New media, globalisation and popular culture

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • how the term ‘new media’ is defined
  • debates about the new media

Defining the new media

The term new media generally refers to two trends that have occurred over the past 30 years.

  • The evolution of existing media delivery systems. The way media content is delivered has dramatically changed over the last 30 years. As recently as 2000 most people received television pictures through aerials and there were five terrestrial television channels that could be accessed. Digital, highdefinition, flat-screen televisions and subscriptions to hundreds of digitalised satellite and cable television channels are now the norm.
  • The emergence of new delivery technologies – cheap personal computers and mobile-phone technology, and especially texting, are relatively novel forms of communication. However, the most innovative technology that has appeared in the last 20 years is probably the Internet or worldwide web.

There are several characteristics of new media.

  • It is based on digital technology.
  • Different types of media content, e.g. music, images and e-mails are often combined or converged into a single delivery system, e.g. television, lap-tops and mobile phones.
  • It is interactive and lets users select the stories that they want to watch, in the order that they want to watch them. Users can also mix and match the information they want. Users can engage in online discussions or play on-line live games with each other. They can interact with each other through social networking sites such as Facebook. Users may produce their own films and music and post it on sites such as YouTube and MySpace. User-generated content and information sites, such as Wikipedia and IMDB, are a popular source of knowledge.
  • It is demand led as consumers are no longer restrained by television schedules. Sky+, Freeview and the BBC IPlayer are good examples of how consumers of new media are encouraged to take an active role in the construction of their own television schedules. Live television can now be paused and watched again later.

Who is using the new media?

Some sociologists have suggested that there now exists a generational divide in terms of how people use new media. According to Ofcom, the 16–24-year-old age group spent more time online compared with the 25+ age-group. Up to 70% of this age group use sites such as MySpace and Bebo. It also sent more text messages and watches less television. However, 40% of adults use networking sites such as Facebook, whilst the average age of the on-line gamer is 33 years.

The poor are excluded from the super-information highway because they lack the material resources to plug into this new media revolution, i.e. they are a digital underclass who cannot afford to keep up with the middle class technological elite. Some 80% of the richest households in Britain have Internet access, against only 11% of the poorest.

Li and Kirkup (2007) found that men were more likely than women to use e-mail or chat rooms. Men played more computer games than women. Men were more self-confident about their computer skills than women and were more likely to express the opinion that using computers was a male activity and skill.

Debates about new media

According to Curran and Seaton (2003), two perspectives dominate the debate

about the new media in Britain.

  • The neophiliac perspective.
  • The cultural pessimist perspective.

The neophiliac perspective

Neophiliacs argue that new media is beneficial to society for several reasons.

  • Increased consumer choice – there are now hundreds of choices available to people in the form of media outlets and delivery systems. It is argued that competition between media institutions results in more quality media output.
  • An e-commerce revolution – a great deal of retail commerce is conducted on the Internet. Most major commercial companies now have their own websites.
  • Revitalising democracy – new media technologies may offer opportunities for people to acquire the education and information required to play an active role in democratic societies and to make politicians more accountable to the people. Some media sociologists have suggested that the Internet can revitalise democracy because it gives a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard. It allows like-minded people to join together and take action which may lead to social change. Some neophiliacs who are part of the anti-global capitalism movement have used the Internet to challenge the power of international capitalism.

The cultural pessimist perspective

Cultural pessimists believe that the revolution in new media technology has been exaggerated by neophiliacs. There are a number of strands to their argument.

  • Cornford and Robins (1999) argue that new media are not so new and that the media today is an accommodation between old and new because to use a game console, a television is required, while to connect to the Internet, a telephone line is still needed. They suggest, further, that interactivity is not something new because people have written to newspapers and phoned in to radio and television for many years. The only thing that is new about new media is its speed – information, news and entertainment can be accessed in ‘real time’.
  • Cultural pessimists criticise the idea that new media are increasing the potential for ordinary people to participate more fully in the democratic process and cultural life. The Internet is actually dominated by a small number of media corporations. Over three-quarters of the 31 most visited news and entertainment websites are affiliated with the largest media corporations, according to Curran.
  • There are some negative effects associated with the commercialisation of the Internet, e.g. many companies that sell products and services on the Internet engage in consumer surveillance. New technologies, e.g. in the form of cookies, can monitor and process the data generated by interactive media usage so they can segment and target potential future audiences and thus enhance profits.
  • Hill and Hughes (1997) challenge the view that cyberspace is more likely to contain web content that supports alternative minority political issues or views – 78% of political opinions expressed on the American websites were mainstream.
  • Cultural pessimists argue that increased choice of media delivery systems and particularly the digitalisation of television, has led to a decline in the quality of popular culture. Harvey suggests that digital television may have dramatically increased the number of channels for viewers to choose from, but this has led to a dumbing down of popular culture as television companies fill these channels with cheap imported material, films, repeats, sport, reality television shows and gambling. Harvey argues that, increasingly, television culture transmits a candy floss culture that speaks to everyone in general and no one in particular.
  • Some sociologists, politicians and cultural commentators argue that new media, particularly the Internet, is in need of state regulation. All points of view are represented on the Internet, but it is argued that easy access to pornography, and homophobic, racist and terrorism-inciting sites is taking free speech too far.

Post-modernism and the media

KEY POINT - Post-modernists argue that the media, and the popular culture that it generates, shape our identities and lifestyles today much more than traditional influences such as family, community, social class, gender, nation or ethnicity.

Post-modernists also argue that the media has also changed and shaped our consumption patterns by making us more aware of the diversity of choices that exist in the post-modern world, e.g. many people now feel that they no longer belong to real communities. The proto-communities of Internet chat-rooms, blogging and on-line fantasy gaming, such as Second Life, and the imagined communities of television soap operas, are increasingly replacing the role of neighbours and extended kin in our lives.

The globalisation of media too means that we now have more globalised cultural influences available to us in terms of lifestyle choices and consumption. This globalisation takes several forms.

  • Ownership of mass media is no longer restricted by national boundaries. Moguls, such as Rupert Murdoch, and media conglomerates, such as Time Warner, own hundreds of media companies spread throughout the world.
  • Satellite television has opened up the world to the television viewer.
  • Access to the worldwide web via the Internet, global webservers (such as AOL or Google) and new technology (such as wireless broadband) mean that we can access information and entertainment in all parts of the world.
  • Advertising occurs on a global scale and particular brands and logos have become globalised as a result.

Post-modernists see the global media as beneficial because it is primarily responsible for diffusing different cultural styles around the world and creating new global hybrid styles in fashion, music, consumption and lifestyle. It is argued that, in the post-modern global world, this cultural diversity and pluralism will become the global norm.

However, Marxists argue that globalisation restricts choice because transnational media companies and their owners have too much power. Marxists are particularly concerned that local media and cultures may be replaced by a global culture. Kellner (1999) suggests that this global media culture is about sameness and that it erases individuality, specificity and difference. However, Cohen and Kennedy (2000) suggest that cultural pessimists under-estimate the strength of local cultures – they note that people do not generally abandon their cultural traditions, family duties, religious beliefs and national identities because they listen to Madonna or watch a Disney film. Rather, they appropriate elements of global culture, and mix and match with elements of local culture, in much the same way as the citizens of the USA and Britain.

The critique of post-modernism

Post-modernists have been criticised for exaggerating the extent of social change. Evidence from attitude surveys indicates that many people see social class, ethnicity, family, nation and religion as still having a profound influence over their lives and identities. Media influence is undoubtedly important, but it is not the determining factor in most people’s lifestyle choices.

There is also a rather naïve element to post-modernist analyses, in that they tend to ignore the fact that a substantial number of people are unable to make consumption choices because of inequalities brought about by traditional influences such as unemployment, poverty, racial discrimination and patriarchy. Traditional forms of inequality remain a crucial influence, as access to the Internet, digital television and so on is denied to many people in Britain.

sign up to revision world banner