What is 'New Media' (redux)

[I earlier this week wrote that:

    The radical changes the newspaper industry needs to implement arise from a more true understanding by that industry of why newspaper readership began declining well before the Internet was opened to the public; about why one billion people worldwide have gone onto the Internet after it was opened to the public (they didn’t do it to read traditional media on computer screens), and about why all that plus the misnamed and illusionary ‘fracturing’ of media audiences requires semantic solutions.

At the root of that problem is a misunderstanding about what the New Medium actually is; a misunderstanding by almost all companies that broadcast programs or that publish newspapers or magazines.

I’ve long been reluctant to explain this misunderstanding only because I’ll need a long post to explain it. This is that post, a new version of my 1998 essay What is New Media? (which is currently being taught in the journalism, film, technology, and game design courses at several universities in North America and Europe). It’s 3,200-words long, but I consider it the most important thing I have ever written except for the original essay. I need to have this new version online because I plan to refer to it in future postings, specifically those about what radical changes that media companies need to implement.]

Misunderstanding ‘New Media’

A newspaper isn’t a medium, nor are newspapers media. Magazines aren’t media nor is a magazine a medium. Television isn’t a medium nor is radio nor are radio or television stations media. A website isn’t a medium nor is the Internet media.

Companies that broadcast programs or that publish newspapers or magazines are having problems understanding and adapting to why and how one billion consumers are now using Internet-based technologies to receive news, information, and entertainment.

Those companies have the problems simply because they misunderstand the meaning of media or medium. It is that starkly simple. Their misunderstanding of these terms– not the new technologies that consumers use — is the root of the companies’ problems.

Ask their executives if they work in the ‘Mass Media‘ (the Mass Medium) and they will be correct if they reply yes. But almost all will take that a step further — a misstep — and say that their broadcast, newspaper, or magazine is a medium.

Rhetoricians and cognitive linguists refer to that extra step as metonymy: the use of a well-understood or easy-to-perceive characteristic of something to stand for either a much more complex whole or for some aspect or part of it. (Another example of metonymy is use of the name Hollywood to describe the entire film industry worldwide)

Broadcast and publishing executives mistake Mass Media as a catchall phrase for all possible media, as if no other medium can exist except as a Mass Medium. Moreover, they extend this mistaken meaning of medium to cover their own broadcasts or publications.

So entrenched has the contemporary misunderstanding of the terms media and medium become that the mistake limits the abilities of most publishing or broadcasting executives to comprehend what exactly is a medium or the media in which they work.

So, what are media, what is a medium?

I’ll answer, explain how only three media exist and how previously just two did, and define the New Medium (‘New Media’). But let’s first take a moment to look at how today’s colloquial meaning of media or medium is a relatively recent mistake.

If you were to ask a person in the year 1506, 1606, 1706, 1806, or 1906, medium they used for their news, they wouldn’t understand what you asked. They simply wouldn’t comprehend your use of the word medium. (Indeed, if you had asked anyone in 1506, 1606, or 1706 what medium they used to get their news, they might think you were accusing them of using a witch to tell them about current events — a serious crime back then!)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the colloquial meaning of medium is a latecomer to the publishing industry. It dates only from around 1880 — a quarter millennium after publication of the first daily newspapers and 150 years after publication of the first magazines:

    Medium (‘mi:diem), sb. and a. Pl. Mediia, -iums. [a. L. Medium, neuter of medius middle, cogn. With MID a.] A. sb
    5. a. An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. spec. of newspapers, radio, television , etc. As vehicles of mass communication . Also attrib. And in pl. (see MEDIA) 1880 Coach Builders’ Art Jrnl. I. 63: ‘Considering your Journal one of the best possible mediums for such a scheme.’

The colloquial plural media is even more a latecomer. The OED says it dates from only a few years after rise of the first commercial radio stations and is a term borrowed from the advertising industry:

    Media (‘mi:dia), sb. pl. [Pl. F MEDIUM sb., prob. After mass media.] Newspapers, radi, television, etc., collectively, as vehicles of mass communication. Freq. attrib. or as adj.
    Also erron. As sing. in same sense.
    1923 [see mass medium].

    Mass medium (,maes ‘mi:diem). [f. MASS sb. + MEDIUM sb.] A medium of communications (such as radio, television, newspapers, etc.) that reaches a large number of people; usu. In pl. mass media.
    1923 S. M. FECHHEIMER in N. T. Praigg Advertising & Selling v. 238 (title) Class appeal in mass media. Ibid. The several million readers of a big mass medium. G. SNOW in Ibid. 240 ‘Mass media represents the most economical way of getting the story over the new and wider market in the least time.’

I’m not playing semantics here. When I state that the publishing and broadcasting industries’ colloquial usages of the terms medium and media are wrong, I’m not trying to define new meanings for those terms. Instead, I’m returning to the previous meanings that those terms had had for millennia (prior to the Advertising Industry coining the current colloquialism in 1923). That is the key to understanding what is the New Medium or, even for that matter, what is the Mass Medium.

Discard Preconceptions and the Misunderstanding

There is a saying about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: that what makes it difficult for some people to comprehend is its simplicity. That you don’t need to acquire more information to understand it, but that you must instead discard preconceived notions that block your understand. There is a similar saying about Quantum Theory.

Understanding the New Medium is like that, too.

To understand the New Medium, discard the colloquial meanings of medium and media. Don’t confuse a Medium for its Vehicles. What most people today think are media are actually vehicles within a medium.

A newspaper isn’t a medium, nor are newspapers media. Magazines aren’t media nor is a magazine a medium. Television isn’t a medium nor is radio nor are radio or television stations media.

Likewise, a personal computer connected to the Internet isn’t a medium and the millions of computers connected to the Internet aren’t media. Neither is a website a medium nor are websites media. The World Wide Web isn’t a medium nor is e-mail a medium nor is the Internet itself a medium or media.

Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, telephones, billboards, personal computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and e-mail all are vehicles for conveying information within a medium or media. These vehicles aren’t the media or a medium in which they operate.

To understand the difference between a vehicle and a medium for information or communication, you merely need to comprehend how the terms medium, media, and vehicles are correctly used when discussing transportation.

Although there are numerous types of vehicles, only three transportation media exist:

Land was the aboriginal transportation medium; it was the first transportation medium. Humans have walked on it since time immemorial. We still do. But we’ve also built vehicles to help convey us in this medium: carts, chariots, carriages, bicycles, trains, automobiles, trucks and lorries, etc.

Water is the second transportation medium. Human’s usage of it as a transportation medium is almost as old as humanity’s use of land, dating from whenever the first human attempted to ride a floating log or to swim across a stream, river, or lake. We’ve since created vehicles to convey use in this medium: rafts, canoes, barges, sailboats, ships, submarines, etc.

Before I list the third transportation medium, please note some characteristics of these two traditional transportation media, because you’ll find that these characteristics have analogues in informational or communicational media:

  • Note first that humans’ usage of those two ancient transportation media predate technology. Technology has merely extended our speed and carrying capacities in these media.
  • Also note that humanity’s uses of these two media aren’t necessarily dependent upon technology. Most of us can walk and swim without using any technology.
  • And note that each of the vehicles for these media is limited by its medium. Trains don’t operate on water nor do steamships operate on land. Indeed, land and water have mutually exclusive characteristics as media and reaches. Mutually exclusive advantages and disadvantages. This will become an important point when we bridge — no pun intended — this analogy towards informational and communicational media

For many millennia, anyone who needed transportation faced a choice of using either one of these two transportation media. His choice would have been based upon where that medium reached or its carrying capacity.

For examples, water vehicles have almost global reach but not to landlocked places. Most water vehicles also have much greater carrying capacities than do land vehicles. But most land vehicles can deliver anyone door-to-door, a capability that most water vehicle can’t provide (unless they are in Venice).

For almost all of recorded history, humans have used the medium of water and its vehicles for most of their long distance transportation needs, but have used the medium of land and its vehicles for most of their daily transportation needs. A third transportation medium had been inconceivable.

That was until 1903. Or, more accurately, 1783, which was when two French brothers named Montgolfier used their era’s technologies to build a vehicle that opened an new transportation medium. Joseph Michel and Jacques

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