Media ecology theory is the study of media, technology, and communication and how they affect human environments. The theoretical concepts were proposed by Marshall McLuhan in 1964, while the term media ecology was first formally introduced by Neil Postman in 1968.
Ecology in this context refers to the environment in which the medium is used – what they are and how they affect society. McLuhan proposed that media influence the progression of society, and that significant periods of time and growth can be categorized by the rise of a specific technology during that period.
In other words, "Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival. The word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people. An environment is, after all, a complex message system which imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving."
To strengthen this theory, McLuhan and Quentin Fiore further claimed that each time period has an important medium that defines the essence of the society, which correspond to the dominant mode of communication of the time respectively.
Media ecology argues that media act as extensions of the human senses in each era, and communication technology is the primary cause of social change. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase, "the medium is the message", which is an often-debated phrase believed to mean that the medium chosen to relay a message is just as important (if not more so) than the message itself.
While Harold Innis was not a direct contributor to the theory of media ecology, much of his work would inspire McLuhan in developing his own ideas and the foundations of the theory. Innis was a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto who studied the role of communication technologies in societies and civilizations. He worked with McLuhan at the University of Toronto, serving as his mentor. In his seminal work, The Bias of Communication, Innis looks at various empires in history and notes their use of the written word. He suggests that mediums of communication directly correlate to the spread of knowledge in a society. Therefore, the medium can wield relative influence in that society. He termed this concept the 'bias of communication'.
In 1934, Marshall McLuhan enrolled as a student at Cambridge University, a school which pioneered modern literary criticism. During his studies at Cambridge, he became acquainted with one of his professors, I.A. Richards, a distinguished English professor, who would inspire McLuhan's later scholarly works. McLuhan admired Richards' approach to the critical view that English studies are themselves nothing but a study of the process of communication. Richards believed that "words won't stay put and almost all verbal constructions are highly ambiguous". This element of Richards' perspective on communication influenced the way in which McLuhan expressed many of his ideas using metaphors and phrases such as "The Global Village" and "The Medium Is the Message" two of his most well known phrases that encapsulate the theory of Media Ecology.
McLuhan used the approaches of Richards and William Empson as an "entrée to the study of media". However, it took many years of work before he was able to successfully fulfill their approaches. McLuhan determined that "if words were ambiguous and best studied not in terms of their 'content' but in terms of their effects in a given context and if the effects were often subliminal, the same might be true of other human artifacts, the wheel, the printing press, the telegraph and the TV". This led to the emergence of his ideas on Media Ecology.
In addition to his scholarly work, McLuhan was also a well known media personality of his day. He appeared on television shows, in magazine articles, and even had a small cameo in the movie Annie Hall.
Few theories receive the kind of household recognition that Media Ecology received, due directly to McLuhan's role as a pop culture icon. He was an excellent debater and public speaker, but his writing was not always what would normally pass in academia.
Inspired by McLuhan, Neil Postman founded the Program in Media Ecology at New York University in 1971, as he further developed the theory McLuhan had established. According to Postman, media ecology emphasizes the environments in which communication and technologies operate and spread information and the effects these have on the receivers. "Such information forms as the alphabet, the printed word, and television images are not mere instruments which make things easier for us. They are environments - like language itself, symbolic environments with in which we discover, fashion, and express humanity in particular ways."
Postman focused on media technology, process, and structure rather than content and considered making moral judgments the primary task of media ecology. "I don't see any point in studying media unless one does so within a moral or ethical context." Postman's media ecology approach asks three questions: What are the moral implications of this bargain? Are the consequences more humanistic or antihumanistic? Do we, as a society, gain more than we lose, or do we lose more than we gain?
North American and European versions
Media ecology is a contested term within media studies for it has different meanings in European and North American contexts. The North American definition refers to an interdisciplinary field of media theory and media design involving the study of media environments. The European version of media ecology is a materialist investigation of media systems as complex dynamic systems. In Russia, a similar theory was independently developed by Yuri Rozhdestvensky. In more than five monographs, Rozhdestvensky outlined the systematic changes which take place in society each time new communication media are introduced, and connected these changes to the challenges in politics, philosophy and education. He is a founder of the vibrant school of ecology of culture.
The European version of media ecology rejects the North American notion that ecology means environment. Ecology in this context is used "because it is one of the most expressive [terms] language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter". Following theorists such as Felix Guattari, Gregory Bateson, and Manuel De Landa, the European version of media ecology (as practiced by authors such as Matthew Fuller and Jussi Parikka) presents a post-structuralist political perspective on media as complex dynamical systems.
Along with McLuhan (McLuhan 1962), Postman (Postman 1985), and Anton, media ecology draws from many authors, including the work of Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Félix Guattari, Eric Havelock, Susanne Langer, Erving Goffman, Edward T. Hall, George Herbert Mead, Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Gregory Bateson.
Assumptions of the theory
- Media are infused in every act and action in society.
- Media fix our perceptions and organize our experiences.
- Media tie the world together.
These three assumptions can be understood as: media are everywhere all the time; media determine what we know and how we feel about what we know; and media connect us to others. Communication media have penetrated the lives of almost all people on the planet, arranging people into an interconnected human community.
McLuhan's media history
McLuhan believed there are three inventions that transformed the world: the phonetic alphabet, the printing press, and the telegraph. Due to these technologies, the world was taken from one era into the next. In order to understand the effects of symbolic environment, McLuhan split history into four periods: the tribal age, the literary age, the print age, and the electronic age. Throughout the structure of their distinctive methods of communication (e.g., oral, written, printed, electronic), different media arouse patterns in the brain that are distinctive to each and every particular form of communication.
The first period in history that McLuhan describes is the Tribal Age, a time of community because the ear is the dominant sense organ. This is also known as an acoustic era because the senses of hearing, touch, taste, and smell were far more strongly developed than the ability to visualize. During this time, hearing was more valuable because it allowed people to be more immediately aware of their surroundings, which was extremely important for hunting. Everyone hears at the same time making listening to someone in a group a unifying act, deepening the feeling of community. In this world of surround sound, everything is more immediate, more present, and fosters more passion and spontaneity. During the Tribal Age, hearing was believing.
The second age is the Literacy Stage, a time of private detachment because the eye is the dominant sense organ; also known as the visual era. Turning sounds into visible objects radically altered the symbolic environment. Words were no longer alive and immediate, they were able to read over and over again. Hearing no longer becomes trustworthy; seeing was believing. Even though people read the same words, the act of reading is an individual act of singular focus. Tribes didn't need to come together to get information anymore. This is when the invention of the alphabet came about. During this time, when people learned to read, they became independent thinkers.
The third stage is the Print Age, when individual products were mass produced due to the invention of the printing press. It gave the ability to reproduce the same text over and over again. With printing came a new visual stress: the portable book. It allowed people to carry books, so they could read in privacy isolated from others. Libraries were created to hold these books and also gave freedom to be alienated from others and from immediacy of their surroundings.
Lastly, the Electronic Age is an era of instant communication and a return to an environment with simultaneous sounds and touch. It started with a device created by Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph and led to the telephone, the cell phone, television, internet, DVD, video games, etc. This ability to communicate instantly returned us to the tradition of sound and touch rather than sight. Being able to be in constant contact with the world becomes a nosy generation where everyone knows everyone's business and everyone's business is everyone else's. This phenomenon is called the global village.
Updating the ages
Robert K. Logan is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Toronto and Chief Scientist of the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He worked collaboratively with Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, co-publishing various works and producing his own works, heavily inspired by McLuhan. Logan updates the era of communications, adding two new eras:
- Age of nonverbal mimetic communication (characteristic of archaic Homo sapiens)
- Age of orality
- Age of literacy
- Age of electric mass media
- Age of digital interactive media, or 'new media'
In addition, through the study of media ecology, it is argued that through technological advancements in media, many societies have become a "participatory culture." Tom Valcanis argues that this very easily witnessed by looking at the rise of Apple's iPhone. "If the technology is the medium in which a culture grows, the interactive and user oriented nature of these technologies have given rise to a participatory and 'mash-up' culture in which the ways of producing and accessing content are deconstructed, uploaded, mixed, converged, and reconstructed through computers and smartphones mediated by online platforms; it becomes a 'participatory culture'..."
'The medium is the message'
"The medium is the message" is the most famous insight from McLuhan, and is one of the concepts that separates the North American theory from the European theory. Instead of emphasizing the information content, McLuhan highlighted the importance of medium characteristics which can influence and even decide the content. He proposed that it is the media format that affects and changes on people and society.
For example, traditional media is an extension of the human body, while the new media is the extension of the human nervous system. The emergence of new media will change the equilibrium between human sensual organs and affect human psychology and society. The extension of human senses will change our thoughts and behaviors and the ways we perceive the world. That's why McLuhan believed when a new medium appears, no matter what the concrete content it transmits, the new form of communication brings in itself a force that causes social transformation.
We are accustomed to thinking the message is separate from the medium. McLuhan saw the message and the medium to mean the same thing. The audience is normally focused on the content and overlook the medium. What we forget is that the content cannot exist outside of the way that it is mediated. McLuhan recognized that the way media work as environments is because we are so immersed in them. "It is the medium that has the greatest impact in human affairs, not specific messages we send or receive. The media shape us because we partake in them over and over until they become a part of us.
Different mediums emphasize different senses and encourage different habits, so engaging in this medium day after day conditions our senses. Different forms of media also affect what their meaning and impact will be. The form of medium and mode of information determines who will have access, how much information will be distributed, how fast it will be transmitted, how far it will go, and, most importantly, what form it will be displayed. With society being formed around the dominant medium of the day, the specific medium of communication makes a remarkable difference.
Connection to general systems theory
While general systems theory originated in 1928 in the Ph.D. thesis of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Robert Logan summarizes a general system as "one that is composed of interacting and interrelated components such as an understanding of it must entail considering the general system as a whole and not as a collection of individual components".
Logan argues that general systems theory, as well as cybernetics, complexity theory, and emergent dynamics, and media ecology "cross pollinate each other" in that, "a general system is a medium" due to the non-linear aspects of messages and that general systems are "quasi-deterministic".
This thinking is in line with McLuhan who once wrote, "A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them."
Marshall McLuhan used the phrase global village to describe that "humans can no longer live in isolation, but rather will always be connected by continuous and instantaneous electronic media". McLuhan addresses the idea of a global village in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy saying, "Such is the character of a village or, since electric media, such is also the character of global village. And it is the advertising and PR community that is most aware of this basic new dimension of global interdependence".
Technology, especially electronic media in today's age, makes the world increasingly interconnected. Socially, economically, politically, culturally, what happens in one part of the world has a ripple effect into other countries.
This seems like a common sense idea today, where the internet makes it possible to check news stories around the globe, and social media connects individuals regardless of location. However, in McLuhan's day, the global village was just becoming possible due to technology like television and long distance phone calls. This concept has become one of the most prolific and understandable ideas to come out of media ecology, and has spurred significant research in many areas. It is especially relevant in today's society, where the internet, social media, and other new media have made the world a smaller place, and today many researchers give McLuhan credit for his foresight.
Of note is McLuhan's insistence that the world becoming a global village should lead to more global responsibility. Technology has created an interconnected world, and with that should come concern for global events and occurrences outside one's own community. Postman builds on this concept with the idea of teaching the narrative of 'Spaceship Earth' where students are taught the importance of everyone taking care of planet earth as a fragile system of diversity both biological and cultural; however, the original person to coin the term 'Spaceship Earth' was futurists R. Buckminster Fuller who once said, "I've often heard people say: 'I wonder what it would feel like to board a spaceship,' and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That's all we have experienced. We're all astronauts on a little spaceship called earth."
The idea of the global village helps to conceptualize globalization within society. Michael Plugh writes, "[The] village is an environment produced both by technological change and human imagination of this globalized environment."
Additionally, the rise in media communication technology has uniformed the way individuals across the globe process information. Plugh says, "Where literate societies exchange an 'eye for an ear,' according to McLuhan, emphasizing the linear and sequential order of the world, electronic technology retrievers the total awareness of environment, characteristic of oral cultures, yet to an extended or 'global' level."
Hot vs. cool media
McLuhan developed an idea called hot and cold media. Hot media refer to a high-definition communication that demand little involvement from the audience and concentrate on one sensory organ at a time. These types of media require no interpretation because they give all the information necessary to comprehend. Some examples of hot media include radio, books, and lectures. Cool media describe media that demand active involvement from the audience. Cool media require the audience to be active and fill in information by mentally participating. This is multi-sensory participation. Some examples of cool media are TV, seminars, and cartoons.
"McLuhan frequently referred to a chart that hung in his seminar room at the University of Toronto. This was a type of shorthand for understanding the differences between hot and cool media, characterized by their emphasis on the eye or the ear."
- Eye: left hemisphere (hot) controls right side of the body; visual; speech; verbal; analytical; mathematical; linear; detailed; sequential; controlled; intellectual; dominant worldly;quantitative; active; sequential ordering
- Ear: right hemisphere (cool) controls the left side of the body; spatial; musical; acoustic; holistic; artistic; symbolic; simultaneous; emotional; creative; minor; spiritual; qualitative; receptive; synthetic; gestalt; facial recognition; simultaneous comprehension; perception of abstract patterns
Laws of media
Another aspect of media ecology is the laws of media, which McLuhan outlined with his son Eric McLuhan to further explain the influence of technology on society. The laws of media theory are depicted by a tetrad, which poses questions about various media, with the goal of developing peoples' critical thinking skills and to prepare people for "the social and physical chaos" that accompany every technological advancement or development. There is no specific order to the laws of media, as the effects occur simultaneously and form a feedback loop: technology impacts society, which then impacts the development of technology.
- Enhancement: What does the medium enhance? Media can enhance various social interactions, such as the telephone, which reduced the need for face-to-face interactions.
- Obsolescence: What does the medium obsolesce? Technological advancements can render older media obsolete, as television did for the radio. This does not necessarily mean that the older medium is completely eradicated however, as radio, for example, is still in use today.
- Retrieval: What does the medium retrieve? New media can also spur a restoration of older forms of media, which the new forms may not be able to incorporate into their new technologies. For example, the Internet has promoted new forms of social conversations, which may have been lost through television.
- Reversal: What will the medium reverse? When a medium is overwhelmed due to its own nature, "pushed to the limit of its potential," it ceases to have functional utility and can cause a reversion to older media.
A significant criticism of this theory is a result of its deterministic approach. Determinism insists that all of society is a result of or effected by one central condition. In some cases the condition can be language (linguistic determinism), religion (theological determinism), financial (economic determinism). In the case of McLuhan, Postman and Media Ecology, technology is the sole determinant for society and by breaking up time in measures of man's technological achievements they can be classified as technological determinism. According to Postman, "The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information." Postman has also stated that "a medium is a technology within which a culture grows; that is to say, it gives form to a culture's politics, social organization, and habitual ways of thinking".
Scholars such as Michael Zimmer view McLuhan and his "Medium is the Message" theory as a prime example of technological determinism:
...an overarching thread in media ecological scholarship, exemplified by McLuhan's (1964/1994) assertion that "the medium is the message", the technological bias of a medium carries greater importance than the particular message it is delivering. McLuhan saw changes in the dominant medium of communication as the main determinant of major changes in society, culture, and the individual. This McLuhanesque logic, which rests at the center of the media ecology tradition, is often criticized for its media determinism. Seeing the biases of media technologies as the primary force for social and cultural change resembles the hard technological determinism of the embodied theory of technological bias.
The critics of such a deterministic approach could be theorists who practice other forms of determinism, such as economic determinism. Theorists such as John Fekete believes that McLuhan is oversimplifying the world "by denying that human action is itself responsible for the changes that our socio-cultural world is undergoing and will undergo, McLuhan necessarily denies that a critical attitude is morally significant or practically important."
Lance Strate, on the other hand, argues that McLuhan's theories are in no way deterministic. "McLuhan never actually used the term, "determinism," nor did he argue against human agency. In his bestselling book, The Medium is the Message, he wrote, "there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening" (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 25). John Culkin (1967) summed up McLuhan's position with the quote, "we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us", suggesting a transactional approach to media." This statement from Strate would define McLuhan and Media Ecology as "soft determinism" opposed to "hard determinism" with the difference being that "hard determinism" indicates that changes to society happen with no input or control from the members of that society, whereas "soft determinism" would argue that the changes are pushed by technology but free will and agency of the members of society ultimately have a chance to influence the outcome.
While ideas of technological determinism generally have negative connotations, technology philosopher Paul-Peter Verbeek argued that technologies are "inherently moral agents" and their development is a "moral enterprise".
Disruptions to existing systems
While advancing technologies allow for the study of media ecology, they also frequently disrupt the existing system of communication as they emerge. In general, four types of disruption can occur within the study of media ecology.
- New Technologies
- New Audiences
- New Rhetorics
- New Authority
One example where this can be seen is in do-it-yourself education. Advancing technologies have also expanded access to do-it-yourself (DIY) education. DIY education can be defined to include "any attempt to decentralize or disrupt traditional place-based educational models through the sometimes collective, other times individual use of digital media". Through an analysis of media ecology the impact of these new technologies on society can better be understood.
The medium is not the message
McLuhan's critics state the medium is not the message. They believe that we are dealing with a mathematical equation where medium equals x and message equals y. Accordingly, x = y, but really "the medium is the message" is a metaphor not an equation. His critics also believe McLuhan is denying the content altogether, when really McLuhan was just trying to show the content in its secondary role in relation to the medium. McLuhan says technology is an "extension of man" and when the way we physically sense the world changes, how we perceive it will also collectively change, but the content may or may not affect this change in perception. McLuhan said that the user is the content, and this means that the user must interpret and process what they receive, finding sense in their own environments.
One of McLuhan's high profile critics was Umberto Eco. Eco comes from background in semiotics, which goes beyond linguistics in that it studies all forms of communication. He reflected that a cartoon of a cannibal wearing an alarm clock as a necklace was counter to McLuhan's assertion that the invention of clocks created a concept of time as consistently separated space. While it could mean this it could also take on different meanings as in the depiction of the cannibal. The medium is not the message. An individual's interpretation can vary. Believing this to be true Eco says, "It is equally untrue that acting on the form and content of the message can convert the person receiving it." In doing this Eco merges form and content, the separation of which is the basis of McLuhan's assertion. McLuhan does not offer a theory of communication. He instead investigates the effects of all media mediums between the human body and its physical environment, including language.
The North American variant of media ecology is viewed by numerous theorists such as John Fekete and Neil Compton as meaningless or "McLuhanacy". According to Compton, it had been next to impossible to escape knowing about McLuhan and his theory as the media embraced them. Compton wrote, "it would be better for McLuhan if his oversimplifications did not happen to coincide with the pretensions of young status-hungry advertising executives and producers, who eagerly provide him with a ready-made claque, exposure on the media, and a substantial income from addresses and conventions." Theorists such as Jonathan Miller claim that McLuhan used a subjective approach to make objective claims, comparing McLuhan's willingness to back away from a "probe" if he did not find the desired results to that of an objective scientist who would not abandon it so easily. These theorists against McLuhan's idea, such as Raymond Rosenthal, also believe that he lacked the scientific evidence to support his claims: "McLuhan's books are not scientific in any respect; they are wrapped however in the dark, mysterious folds of the scientific ideology." Additionally, As Lance Strate said: "Other critics complain that media ecology scholars like McLuhan, Havelock, and Ong put forth a "Great Divide" theory, exaggerating, for example, the difference between orality and literacy, or the alphabet and hieroglyphics.
Recent research and applications
Many ecologists are using media ecology as an analytical framework, to explore whether the current new media has a "new" stranglehold on culture or are they simply extensions of what we have already experienced. The new media is characterised by the idea of web 2.0. It was coined in 2003 and popularized by a media consultant, Tim O'Reilly. He argues that a particular assemblage of software, hardware and sociality have brought about 'the widespread sense that there's something qualitatively different about today's Web. This shift is characterised by co-creativity, participation and openness, represented by software that support for example, wiki-based ways of creating and accessing knowledge, social networking sites, blogging, tagging and 'mash ups'. The interactive and user-oriented nature of these technologies have transformed the global culture into a participatory culture which proves Neil Postman's saying "technological change is not additive; it is ecological".
As new media power takes on new dimension in the digital realm, some scholars begin to focus on defending the democratic potentialities of the Internet on the perspective of corporate impermeability. Today, corporate encroachment in cyberspace is changing the balance of power in the new media ecology, which "portends a new set of social relationships based on commercial exploitation". Many social network websites inject customized advertisements into the steady stream of personal communication. It is called commercial incursion which converts user-generated content into fodder for marketers and advertisers. So the control rests with the owners rather than the participants. It is necessary for online participants to be prepared to act consciously to resist the enclosure of digital commons.
There is some recent research that puts the emphasis on the youth, the future of the society who is at the forefront of new media environment. Each generation, with its respective worldview, is equipped with certain media grammar and media literacy in its youth. As each generation inherits an idiosyncratic media structure, those born into the age of radio perceive the world differently from those born into the age of television. The nature of new generation is also influenced by the nature of the new media.
According to the media ecology theory, analyzing today's generational identity through the lens of media technologies themselves can be more productive than focusing on media content. Media ecologists employ a media ecology interpretative framework to deconstruct how today's new media environment increasingly mirrors the values and character attributed to young people. Here are some typical characteristics of the new generation: first, it is "the world's first generation to grow up thinking of itself as global. The internet and satellite television networks are just two of the myriad technologies that have made this possible." Second, "there may actually be no unified ethos". With "hundreds of cable channels and thousands of computer conferences, young generation might be able to isolate themselves within their own extremely opinionated forces".
There is significant research being done on the rise of social media platforms and their influence on communication in society. Some of that research is being done through a media ecology perspective. Below are some examples.
Instagram is considered a cold media because the users actually engage in the technology. In a study done over an extended time on a group of college students, results were found that the more constantly one checks social media daily, the less positive one's mood is. This results from the physiologically addictive nature of Instagram. The addicting nature of Instagram is related to the investment made by a specific user. The user is able to adapt their image, resulting in an immediate reward of followers and likes. The Millennial generation, the largest in history (with over 80 million in the U.S. aged 19–33 years), is rapidly entering the workforce, and it is already reshaping cultural institutions with new communication and coordination habits. The heavy use of social media sites like Instagram and its effects are as a result incorporated into their lives and work environments.
The message of climate change is a major concern recently with people communicating their thoughts on different media platforms. Social media has been identified as a principal platform to share and discuss information about climate change, with print newspapers and television being those principal special agents of information to the public. Stakeholders from scientists to policy-makers increasingly turn to social media to disseminate information about climate change and mobilize support and action to change the current outcome of climate change. After analyzing over 60,000 tweets using a random week sample, the study concerning the influence of media ecology of climate change, concluded after combining automatic thematic analysis, semantic network analysis, and text classification according to psychological process categories, that "the media ecology analysis revealed a narrow set of sources with a major role played by traditional media and that emotionally arousing text was more likely to be shared".
Facebook is the largest social media site in the world with over 2 billion monthly active users. The relationship between media ecology and Facebook is related to the way Facebook is used as a medium for interpersonal communication. Facebook Messenger is the most used social networking app used within Facebook. This reduces the amount of face-to-face interpersonal communication between individuals as they tend to use the Messenger app. People to post things on Facebook for friends and family to see what is going on in their lives. This is an easy way for people to keep in contact with friends that they don't get to see all the time. In a study done by a group of social analytic professionals found "that posting once per week on Facebook was so low as to lose connection with your audience and posting more than twice per day was crossing the line into annoying". They found that an average Facebook user posts 5–10 posts each week on average.
Egypt and Iran
Doctor Mark Allen Peterson of in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University published an article in the Summer of 2011 comparing the media ecology of 1970's Iran to that in Egypt in 2011. The article, title "Egypt's Media Ecology in a Time of Revolution" looks at the difference that social media made in the Egyptian uprising and makes two observations: social media extends the "grapevine" network and that social media, despite the result of the uprising, completely changes the "mediascape" of Egypt. One dramatic difference between the two uprising noticed by Peterson is the ultimate position of the media of choice during each in the end. On the one hand, Iran's news media, the primary source of information at that time, reverted to its original role, while the Egyptian use of social media changed the media of choice for Egypt.
Peterson's study compared his observations to that of William Beeman, who in 1984 published an essay, "The cultural role of the media in Iran: The revolution of 1978–1979 and after" on the media ecology of Iran. Beeman's ultimate conclusion of his review of the Iranian Revolution followed that of what you would expect to find from most media ecologists: "At times newly introduced mass media have produced revolutionary effects in the societal management of time and energy as they forged new spaces for themselves. Thus media are cultural forces as well as cultural objects. In operation, they produce specific cultural effects that cannot be easily predicted.":147
Although there were many similarities between the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions, such as censorship in media, including newspaper and television, the one major difference was the availability of the internet and social media as a tool to spread messages and increase awareness in Egypt. Social media in 2011's uprising was equivalent to the use of cassette tapes in Iran in the 1970s. The tapes provided a way to spread information that could not be as easily censored and was repeatable through the country.:5 The rise of social media helped free Egyptians from censorship of other media. In this case, the medium was the message, a message of freedom and by the Egyptian government's attempt to also censor this medium, they only managed to spread the message further and faster:
Although we may never know the true impact, in fact it likely sped up the regime's fall. In the absence of new technologies, people were forced to rely on traditional means of communication, including knocking on doors, going to the mosque, assembling in the street, or other central gathering places. Thomas Schelling won a Nobel prize in part for discovering that in the absence of information, people will coordinate by selecting a focal point that seems natural, special or relevant to them. Given the protests, Tahrir Square was the obvious focal point. By blocking the Internet, the government inadvertently fueled dissent and galvanized international support for the people of Egypt. (Bowman 2011)
Since 2011, leaders of the protest continue to utilize social media as a method to push democratic reform.:4 According to Peterson the role of social media in Egypt is also evolving the political culture as even state figures are beginning to make announcements using social media rather than more traditional forms of media.:5
While many people utilize social media platforms to stay in contact with friends and family, socialize, or even shop, these platforms have also been pivotal for social activism. Social media activism and hashtag activism have become popular ways to gain mainstream media and public attention for causes, and to facilitate protests.
Thomas Poell researched the influence of social media on the 2010 protests of the Toronto G20 Summit. In the article, he focused on identifying how each social media site was used independently, and then how they were integrated together. The sites analyzed were Twitter, YouTube, Flikr, Facebook, and an open publishing website. What he found is that each site is used differently for social media activism. While this kind of activism was originally looked at as a way to promote causes and encourage long term focus on the issues, Poell found that sites like Twitter and Facebook tend to do the opposite. Posts center around photographs and videos of action during protests and rallies, not on the issues that are being protested. This would be an example of hot media, because the user can scroll through photos or watch videos without being otherwise engaged, instead of cool media where the user has to be more involved. Additionally, because activists are using sites they do not own, the social media platform actually has more control over the information being posted. For example, Twitter no longer allows unrestricted access to all posts made with a certain hashtag after a period of time. This seems to mean that the issue being highlighted fades over time.
Additionally, Heather Crandall and Carolyn M. Cunningham focus on hashtag activism, where activists use metadata tags to focus on specific issues (ex: #activism). They did not look at one specific protest like the G20 summit, but rather at the benefits and criticisms of hashtag activism as a whole. They discuss that social media is a new media ecology, one where users can connect and share ideas without boundaries. This falls under McLuhan's idea of the world as a global village. By using hashtags, activists are able to bring awareness to social issues. Crandall and Cunningham point out that this is both beautiful and interesting, because it encourages learning, conversations, and community for social justice, and that it is also dark and confusing, because the open environment of the internet also allows hashtags to be used for hate speech and threats of violence. Also, they posit that hashtag activism is pointed and stacked, in that hashtags are often short lived, and the user has to be able to navigate the platform and understand hashtags in order to gain knowledge of the issue. When viewed through media ecology, hashtag activism is changing the way people encounter and engage in social justice.
In 2009 a study was published by Cleora D'Arcy, Darin Eastburn and Bertram Bruce entitled "How Media Ecologies Can Address Diverse Student Needs". The purpose of this study was to use Media Ecology in order to determine which media is perceived as the most useful as an instructional tool in post-secondary education. This study specifically analyzed and tested "new media" such as podcasts, blogs, websites, and discussion forums with other media, such as traditional text books, lectures, and handouts. Ultimately comparing "hot" and "cold" media at today's standard of the terms. The result of the study, which included student surveys, indicated that a mixture of media was the most "valued" method of instruction, however more interactive media enhanced student learning.
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