, and the same is true for shows made up of
several stories, such as news broadcasts and heavily edited reality television. Gatekeepers select what
mass audiences see, and then edit or disregard the rest. The power of gatekeepers may be diminished
in networks where people can decide for themselves what topics they care most about, but there is
still an important gatekeeping function in the mass media since much of what is ultimately shared on
social media platforms originates in the offices and studios of major media corporations.
On social media platforms, media consumers have the ability to add their input and criticism, and this
8 Media, Society, Culture and You
is an important function for users. Not only do we have a say as audience members in the content we
would like to see, read and hear, but we also have an important role to play in society as voting citizens
holding their elected officials accountable.
If social media platforms were only filled with mass media content, individual user comments, and
their own homegrown content, digitally networked communication would be complex enough,
but there are other forces at work. Rogue individuals, hacker networks and botnets — computers
programmed to create false social media accounts, websites and other digital properties — can
contribute content alongside messages produced by professionals and legitimate online community
members. False presences on social media channels can amplify hate and misinformation and can stoke
animosity between groups in a hyper-partisan media age.
Around the world, societies have democratized mass communication, but in many ways, agreeing on
a shared narrative or even a shared list of facts is more difficult than ever. Users create filter bubbles
for themselves where they mostly hear the voices and information that they want to hear. This has the
potential to create opposing worldviews where users with different viewpoints not only have differing
opinions, but they also have in mind completely different sets of facts creating different images about
what is happening in the world and how society should operate.
When users feel the need to defend their filtered worldviews, it is quite harmful to society.
The infiltration of bots on common platforms is one issue challenging people working in good faith to
produce accurate and entertaining content and to make meaning in the mass media. De-massification
is another. Professionals working on mass-market media products now must fight to hold onto mass
audiences. De-massification signifies the breakdown of mass media audiences. As the amount of
information being produced and the number of channels on which news and other content can be
disseminated grows exponentially, ready-made audiences are in decline.
In the future, it is anticipated that audiences, or fan bases, must be built rather than tapped into.
One path to growing audiences in digital networks is to take an extreme point of view. Producers
of news and entertainment information on the right and left of the political spectrum often rail
against mainstream media as they promote points of view which are more or less biased. This kind of
polarization along with the tendency of social media platforms to allow and even encourage people to
organize along political lines likely contributes to de-massification as people organize into factions.
The future of some mass communication channels as regular providers of shared meaning for very
large audiences is in question. That said, claims that any specific medium is “dead” are overblown. For
example, newspaper readership, advertising revenue and employment numbers have been declining
for about 25 years, but as of 2018, there are still more than 30 million newspaper subscribers. Mass
audiences are shrinking and shifting, but they can still be developed.
Media, Society, Culture and You 9
As mass audiences are breaking up and voices from the fringe are garnering outsized influence, the
various types of media (audio, video, text, animation and the industries they are tied to) have come
together on global computer and mobile network platforms in a process called convergence.
It is as though all media content is being tossed into a
huge stew, one that surrounds and composes societies
and cultures, and within this stew of information,
people are re-organizing themselves according to the
cultural and social concerns they hold most dear.
According to one hypothesis, in a society dominated
by digital communication networks, people gather
around the information they recognize and want to
believe because making sense of the vast amount of
information now available is impossible.
A somewhat unappetizing stew. Photo by Jason
Cartwright, CCBY. Source: Flickr.
This text covers several mass media channels
including social media, film, radio, television, music
recording and podcasting, digital gaming, news, advertising, public relations and propaganda because
these are still viable industries even as the content they produce appears more and more often on
converged media platforms.
What we see emerging in networked spaces is a single mass media channel with a spectrum of possible
text, photo, audio, video, graphic and game elements; however, the sites of professional production
still mostly identify as one particular industry (such as radio and recorded music, film, television,
cable television, advertising, PR, digital advertising or social media). Some of these are “legacy” media
that have existed as analog industries prior to convergence, while others originated in digital media
For the foreseeable future, we should expect legacy media producers to continue to hold formidable
power as elements of larger media conglomerates, which acquired many media companies as a result
of industry deregulation. We should also expect audiences to continue to fragment and digital media
start-ups trying to build audiences out of fragmented communities to be common even if they are
difficult to sustain.
What this means for social structures and for cultural production is disruption, limited perhaps by
legacy media traditions and corporate power.
Melding Theories
The world of mass media has witnessed the convergence of media content on digital platforms,
the ability of individuals to engage in one-to-many communication as though they were major
broadcasters, and the emergence of structures that allow for many-to-many communication. These
10 Media, Society, Culture and You
developments force us to rethink how separate interpersonal, organizational and mass communication
truly are.
From a theoretical standpoint, these are well-established approaches to thinking about
communication, but in practice, certain messages might fit into multiple categories. For example,
a YouTube video made for a few friends might reach millions if it goes viral. Is it interpersonal
communication, mass communication or both? Viral videos and memes spread to vast numbers of
people but might start out as in-jokes between internet friends or trolls. The message’s original
meaning is often lost in this process. In a networked society, it can be difficult to differentiate between
interpersonal and mass communication. For our purposes, it will be helpful to consider the message
creator’s intent.
As a user, it is essential to realize the possibility that interpersonal messages may be shared widely. As
professionals, it also helps to realize that you cannot force a messge to go viral, although most social
media platforms now engage in various kinds of paid promotion where brands and influential users
can pay to have their content spread more widely more quickly.
We must also understand that advertisers treat digital
communication platforms much the same way
whether they appear to users to be interpersonal or
mass media environments. Users can be targeted
down to the individual on either type of platform,
and advertisers (with the help of platform creators),
can access mass audiences, even when users are
intending only to participate on a platform for
purposes of interpersonal communication.
Two women discuss a record album selection in a music
shop in Amora, Portugal. Photo by Pedro Ribeiro
Simões, CCBY. Source: Flikr.
Scholars are still working to define how these
platforms mix aspects of interpersonal and mass
communication. Here is one takeaway: If you are not
paying to use a platform like Facebook, Twitter,
YouTube (Google), Instagram or Snapchat, you are
the product. It is your attention that is being sold to
The Big Picture
Society functions when the mass media work well, and we tend not to think about the technologies
or the professionals who make it all possible. Interpersonal communication can function with or
without a massive technological apparatus. It is more convenient, though, to be able to text each
another. When interpersonal communication breaks down, we have problems in our relationships.
When organizational communication breaks down, it creates problems for groups and companies. But
when mass communication breaks down, society breaks down.
Media, Society, Culture and You 11
Cultural Production
There is another way of looking at the mass media that needs to be mentioned after looking in some
depth at the structural changes going on in and around the field of mass communication. Mass media
channels are also huge engines of cultural production. That is, they make the entertainment that
helps us define who we are as large and small groups of people. To quote from Dead Poets Society:
“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled
with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain
life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” If you replace “reading and
writing poetry” with “creating culture,” you get a sense of the importance of cultural production. We
can define culture as a collection of our knowledge, beliefs and practices. In practice, culture it how
we express ourselves and enjoy life’s experiences.
In media, there are three main types of cultural works, those associated with “high” culture, popular
culture and folk culture. (Some scholars discuss “low” culture, but it is argued here that “low culture”
is just another way of describing the low end of pop culture.)
High culture is arguably the best cultural material a society has to offer. Economic class often comes
into play in defining what is “high culture” and what is not.
Pop culture is the vast array of cultural products that appeal to the masses.
Folk culture refers to cultural products borne out of everyday life identifiable because they usually
have practical uses as well as artistic value. It is often associated with prehistoric cultures, but that is
because the folk culture, pop culture and high culture of prehistoric peoples were often one and the
same. Their best art may also have been an everyday object like a bowl or a basket or a doll or a mask.
Don’t confuse prehistoric art with modern folk art.
Modern folk art has the specific quality of trying to capture what is both beautiful and useful in
everyday life.
Folk music tends to rely on “traditional” sounds and instruments. Topically, it focuses on the value of
everyday existence. Folk music is often built around narratives that carry morals much the same way
fairy tales do. Fairy tales are probably the best example of folk literature.
So much of the interpretation and the value of cultural production is culturally relative. This means
that an object or work’s value is determined by perceptions of people in different cultural groups.
In modern society, mass media often drive our perceptions. It is important to recognize that different
cultures have different moral values and to acknowledge that some practices should be universally
abhorred and stopped, even if they are partially or wholly accepted in other cultures.
The relationship between culture and mass media is complex; it is difficult to distinguish modern
culture from how it appears in the various mass media. Culture in the developed world is spread
12 Media, Society, Culture and You
through mass media channels. Just as society forms and is formed in part by messages in the mass
media, so it goes with culture. Cultural products and their popularity can influence which media
channels people prefer. Conversely, changes in media and ICTs can lead to changes in how we
produce culture.
When we discuss digital culture in the next chapter, we will continue to break down different levels
of culture and the relationship between cultural forms and mass communication in the networked
communication age. To begin to understand the mass media, their role in society and how they
shape culture and are shaped by cultural preferences, it helps to think about how the mass media may
influence you.
Digital Culture and Social Media
“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has
built that humanity doesn’t understand, the
largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever
had.” — Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of
Alphabet Inc.
Origin in Anarchy
Until the end of 2017, Eric Schmidt was the executive
chairman of Alphabet Inc. Alphabet emerged out of
Google to become a large holding company that
Lighted brushed-steel Google logo sign attached to a
would manage Google and several related properties
marble wall. Image by Google, public domain. Source:
including YouTube and Calico (a biotech company).
Schmidt has a Ph.D. in computer science from
Berkeley. He serves on advisory boards for Khan Academy, an education company with strong ties to
YouTube, and The Economist, a global news magazine with both digital and print products. Schmidt’s
résumé suggests he is intellectually outstanding and that he cares about technology, education and the
mass media. If one of the biggest brains of our time, and the former leader of one of the few
corporations with direct influence on the way the internet is shaped, describes the internet as
“anarchy,” it’s a good indication that things are in flux in the digital world.
Of course, we should analyze critically any statements coming from someone whose primary purpose
it is to maximize profits for their company. At the time he made these statements, Schmidt was
running Google. The loyalties of executive-level leaders presumably rest with the corporation that
signs their checks and provides their stock options. Google has an interest in making you feel that the
internet is a confusing place since their search engine is one solution to the confusion. (However, if
you rely on autocomplete, Google’s suggestions may not only be confusing; they may even be morally
Still, Schmidt’s characterization of the internet as a place of anarchy is accurate. And as we seek to
define digital culture and to discuss the cultural relevance of social media in this chapter, we must
recognize that there is no grand plan. The only constant in digital culture is change, which may sound
cliché, but the underlying ICT structures shift so often that it can be difficult for cultural trends to take
14 Media, Society, Culture and You
Chapter 1 of this text defined society and culture in the context of the field of mass communication.
It covered the distinction between interpersonal communication, organizational communication and
mass communication, and then it delved deeper into concepts relating to mass communication.
The purpose of the first chapter was to start a discussion about how evolving information and
communication technologies (ICTs) can influence the mass media and contribute to social and cultural
change in the process.
A Brief Overview
If you are anticipating a roadmap of neat, organized plans for how the evolution of culture on digital
platforms will unfurl, you’re gonna have a bad time. Instead, this chapter offers a brief, lively discussion
of how we define digital culture and what we might expect from it as it emerges in online spaces,
mobile apps and platforms.
Additionally, this chapter includes a breakdown of the roles social media platforms may play in
influencing culture.
If you acknowledge that cultures have always been in flux, then perhaps the concept of a digital culture
emerging online amidst anarchy will look less like disruption and more like evolution (Spoiler Alert:
Reveals the plot of The Last Jedi). However you classify it, the cultural impact of the merger of the
mass media and digital networks is vast, and that is the topic of this chapter.
This chapter begins with a definition of “digital culture” that comes from the media studies portion
of mass communication literature. Media studies refers to the broad category of academic inquiry
analyzing and critiquing the mass media, its products, possible effects of messages and campaigns, and
even media history. Chapter 2 then continues with a deeper discussion of identity in the digital age
and covers privacy and surveillance as well as the praxis of digital culture as defined by scholars. The
term “praxis” here refers to how a theory plays out in actual practice.
This chapter also identifies different levels of culture (a concept borrowed from anthropology) as they
relate to cultural products reaching audiences through digital mass communication channels. In other
words, we ultimately answer this question: If we take existing theory for describing the levels of culture
and apply it to digital culture, what are some immediately recognizable traits?
Finally, social media are defined from a scholarly point of view with particular attention given to the
cultural potential of digitally networked social platforms.
Digital Culture Defined
Scholars argue whether we can understand what the spread of digital networks will mean for relatively
well-established cultures in the tangible world, or predict with any certainty how cultures will evolve
on digital platforms. There are two basic schools of thought. The first argues that existing cultures
might find themselves essentially recreated in digital form as more and more life experiences, from
the exciting to the mundane, play out in digital spaces. The second school of thought posits that the
dominant digital culture emerging now is a separate culture unto itself.
Digital Culture and Social Media 15
It seems likely that neither version of these imagined forms of digital culture will dominate; instead,
we will likely see a combination of the two. Parts of existing culture will appear online as they do
in the physical world and parts of digital culture will seem completely new, previously unfathomable
because they could not or would not appear in the tangible world.
Before we delve in with prognostications about
where digital culture is headed, let us first define our
terms. Digital culture refers to the knowledge,
beliefs, and practices of people interacting on digital
networks that may recreate tangible-world cultures
or create new strains of cultural thought and practice
native to digital networks.
For example, an online fandom and a real-world fan
club are both made up of people who are
Commuters on the Washington DC Metro use their
geographically separated but share a common
mobile phones beneath an ad stating, “It Begins with
interest. If a fan club were to “go online,” networked
Bonjour.” Photo by Craig Moe, CCBY. Source: Flickr.
communication platforms might make the
experience better than it was in the physical world. Before the advent of the internet, most fan clubs
produced a newsletter, offered connections with pen pals, and provided early opportunities to buy
tickets and merchandise. Online, fans can create deeper relationships with one another. They can
connect and communicate on official channels or make their own unofficial groups where they need
not communicate through a central authority or gatekeeper. Fan and star interactions can be direct,
one-on-one interactions on multiple social media channels. There may be an official, organized fan
group, but many other avenues can appear on relatively open platforms with few rules.
The cultural product at the core of a fandom might still be a “legacy media” product. Legacy media
are any media platforms that existed prior to the development of massive digital networks. Yes, there
are people who are “Instagram famous” or “YouTube” famous, but the biggest stars in our cultural
world still have many ties to legacy media. Musicians, film stars and comic book heroes come to mind.
What other types of “legacy media” stars have huge online fandoms?
Online fandoms may simultaneously expect less centralized authority over the fan experience and
more direct access to their heroes. They often expect to see transparency during the creative process,
such as Instagram or Twitter posts with “secret” messages for longtime followers or behind-the-scenes
videos as albums and movies are made. Fandoms might demand to hear key information first or to
have special access via social media.
Similar things could be said of fan clubs in the age of snail mail. Essential elements of the culture of
fandom — gaining access to artists and finding friends in a community — have not changed as much
in kind as they have in degree.
Is this an example of the transition of an existing cultural form (the fan club) to digital environments,
16 Media, Society, Culture and You
or is online fandom something truly different from a snail mail fan club? This is a good question to
debate in the classroom.
It is worth noting that there are also niche fandoms that probably would not exist without the aid
of digital networks. With virtually unlimited communication space, there is room for incredibly
rarified fan groups to form on platforms such as Tumblr, and they are not always socially positive
communities. In many cases of hyper-specific fandoms, it is difficult to argue that these cultures existed
in the physical world and simply “moved online.” Being digitally networked is what makes it possible
to find people with particularly narrow shared interests, for better and for worse.
Digital Dynamic
Even with the presence of niche online groups, digital culture cannot currently be separated from the
influence of physical-world cultures. We can say two things about the relationship between online
and physical-world cultures at this time. First, the growth of interaction on digital networks influences
“traditional” cultures. Second, longstanding cultural traditions are influencing digital culture as it takes
shape. The ethics and norms established in the physical world shape our views about behavior and
values in digital networks. The term norm refers to a behavioral standard. Mutual influences of what
is considered “normal” in online behavior and well established physical world norms are emerging in
a dynamic fashion. Sometimes they clash.
One example is online dating. Dating in real life (IRL) is changing as more and more people use dating
apps and websites. Previously, dating was limited to the people you were likely to meet. You could
meet friends of friends. You could meet people at school, at parties, at bars or on blind dates. Your
options were limited geographically and by how outgoing you were, how much time you wanted
to spend looking, and who you trusted to set you up. The personal ads in newspapers were often
considered sad places for losers. Using a mass medium to find your true love was often considered a
risky last resort.
When online dating first became available, it was
often compared to posting and perusing digital
personal ads. This was a cultural perception based on
previous experiences, behavior and expectations from
a pre-Internet culture.
Over the course of approximately ten years
(1998-2008), what once was considered odd, creepy
or desperate in many parts of the Western world
came to be considered commonplace. Apps and sites
Lindsay Blackwell, My Super Pseudo-Scientific Online
like OkCupid, Tinder, Match.com and eHarmony Dating Experimentâ„¢. Image by James Bastow, CCBY.
have millions of users. Culturally, many of us have Source: Flickr.
accepted this new digital form of dating. It’s not for
everyone, but online dating does not carry the stigma it once did.
Digital Culture and Social Media 17
Even Tinder, which has a reputation as a “hook-up” app, maintains popularity and cultural
significance as it is referenced often on other media platforms.
Whatever it may be in a given culture, sexual morality still exists, even if new technologies make
hooking up easier and new capabilities challenge old norms of what dating should be.
This is the dynamic at the heart of this chapter. Digital technology can influence knowledge, beliefs
and especially practices around dating. This can, in turn, shape the way people think about dating in
general, not just in digital environments. The “old” cultural norms and morals can still be applied to
judge those who use digital apps for casual hookups, but the new culture can push back, so to speak,
and change how people think about dating even if they never use dating apps themselves.
We have discussed how the digital culture and physical world culture dynamic functions, but we have
not yet defined digital culture. For that, we must look to scholars who have spent years trying to
pinpoint what emergent digital culture seems to be.
Individualization, Post-nationalism, and Globalization
We turn to Mark Deuze, a scholar from the University of Amsterdam, for a complete definition.
He seeks to provide a preliminary definition of “digital culture” in his 2006 article, “Participation,
Remediation, Bricolage: Considering Principal Components of a Digital Culture.”
In his analysis of academic literature, Deuze finds that scholars often make assumptions when trying
to explain how digital culture works. The main he identifies is the idea that culture moves to digital
networks more or less intact. There was, a decade ago, a lack of explanation about what happens to
culture in digital environments.
How much might culture change when certain practices move online? How often can existing
cultural beliefs and expectations be transferred intact? Deuze does not think digital culture is merely
a recreation of physical world culture in online spaces, but he does not have a good answer for what
has been emerging. He analyzes independent media sites, blogs and radical online media outlets to see
what these new forms of communication demonstrate about digital culture.
That these forms are not meant to represent all culture but rather a cultural vanguard. They are
(or were) the tip of the spear of newly evolving digital cultures. These sites are often progressive
politically, so this is not as much a prediction of what will happen with all digital culture as it is a
discussion of what is possible. Deuze maintains that the real practice of digital culture is “an expression
of individualization, post-nationalism, and globalization.”
Deuze finds individualization in blogs most frequently written by one person and focused on a specific
topic or small geographical region. Individualism, as it is used here, refers not only to an individual’s
ability to act as their own publisher online but also to a social condition in which individuals are free
from government control. It means that even in authoritarian nations such as North Korea, Russia,
18 Media, Society, Culture and You
China and Iran that try to control the behavior of their citizens, individuals may seek freedom of
expression on the internet, although it comes at a greater risk.
Beyond Deuze’s observations, evidence of individualism online comes from partisan news sites such
as The Drudge Report and HuffPost. Both are named for individual founders. They are digital mass
media outlets that started largely as personal points of view.
The importance of individualized expression on social media is clear. We appear as individuals
on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr. This increases our reach. Each of us can
potentially connect with every other individual on a given social media platform, but these platforms
also raise questions about surveillance and privacy.
Digital Individualism vs. Privacy
Eric Schmidt once said about online privacy and Google, “If you have something that you don’t want
anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” While this might make sense in
a free society, there are many places in the world — North Korea for example — where government
surveillance can utilize corporate invasions of privacy to crack down on dissent and severely limit
Suppose someone living in North Korea would like to use a social media channel such as Twitter to
connect with like-minded people without government officials finding out. Should Twitter protect
those users? What if a state threatens legal action or violence against Twitter employees? Would social
media channels give up their users?
There is a difference between government surveillance (that is, state-sanctioned data gathering and
analysis on massive scales) and corporate data aggregation for targeted marketing purposes. Usually, by
accepting the Terms and Conditions of apps and web services, you opt in to having your data stored,
crunched and analyzed by corporations. Legally, you are responsible for that decision. Technically,
the data gathering platform is not supposed to identify you as an individual, but so-called “safe harbor”
laws can be ineffectual.
Should Google protect your searches and refuse to divulge information about your habits to
governments, even if they share that data with other companies for marketing purposes? Should
Google give you a way to hide your online activity? Is there a way for the liberty-loving Southeast
Asian to have his privacy protected while still enabling Western governments to watch out for
terrorists? These questions relate to larger issues of freedom and individualism in digital culture.
Throughout its history, the United States of America has taken pride in its First Amendment and
the rest of the Bill of Rights as guarantees of liberty. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many
Americans accepted new levels of scrutiny, particularly in digital environments. Support for strong
leaders increased until very recently. Concerns about the global rise of authoritarianism have people
questioning government surveillance and corporate surveillance as they may limit our ability to
engage as individuals in digital culture.
Digital Culture and Social Media 19
Eric Schmidt’s statement implies that privacy in digital networks is limited. This sentiment is echoed
by Mark Zuckerberg, who has suggested that privacy is dead. What this means is that physical world
behavior is expected to adapt to the demands of digital culture because the capabilities of digital culture
also carry with them unique risks that we are not necessarily adapted to deal with.
Our experience with the anarchy of online mass communication platforms is quite limited. As we learn
what government surveillance and corporate invasions of privacy are capable of, it may continue to
deeply affect our physical world behavior.
Many would agree with the sentiment, “If you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about,”
but even advocates for a more open digital society want their privacy. Zuckerberg bought several
properties around his house to keep his physical location secure. Eric Schmidt does not want people
to know where he lives. He generally does not invite the public into his private life, and, one might
assume, does not want people to examine why his former wife said she felt like a “piece of luggage”
when married to him. Such information about Schmidt’s personal life is easy to find online and could
be used against him, but should we care? Does it matter in the broader cultural sense?
This text argues that privacy does matter. The vast majority of us are not using digital platforms to
break laws or to interact in negative ways with others and yet we still have aspects of ourselves that
we would like to remain private. Has a parent or guardian ever snooped on your Facebook account
or followed your Instagram? We have incredible freedoms and amazing digital communication
capabilities as individuals living our lives in the new digital culture. It comes with a price we have yet
to grasp.
Terms and Conditions
The film Terms and Conditions May Apply details the ways our private information, such as our emails
and texts, can easily be related to our public information on social networks.
The filmmakers note that the knowledge and hardware needed to snoop on people are bought and
sold all over the world and are often unregulated.
Are we becoming more open because of the ways social media function? Is there anything wrong with
that? Are we surrendering our privacy in ways that cannot be undone?
20 Media, Society, Culture and You
One of the major cultural challenges of the network
society will be to deal with people in power who
would like to use our information against us as a
means of control. It has already happened in some of
the countries where the Arab Spring revolutions took
place (Egypt, for one).
An old-school screen capture of Microsoft’s Terms and
Conditions by Klariti Template Shop, CCBY. Source:
You never know what you might need to protest in
the future, but we’re beginning to see tools deployed
to pre-empt protest and other acts of dissent. What
this means for our efforts to define digital culture is
that digital culture can free us as individuals, but it
can also imprison us.
We can use the internet and smartphones to help us
to get questions answered and to draw attention to ourselves in good ways. We can coordinate with
others for fundraisers and to have parties. Digital communication networks are amazingly
sophisticated tools that can help us connect as individuals to form groups to celebrate all sorts of
interests, political and otherwise.
On the other hand, if individuals believe they have no privacy, digital networks could become virtual
wastelands where innovative collaboration is hindered and where corporate commercial speech and
government surveillance dominate.
Capitalism depends on risk-taking, and if you kill risk-taking online, you have hindered the
entrepreneurialism that the network society offers. We scholars will study for decades to come
how individual behavior changes and how relationships morph in a digital culture that discourages
behavior we want to keep private while simultaneously encouraging levels of sharing that border on
exhibitionism. How can we maintain privacy and gain attention, which is so often the currency of the
open Internet? This is an interesting dilemma that arises in an individualistic digital culture.
Post-nationalism is another aspect of digital culture that Deuze notes in his article. It may seem
unrelated to our previous discussion of individualism and privacy in digital culture, but in fact, it is an
analysis of the ways individuals represent themselves online.
Most simply, “post-nationalism” in digital culture means that one’s country appears to matter less as
an influence on behavior and values online than it does in the tangible world, perhaps because we
can be free of our national identities when engaging in digital networks with people from around the
This does not mean that we should expect to see an end to nationalism in the tangible world. Quite
the opposite seems to be true: As post-nationalism appears in digital spaces, nationalism is on the rise in
Digital Culture and Social Media 21
global politics. It might seem odd that people drop their nationalism online but demand it in physical
spaces, but if you look at the way culture is expressed online, it is clear that for many people their
nationality has little to do with their online identities.
For example, your country may be important to you, but it may not be one of the ways you define
yourself in social media environments. You can love America without talking about it all of the time
on Facebook or Twitter. Remember as well that national boundaries may be felt more readily in the
daily lives of Africans, Asians, Europeans and others living in nations that are geographically smaller,
more tightly packed and culturally distinct. In digital spaces, these cultural differences can evaporate.
Although war and immigration are highly influential on the current cultural climate in the physical
world, the perception of evaporating culture in networked spaces may help drive the sense that
physical world cultures are being threatened.
Recent political developments, however, make it somewhat more difficult to think of digital culture as
post-nationalistic given the rise of online nationalism — particularly white nationalism in Europe and
the United States. White nationalism is a brand of nationalism related to white supremacy, but it is
an identity connected to the nation-state nonetheless. A nationalist’s primary modus operandi in digital
culture may not reflect what nation states ultimately become in the 21st century, but rather what they
wish it were. Even so, there is evidence that some factions will use digital spaces to promote a return
to nationalism.
Does this mean that post-nationalism in digital culture is a false notion conceived in the early 2000s
that has no bearing on culture today? Perhaps, but it is more likely that we are seeing a backlash against
the rise of a global post-nationalist space online.
Digital culture, Deuze posits, reflects a globalized or globalizing world. Behaviors, interests, and
relationships cross international boundaries. The economic structure of digital networks, including the
mass media system, is global. For example, multinational conglomerate corporations tend to dominate
the media industry, not just in the United States but around the world. Books, academic articles and
simple infographics show that most mass media companies fall under the ownership of large corporate
firms. It is not accurate to say this represents all media or that “the media” are being controlled, but it
is accurate to say a significant level of influence can be attributed to a handful of media corporations
in most developed parts of the world.
Mass media consumers should be aware of the environment in which media products are produced,
but this is not to say that the globalization of mass media is always a negative thing. When it comes
to culture, globalization has its supporters. Here is a site in English about K-pop music. The music
comes from Korea, but the fanbase is spread worldwide, and the site can reach a global audience only
because of the global nature of digital networks. It works only because computer servers are connected
by wires all over the globe to make this bit of culture, like many others, available to the entire globe.
22 Media, Society, Culture and You
There exists a global point of view in both the physical world and in digital culture which is open
to all kinds of cultural production as long as it is interesting, funny and shows great talent. There are
videos that go viral globally, although it is not always clear why. (If we had the formula, we’d include
it here.) All we can say at this time is that you can reach the world with any online message and, for
whatever reason, some things are globally likable and “shareable.”
A Place Called Gangnam
Humanity’s recently developed ability to develop a globalized point of view and to establish a common
digital culture is the reason you have heard (and likely tired) of “Gangnam Style.” Ironically, PSY,
who performs the song, is kind of an anti-pop star within Korea. The song makes fun of the country’s
higher class, a conspicuously wealthy subculture from a place called the Gangnam District. But PSY
is a global success. He is popular, many argue, because he is quite funny and because he is not the
prototypical K-pop hero. He comes from a particular national cultural tradition, but he also transcends
it by being absurd. Thus, as a distinctly individual performer, he personifies a type of post-nationalism
and the globalization of digital culture.
Individualism, post-nationalism and globalization go a long way toward defining the emergent
“digital culture.” For more information, consult Deuze’s original article.
Digital Culture in Practice
Deuze makes one more observation not about what digital culture is but rather how it works. Deuze
argues that the production of digital culture will be carried out through participation, remediation and
Participation means that every individual will have the ability to contribute to online media.
Professionals and amateurs will work together much more often than they did on “legacy media”
products and projects.
Because people do not want to work for free, they will not flock to an online platform simply because
it has been opened up for contributions. If anyone could build a Facebook, there would be hundreds
or even thousands of competing platforms. As it stands, there are perhaps ten major social media
platforms worldwide, if “major” means they are home to more than 200 million members.
It is also clear from social networking sites, Reddit, and similar social news sharing sites that people
will contribute to a platform even if it is not necessarily well-policed or easy to use. In digital culture,
it helps to be the first to be big. Success breeds success in an economy based on attention, and what
dominates tends to be emotional issues, as satirized here.
Consistency also seems to help, but what matters most is the ability to consistently draw an audience.
Think of a person trying to become a YouTube influencer. They must publish interesting content
regularly for months or even years before they develop a following that they might be able to sell to
Digital Culture and Social Media 23
advertisers. Once the YouTube star does begin to peddle products, they run the risk of alienating a
portion of their audience.
Participation is an essential part of digital culture. It can be easy and fun to do it for free. If you want to
make a career out of it, it takes professional-level commitment, and the resulting content often favors
what is popular and emotionally gripping rather than what is informative or socially beneficial.
Remediation means that old media are made new again in digital spaces. Television becomes
YouTube. Radio becomes podcasting, Spotify and Pandora. Newspapers become … online
newspapers! The new media take elements of the old media and repurpose them, while “legacy” media
firms copycat digital media trends, buy out media startups, or try to forge new paths at significant
In the practice of digital culture, media are remade in digital environments in a process that combines
the appealing parts of existing forms of media with additional functionalities made possible by new
ICTs and digital networking capabilities. The author’s own research argues that attempts by legacy
media organizations to create new businesses online face many institutional hurdles. Remediation
is constantly happening, but that does not mean existing media companies can determine how to
monetize the practice in a sustainable way. We should expect considerable remediation innovation to
come from startup companies and individual tech entrepreneurs with few ties to legacy media.
A good example of remediation is taking classic movies or video games and showing them to young
people to record their reactions for YouTube. Reaction videos of all kinds take media products people
are familiar with and show them to the unfamiliar so that viewers can judge their reactions. This new
media product repurposes old content with an added element designed to pique our interest; however,
remediation does not always add much value.
Bricolage is a French term not easy to translate literally to English. A translation offering deep context
might be: Do it yourself by combining elements found elsewhere. Much of digital culture is an
amalgamation of existing content and new cultural work being done at home by people with amateur
skills and affordable but capable tools, such as smartphones and tablet computers. Even basic tools are
quite powerful. Smartphones come with front- and back-facing cameras as well as HD-quality video.
The computing power of a smartphone is more powerful than a mainframe computer was 70 years
ago. Independent producers have video and audio editing software options and can create professional
looking, popular media products on their own with little formal training.
What is formal training for, then? It prepares you to transition from making professional looking and
sounding media products once in a while to consistently making professional quality media. Formal
training prepares you to think strategically about where industries are going so that you know not
only how to make mass media products but where to place them and how to use and possibly develop
your own communication platforms.
24 Media, Society, Culture and You
Formal training includes an education in history and ethics. Amateur producers are skilled at chasing
trends and gaining popularity, but they often ride cultural waves that last from a few months to a
couple of years. Planning for multiple media shifts and seeing digital cultural trends as or before they
emerge requires an education in more than the tools and tricks of the trade.
Deuze in Sum
Deuze’s analysis suggests that barriers between professionals and amateurs are breaking down. Old
media are made new again in digital culture, through a process of making digital media collages, so to
speak. (The word “bricolage” is related to “collage.”)
Thus, in practice, digital culture is democratizing (though not fully democratic, of course). Amateurs
can create media products that challenge the popularity of cultural production made by corporate
conglomerates valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. What emerges in terms of popularity, though,
is not necessarily high in quality or accuracy. Quality and accuracy are the hallmarks of professional
communication (although not all professionals behave as they should).
Levels of Culture in Digital Media
Let’s take a step back and look at the definition of culture again. In the first chapter, this text
defined culture as being made up of the knowledge, beliefs and practices of a group of people. We
need to tweak that definition a little. It is more accurate to say that the knowledge, beliefs and practices
of a massive group of people at a certain time and place defines common culture.
Three levels of culture exist in anthropology literature, and they apply to the ways culture is expressed
in the mass media. The three levels of culture are personal culture, group culture and common culture
(similar to pop culture).
Any kind of culture, whether it is personal, group or common culture, relies on shared
knowledge. There must be shared experiences and shared stories about those experiences for us to have
a common culture. If we did not have shared experiences, cultural references would not make sense.
Thus common culture can be arrived at when individuals and groups tell the same stories, or when
mass media reach mass audiences with the same messages at the same (or about the same) time.
The more people who know about a song, film, work of art or event with cultural significance, and
the more information that they know about it, the more likely it is that event will become part of
the common culture. The mass media influence common culture, although it is not correct to say
that they directly shape it. There are many other institutional influences on common culture such as
governments, churches, families and educational systems.
In fact, messages in the mass media may not be as influential now as they were in the mid-20th century
when millions of people watched the same TV shows each week at the same time and read the same
major metropolitan daily newspapers and national magazines. Demassification has affected the ways
common culture is established and fed.
Digital Culture and Social Media 25
The mass media influence may have less power to influence common culture directly, but it is still
relevant. Think about any major global news event of the past few months. When an event is big
enough that it is shared across all media platforms, especially cable television, broadcast television and
social media channels, it can form a piece of common culture. If several events occur or if an event has
a broad enough global impact, it can enter the global collective memory, the shared cultural memory
of a group of people.
Group culture is what we used to refer to as a “subculture.” It is the knowledge, beliefs and practices of
a subset of people considered to be part of a larger culture. Group culture is distinct in some ways from
the shared, broader common culture. Group culture might center on religious beliefs and practices,
ethnic norms and interests, or food, music and other forms of material production. Groups can be as
large as all Chinese-Americans and as small as the remaining St. Louis NFL fan culture.
You have a say in defining your personal culture — the knowledge, beliefs and practices held most
dear to the individual. You may find yourself identifying with many group cultures or taking most of
your interests from the dominant common culture. Do you take your cultural cues about what to think
about and talk about from television, social media or small group cultures with which you identify?
This much is your prerogative. You can choose your personal culture. It is based both on what you
believe in and what cultural products you consume.
America, ‘Merica, Los Estados Unidos, Etc.
There is a common culture in America, but there is no single, dominant, common culture across global
digital networks. There may be a tendency for people to believe that the group cultures they interact
with most often online constitute the “real” digital culture, but as yet there is no clear consensus about
what our shared digital culture is or even if we will develop one.
Algorithms in search engines and social media platforms determine much of what we find when we
search the internet and what we see when we look at news and information feeds from our friends.
Do algorithms constitute common culture? They may shape it, and they may be influenced by user
preferences, but they are not always designed for truth, accuracy or information literacy. They are
most often designed to give consumers whatever makes them consume more of what the platform
wants them to consume. Google usually wants you to spend money with its advertisers. Facebook
wants your time and your data so it can sell your information to third party advertisers.
What shapes digital culture is often in a “black box”: It is the proprietary information of very large
corporations, and the public may or may not have access to the code. Even if we did have it, it
would be difficult to explain exactly how algorithms work. There are times when the corporations
that deploy algorithms seem surprised by how they function in the hands of massive numbers of users.
Major events that cut across algorithms and show up on almost everyone’s news feed and in almost
everyone’s search results are still likely to have an impact on common culture. Major events are likely
26 Media, Society, Culture and You
to shape personal, group, and common culture if they are significant enough. What kind of cultural
impact does a given event have? It depends.
The impact of a school shooting near Miami might be felt differently in Florida than in California
because of proximity and because the gun laws in each state are quite different. In other words,
something can enter the common culture but still be perceived quite differently by individual members
of the public.
By now you should understand that the cultural impact of messages in the mass media at each level —
personal, group and common culture — is related to the shared knowledge that existed before the
Events are often going to be perceived differently by people identifying with different small group
cultures within a larger common culture. Events will usually be interpreted differently by individuals
within a small group culture, depending on an individual’s beliefs about and personal experiences with
the issue at hand.
A person’s response to current events as they appear
in the mass media is also related to the existence and
strength of shared beliefs about the way they think
things ought to be. We call those beliefs cultural
There is no single, agreed-upon set of norms that
everyone in a given group culture adheres to. If you
have lived your whole life as part of the dominant
culture, and you do not recognize the existence and
struggle of various cultural groups, it can be difficult
to recognize reactions in digital media spaces that do Graffiti explaining the role of women in Egypt’s
not relate much to what you see in your physical revolution. Image by Gigi Ibrahim, CCBY. Source:
world. Conversely, if you have grown up being Flickr.
oppressed as part of a small group, you may find it
hard to understand how others identifying with the dominant portion of a common culture can miss
the cruelty present in some cultural norms they don’t think twice about.
Exposure to other groups’ cultures in a network society can bring about both greater understanding
and greater anxiety. This is something that will be worked out, for better or for worse, over the next
several decades as digital culture evolves. Figuring out how groups with different cultural interests,
norms, and values can get along while being constantly exposed to one another’s views in the freefor-all of network society is the challenge of emergent digital culture.
One response is to run to echo chambers, to partisan spaces that feel safe for certain group cultures and
Digital Culture and Social Media 27
for our personal cultural beliefs and priorities, but this practice can only deepen the divide between
cultural groups.
In the early years of working to establish a common culture in the network society, we have managed
to inundate ourselves with information from all manner of cultural groups and to isolate ourselves
from views that contradict our own group cultural norms. This is anarchy. This is culture without a
strong social structure to hold it together.
The question facing mass communication scholars that members of our common culture also face
is whether the institutions of the physical world can or should try to control how digital culture is
shaped. You have the power to decide if digital culture should be regulated and how. This may be the
most important civic responsibility you have, but it is also a matter of cultural power.
Social Media and Social Capital
What do you think it means for society that networked communication platforms can make anybody
a mass communicator? One answer is that there is great potential for social change because society, as
Dewey said in Chapter 1, is not just transmitted by communication, it exists in it.
That means every individual with a computer or a smartphone has the potential to disseminate
messages that influence broader society. Think of the Arab Spring revolutions of 2010-2012. Think
of #Ferguson protests in the summer and fall of 2014. Think of the way candidate Donald Trump
bypassed mass media outlets to reach voters and to set a separate news agenda in 2015 and 2016.
Individuals and small groups are now able to coordinate and to lead social movements using
networked communication technologies.
Facebook’s Facebook Page by “Christopher,” CCBY.
Source: Flikr.
You have probably heard the term “social
movement.” In a sense, a social movement is a change
in society brought on by communication. What is
different about the world of networked
communication is how interpersonal messages and
message campaigns can shift in an instant to being
mass messages or massive campaigns. This makes
digital networks battlegrounds because networked
public communication platforms are centers of power
now more than ever.
Just as they can influence and even disrupt social
structures, individuals and small groups can shape culture using social media channels. This makes our
communication system as ripe for abuse by outside forces as it is for use by legitimate citizens.
Governments, corporations and rogue dictators all have an interest in learning our secrets, and they
could potentially hold them against us.
We cannot underestimate how important this is will be in the mass communication field. Individual,
28 Media, Society, Culture and You
group and broader social secrets — including consumer behavior, political behavior and even personal
thoughts and interests — are easier to discern and possibly manipulate than ever before because of the
vast amounts of data collected about us from our social media and other internet habits. This can have
a profound effect on our behavior and on our society, and we are not prepared as a society to defend
ourselves against attacks.
Before you get discouraged about digital culture and privacy, and before you get inundated with all of
the possibilities and implications of digital culture, consider Clay Shirky’s Ted talk, “How social media
can make history.”
Shirky outlines the power of social connectivity and applies the concept of social capital. The basic
definition of social capital is the potential to get help, not just financial assistance, from the people
around you when needed. Social media platforms can be great places to build social capital. Thus, they
have the potential to be constructive or disruptive. It depends on how you use them. Watch the video
for a complete definition.
Interpersonal communication, organizational communication and mass communication are separate
areas of academic interest, as stated in the first chapter, but our ability as consumers and as producers to
alternate from one to the other is as powerful as it has ever been. Being connected to each other almost
at all times by digital networks creates the capacity for relatively quick mass social action. People are
beginning to use this power to pull society in different directions. Large numbers of people can be
organized and we could see social shifts and rifts develop more quickly than they can be put back
together. It will be up to individual users and groups of users to decide how to respond to such social
and cultural changes.
Participatory Media
A major shaper of culture and society is the news media. There will be separate sections on the
evolution of news in later chapters, but in the context of digital culture, it bears noting that the role of
news media within broader media landscapes is also shifting.
Apart from the ability of social movements and cultural movements to arise and take shape on social
media platforms, there is also the potential for public opinion to be influenced quickly and deeply
when mass media outlets operated in the same digital networks as influential individuals and groups.
You may contribute to news information by
volunteering. One of the biggest stories to gain
national attention in 2014 that was filmed and posted
by a citizen journalist was the story of Eric
Garner, who was seen being put into a chokehold
by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Reports said that
Garner had asthma and that he died of a heart attack.
Here the term “citizen journalist” refers to a person
Digital Culture and Social Media 29
who is not a paid professional but who delivers news
to audiences nonetheless.
New York tabloid newspapers cover the killing of Eric
Garner by police during an arrest. Photo by Mike
Mozart, CCBY. Source: Flikr.
It is doubtful that the story would have received
national attention had it not been for the video bystander Taisha Allen took with her mobile phone.
When she shared that video, and it went viral on social media channels, she made the mass media story
Allen probably had several reasons for sharing the video of Garner, and she was probably aware of
the potential social and cultural impact of the video. You do not have to be a media literacy expert to
know that such a video would receive broad attention and generate controversy. Allen chose to share
the video because she thought people needed to see what had happened.
Further solidifying the cultural significance of the video, within days of the story breaking, Spike
Lee had re-cut a scene from his groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing where the character Radio
Raheem is choked to death by an NYPD officer. He interspersed his original film clip with bystander
video of Eric Garner’s death. This almost instant connection between a post made by a citizen using
social media and a bit of modern classic film speaks to the rising power and cultural influence of
amateur media. Individuals can affect major producers in a mutual effort to shape social norms and
structures as well as cultural influences.
We should expect more and more professionals to make these kinds of connections with amateurs and
bystanders in the future. Mashups of professionally made mass media messages and citizen-generated
messages are likely to proliferate. Can you think of video footage from individuals present during
major news events that shaped the news and public opinion?
The events in Ferguson, Missouri followed a similar path as the Eric Garner story: Social media
accounts of the killing of Michael Brown were shared virally almost immediately after the incident.
Social media activity on YouTube, Twitter and other channels helped shape the way events unfolded.
This drove the way the story was covered in the national media in the early reporting, but backlash
inevitably followed.
Much of the work done by citizen journalists will be controversial. Media professionals working in
news and other fields will have to use discernment in deciding which views to share because in a sense
sharing is promoting, even if one disagrees with the sentiment of the tweet, video, or post.
No piece of media that is meaningful on a cultural level is going to be captured and disseminated with
universal agreement about its importance or its meaning, but for society to function and for culture to
serve its purposes we need to agree in a general sense on what’s real and what is not. The real danger
in the rise of the power of individuals and small groups in digital culture is that they can pull larger
groups away from looking for fact-based discourse.
Media Literacy and Media Studies Research
“Understanding knowledge as an essential
element of love is vital because we are
bombarded daily with messages that tell us
love is about mystery, about that which
cannot be known. We see movies in which
people are represented as being in love who
never talk with one another, who fall into
bed without ever discussing their bodies,
their sexual needs, their likes and dislikes.
Indeed, the message is received from the
mass media is that knowledge makes love less
compelling; that it is ignorance that gives
love its erotic and transgressive edge. These
messages are brought to us by profiteering
producers who have no clue about the art of
loving, who substitute their mystified visions
because they do not really know how to
genuinely portray loving interaction.” — bell
hooks from her book All About Love: New
bell hooks at a speaking engagement, from hooks’ own Flickr
page. Public domain.
The Academic Approach to Studying the Mass Media
If you have been reading the chapters of this text in order, by this point you will be aware of the
powerful role the mass media play in society, but you may not yet question whether society benefits
from this arrangement. In general, the mass media could do a better job of representing all sorts of
groups and group cultures. The mass media could also represent abstract concepts like love, trust and
greed in more meaningful ways. This is not to say that the mass media have failed in this regard, but
there is much room for improvement.
As active audience members, as hybrid producer-users or “produsers” (to use a term coined by Axel
Bruns), you must not only be selective but also critical of what you consume. Whether you become
Media Literacy and Media Studies Research 31
media professionals or not, it will ultimately be your job as media consumers to remake the mass media
in ways that better represent the depth of human experience.
Whether your interest is a religion, a fandom, or an abstract concept like love (one of the greatest
of abstractions), you have the power to participate in the media production redefining how others
understand it.
No, this is not a book about love. Yes, love and related concepts are commodified in the mass media;
however, the disruption that has echoed in political spheres and often in the ways family and cultural
group members speak to one another about politics also opens up space for critical thinking. That is,
the same disruption described in Chapter 2 that allows for social upheaval also allows for a time of
reflection and critical thinking about how society and its media function.
This chapter gives you some tools developed by mass communication scholars to develop your critical
eye when viewing messages as products in the mass media. If massive numbers of “produsers” can
reshape the media landscape, we have to re-think the role of mass media professionals. Assisting people
in the process of meaning-making — that is, making mass media with audiences instead of for them,
and aiding them in their own communication efforts — could open up a new purpose and new
industries for those who are mentally prepared and daring enough to take the lead.
This chapter defines “media literacy” and touches on some key mass communication theories that are
absolutely not meant to be left to molder in the digital cloud where this text”book” lives. Take these
theories out, apply them and see how they work. Find out how useful they can be and what their
limitations are.
This text presents an image of entire societies and cultures swimming in a sea of media. Consider these
concepts your first set of snorkel and swim-fins.
Media Literacy Defined
Media literacy is a term describing media consumers’ understanding of how mass media work.
It includes knowing where different types of information can be found, how best to evaluate
information, who owns the major mass media platforms, how messages are produced, and how they
are framed to suit various interests.
In a global society that gets most of its information through digital networks, it is incredibly important
to know how and by whom media messages are made so that as consumers we can discern how the
mass media are being used to shape our opinions. We can reply to or comment on messages in the
mass media, or we can demand a seat at the table when messages are being constructed. This is the
nature of participatory media outlined in the previous chapter. Being media literate gives us the tools
to participate well and with purpose.
It is important to consider your role in contributing directly to mass media content. Your
contributions to cultural trends and social change in the mass media can sometimes happen without
32 Media, Society, Culture and You
your knowledge. If you post regularly to Facebook or other social media platforms, your data are being
aggregated, and that information is used by advertisers, researchers, and news services to find out what
you like and what you are like, as well as to create ads and political messages tailored just for you.
You are more than your preferences and the media you consume. You are encouraged to play an
active role in shaping your digital identity beyond the one that has already been created for you.
Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is media literacy put into action. Besides contributing to the creation of meaning
by making your own mass media messages (perhaps in collaboration with professionals), you can ask
who owns major mass media corporations. Scholars have found that more than half of the mass media
channels available to mass audiences in America are owned by only five corporations or firms.
My own research, conducted with two research partners in graduate school, has shown that just by
making people aware of the nature of media ownership, you can encourage them to be skeptical of
mass media content.
This text has already established that mass communication is what makes society in the physical
world work. Information, often in the form of messages in the mass media, permeates institutional
interactions and passes between all of us in our homes and schools and businesses. The information
conveyed in the mass media gets interpreted in organizational, group and interpersonal
communication contexts. These systems influence each other, but mass media messages tend to
envelop and permeate other forms of communication. Thus, if you learn to be skeptical of the
information you receive in the mass media, you learn how to critique the whole global social system.
Critique this Book
Reading closely, you will have undoubtedly found value judgments in this text already. You may
be inclined to assign political values to this text in our hyper-partisan cultural environment. You are
welcome to do this. You are encouraged to do this. You must think critically about the cultural values
expressed not only in this text but also in your other textbooks and in the history and literature you
But you also must think critically about your preferred media outlets. Where do they get their
information from? Who owns them? No single revelation about the mass media will tell you
everything you need to know. You have to begin to see nuance and to think for yourself what aspects
of the mass media matter most to you, what things you think should change, how you might change
them, and what you can live with.
It is part of the responsibility of citizens now to critique messages that come to us via mass media, as
well as messages from leaders who bypass mass media gatekeepers and fact checkers. It is also a sound
career strategy for those who go into the mass communication field to learn to be able to critique
messages, messengers and owners in the corporate mass media field of work and play. To know where
the mass media industry is headed, you must be able to think critically about where it comes from.
Media Literacy and Media Studies Research 33
Much of the rest of this book breaks down different mass media channels and looks briefly at the
history of how each came to be, what and whom each channel serves, and how convergence in a
digitally networked society might affect the future of each medium. This text also returns several times
to “big picture” questions about the dynamic relationship between media and society as seen from the
perspective of the various mass communication channels and platforms.
The Dichotomy Between the Media and the “Real World”
For nearly the dozenth time in this text already, your author has referenced a “dynamic.” The
mass media reflect our social norms and expectations and, dynamically, they shape our norms and
To the extent they are shaped by mass media, our perceptions of reality are very much artificial — but
not entirely so. How artificial is too artificial? Different individuals and different cultures differ in the
amount of nonsense they can tolerate.
The real challenge to us as young media professionals and scholars is to try to determine what is
artificial in the vast array of messages delivered to us at all times by the mass media. One of the best
ways to do this is to get off of social media platforms and talk to people in person. We should also dig
a bit into the information we consume and ask, “How do they know?” Whenever a message comes to
us from a mass media outlet or from a friend’s social media post, the media literate individual seeks to
know what underlies each claim.
The question is not whether you believe it. The question is: On what grounds is a message in the mass
media or in social media believable?
Now that people are constantly using technology and even wearing it, it is becoming more difficult to
separate messages mediated by professionals, who pledge ethically to adhere to disseminating factual
information (such as most journalists), from poorly-supported, opinion-only content or outright
misinformation, which may be spread far and wide by friends and family.
We are living in a media age where we may not trust our own family members’ social media posts.
Things they think are important might not only be unimportant to us, they might be distasteful or
even wrong. There are real-world consequences to sharing misinformation on social media platforms.
Question the sources’ sources. Talk to people in tangible spaces apart from social media platforms, and
you can learn to see what is supported by fact in the physical world and its digital networks.
The Bad Dynamic
Your media choices matter. In the network society, when mass media content is ubiquitous on mobile
phones and is often projected into public spaces, it can be difficult to differentiate between your
independent preferences and the opinions you are encouraged to carry by advertisers who constantly
bombard you.
Without human interaction outside of the deluge of electronic information, it can be nearly impossible
34 Media, Society, Culture and You
to figure out for yourself if what you like is a response to the quality of the media content or if you are
responding to carefully targeted marketing campaigns.
The system of checks and balances in which you can
compare your real life experiences to what you see
and hear in the mass media may break down. A
pessimistic view is that we may enter a constant state
of depression on a social level because we are
cognitively incapable of comprehending all of the
information presented to us and we lack ways of
taking regular “reality checks.”
Raahil Djhruva reached out gently across the
generational divide and helped a community member
learn how to use Skype so he could communicate with
his daughter. Dhruva, a junior at Queens University of
Charlotte from London, England, called the experience
“an emotional moment.” Media literacy is also about
teaching people how to use information and
communication technologies to reach out to one another.
Photo by Knight Foundation, Knight-Crane
Convergence Lab, CCBY. Source: Flickr.
Feelings of isolation and inadequacy coupled with
cognitive overload create the potential for a host of
social issues. Additionally, the images we see in ads
and the perfected versions of themselves people
present on social media usually do not reflect applied
critical thinking.
The “bad dynamic” that comes into play is one where
glossy identities are carefully constructed and
protected while our real identities rapidly
disintegrate. We may establish a society where many people have identity issues, and those issues are
constantly worsening. It may seem at times as though we are headed for a massive collective mental
What good is media literacy? Thinking critically about the mass media and content spread on social
media helps us critique constructed images and accept our own shortcomings. If we look for ways
to relate to one another besides our overlapping common culture interests, we may find deeper
connections are possible. We can share imperfections and tackle doubts, but only if we acknowledge
them in our media world first.
What follows are a set of mass communication theories arrived at through the analysis of facts
and data by thousands of scholars over the course of nearly 100 years. As an academic field, mass
communication is young, but there are several theories, or guiding abstractions, that can help us to see
how our society is structured and what roles the mass media play in society at all levels.
Critical Media Theory
There are many critical theorists among mass communication scholars. They work to develop better
analytical theories that teach us how to analyze messages in media systems and the mass media and
help us to discuss with clarity what is beneficial and what is harmful to society.
Media Literacy and Media Studies Research 35
Academic work is about digging deep. Scholars will often analyze one medium at one period in time
to explain how certain groups or ideologies are depicted.
Marxist critical theory questions the hierarchical organization of society — who controls the means
of production and whether that control benefits society or only small groups of people. Every society
has and needs leaders, and one of the most important functions of society is to manage a functioning
economy. At question in Marxist critical thought is how the rules of each economy, including the
global economy, are set up. Do they benefit most people? Do they allow for merit to be rewarded? Do
they create a system of fair competition? Are they set up for collaboration and mutual benefit?
Most scholars who apply critical theoretical models would hesitate to call themselves Marxists. Marx
was both a scholar and a revolutionary, a term which academics rarely self-apply. Most Marxist critical
thinkers suggest changes that society could make to be more inclusive and fair for a greater number of
people, but what is fair will always be debated. There is no single line of Marxist thought. There is a
small number who demand complete change in the global economic system, and there are thousands
of critical theorists calling for more narrow or specific changes based on their observations in their
areas of expertise — not just mass media analysis but all kinds of social analysis.
Historically, Marxist thought has been employed by dictators, often using mass media channels, to take
power and often to wield it in horrendous ways. Marxist thought also guides the reasoning of some
mainstream economists who help manage social democracies, which historically garner more good
will than dictatorships. Scholars working with the critical theoretical point of view often note broad
ways for society to improve as well as practical solutions that might help (although getting leaders
to listen is another matter). Making cogent arguments and convincing people to hear them are very
different things.
That said, ideas about questioning hierarchies and asking for whom social systems really work are still
central to modern critical theory. This is what Marxist critique in media studies is all about: looking
at symbols and underlying messages in all forms of media and discerning what purposes they serve,
and asking whether they represent exploitation, corruption or any other social ill often found in closed
Symbolic Interactionism
Another critical theoretical perspective is symbolic interactionism. The general idea comes from
George Herbert Mead and suggests that people assign symbolic meaning to all sorts of phenomena
around them. Our behavior is guided and influenced by our perceptions of reality and the symbols
around us.
Mass media extend and limit our senses. When our senses are extended, we can become overwhelmed
by the amount of information coming in, so we look for symbols, and we categorize ideas according
to those symbols to make the messages easier to understand.
We sometimes apply the symbols ourselves, but in many (or even most) cases, the people …
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