Media Ecology

Monday, February 16, 2009

Media Ecology occupies a strange disciplinary place as it seeks to understand the effects of media on the world. With a predominantly sociological background, Media Ecology studies the impacts of different media on human beings. While seemingly straightforward, this discipline has always confused me slightly because two other disciplines seem to cover the whole of what Media Ecology studies, anthropology and communication (or communication studies etc.). And yet, media ecologists have been some of the most profoundly inspiring and influential theorists I have ever read, McLuhan, Postman, Carpenter.

Basically outlined, Media Ecology suggests that media are not neutral conduits for information, but that each alters information in fundamental ways (McLuhan's "the medium is the message" is useful here). From this, it then surmises that each media has particular and discoverable biases built into it that shapes the way that media will be experienced. Lastly, it goes further to say that due to its non-neutral nature and its biases, media creates certain effects on people due to its use.

In the present world, it seems we need to take the study and investigation of media ever more seriously as new influential forms of communication pop up with increasing frequency. A perfect case study is the rise of Twitter and micro-blogging in the last two years. Clive Thompson suggests that Twitter creates a sense of "ambient intimacy" for its users by providing an always on channel of social information streaming in and out of consciousness.

Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.
One of the results of this affect that microblogging seems to create a small town type environment amongst people separated by long distances; they know many very mundane details about each other which build to give a sense of intimacy. While this may certainly be the case, it is not all a rosy picture. As Thompson duly notes, most people are skeptics about this sort of "statusing." They feel it is more narcissistic blabber being thrust on the world by one of the most narcissistic generations to ever come into existence. I certainly do not fall into line with many of these skeptics, I do think the ways this medium negotiates identity should be carefully studied.

I wonder if the popularity of microblogging is directly related to this sense of "ambient intimacy." I further wonder how it interacts with the culture of micro-celebrity that has grown fervently, is it a contradictory impulse or does it promote micro-celebrity? (on the one hand it is clearly a self-centered enterprise, providing personal details to the world, and on the other hand it is clearly creating a communal effect for many people, perhaps due to "ambient intimacy") Lastly, I wonder in what ways anonymity our need to be known manifests itself through different media.

Kevin's Bookmarks