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The term “online media” primarily refers to technical communication media where digital content is transmitted from any kind of server to distant receivers via the Internet (TCP/IP [transmission control protocol/Internet protocol]) or other digital networks, e.g., mobile services, and presented on a computer or a comparable terminal device (notebook, PDA [personal digital assistant], or mobile phone). Not all kinds of digital media are online media: multimedia CDs, DVDs, DVD players, mp3 players, or media applications on standalone computers are referred to as “offline media,” as content is stored at the place where it is presented. In opposition to broadcasting media Television; Radio), where analog or digital content is broadly transmitted (via terrestrial or satellite broadcasting or broadband cable) to all receptive devices, in online media a client computer requests specific content from a server that, in turn, directly – i.e., point-to-point – delivers the content. According to this technical definition, online media facilitate a broad variety of different forms of computer-mediated communication. They can be described along several dimensions dealing with (1) basic aspects of communication structure, (2) aspects of exposure and user interaction, and (3) theoretical and institutional aspects of mass media.
Basic Aspects Of Communication Structure
The first dimension is the direction of communication and number of communication partners. Online communication can take place between single persons who are mutually exchanging messages (interpersonal or one-to-one communication, e.g., email, chat, or Internet telephony); between several persons, often organized within issue-based groups, e.g., in MUDs (multi-user dungeons), discussion, or chat forums (group or many-to-many communication) where some members are actively participating while passive “lurkers” are only reading the others’ contributions; and between a sender and an arbitrary number of recipients (one-to-many, e.g., websites or weblogs). If each member of a society has at least the potential opportunity to be a recipient – i.e., a medium addresses the public and if the audience size exceeds a critical mass of recipients – one-to-many communication is called mass communication.
A second basic aspect is synchronicity. Here we have to distinguish between interpersonal and mass media. Some interpersonal media enable synchronous communication between communication partners, which means that each side instantaneously receives the other side’s messages and can, in turn, immediately react (e.g., chat, Internet telephony, video conferences). This permits a direct and truly interactive communication situation, requiring the simultaneous disposition and attention of both partners. Other interpersonal media offer asynchronous communication: the sender’s message is stored and can be received and answered whenever the recipient wants, e.g., email, voice mailbox. Referring to one-to-many or mass communication, there are also two basic variants of synchronicity. Asynchronous online media permit recipients to receive content whenever they wish. Most online news media offer an archive where old articles can be retrieved even years later. In contrast to print media, where content cannot be changed after publication as there are too many original copies, digital content can be updated, revised, or altered easily and at any time. This is the main reason why online publications can be problematic to cite, as a cited version can significantly differ from later versions. Synchronous online media are the equivalent of broadcasting by streaming video, music, or spoken word in real time. Different from “traditional” broadcasting, many synchronous online media additionally offer archived material for later, asynchronous use, e.g., as video on demand.
Third, online media can contain different forms of digital content ranging from text, photographs, drawings, sound clips, videos, and animations (multimedia) to any imaginable information service or software application. Thus, online media can display all kinds of content from the traditional media, and the concept of hyperlinks allows interconnection of any form of content. This has major implications for the debate on technical media convergence and the replacement of traditional media by online media: theoretically, online media can substitute for any existing medium. If a so-called “multimedium” emerges incorporating all earlier media and offering additional services in the future, it will be digital and online. If a multimedium, i.e., one device for all media content, user needs, and situations, ever exists it is unclear how long its diffusion within society will take. Most researchers, academic and commercial, forecast that although the Internet and mobile media will continue to gain audience share, the established media (television, radio, press) will not be replaced in the medium term (see, e.g., Lehman-Wilzig & Cohen-Avigdor 2004; Adoni & Nossek 2001).
Aspects Of Exposure And User Interaction
Place Of Use
Until around the year 2000, online media were almost exclusively used on computers situated in (home) offices and mainly used for informational purposes, so-called “laid forward media.” Computers are increasingly used as entertainment media, so-called “laid back media,” and have started to displace television and other entertainment media in livingrooms, children’s rooms, and bedrooms (e.g., Bakardjieva & Smith 2001; Berker et al. 2005).
Today, most online offerings can be used at any kind of media terminal as long as a sufficiently fast data connection is established and the terminal’s input and output facilities (display, loudspeaker, keypad) are adequate. This allows not only home use, but also the development of mobile media services for portable devices like notebooks, PDAs, mobile phones, game paddles, and digital music or video players. Broadband mobile media offering multimedia capabilities and location-based services (the “third generation of telecommunication,” UMTS [universal mobile telecommunications system]) are seen as the most promising media markets.
There are two different concepts of interactive media. In a sociological sense, interactive media allow individuals or groups of individuals to communicate with each other (computer-mediated interpersonal communication). Examples are online marketplaces like eBay, online communities where users can share personal photographs (e.g., Flickr), and videos (e.g., YouTube) or discuss specific issues. The other meaning refers to human–computer interaction. Here, media content is stored on a server (the computer, usually a web server). The user can access the desired content by selecting one option (hyperlink) or an array of options (e.g., a restaurant database searchable by location, nationality of cuisine, price category) or by inserting text in a text field (e.g., search engines or expert systems).
The more options the medium provides and the more easily users can control the content (range of options), the faster the medium reacts to users’ choices (speed), and the more flexibility users obtain to decide when to retrieve content (time flexibility), the more interactive a medium is. Highly interactive media can detect users’ needs and interests without user input or even awareness. Online media, for example, can track and save users’ visits and selected content and automatically present appropriate content at the next visit. Mobile media can identify a person’s location and deliver location-specific information (e.g., nearby restaurants or gas stations). Besides control, the number of senses a medium activates (visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, gustatory; “media richness” – see Steuer 1992), the ease of control (usability), and the user’s situational feeling of being personally, emotionally, and locally connected to the described content (established concepts are playfulness, connectedness, sense of place, presence, immersion) affect the degree of a medium’s interactivity. According to this definition, online games are the most interactive online media: In a conventional ego-shooter game, the player has a choice as to where to look, where to move, and what to say. The system instantly reacts to his or her actions, and for the player it feels like “being there” (see Kiousis 2002; Lin 2003).
Content modularization is an indispensable prerequisite of human–computer interactivity. In the traditional media, specific media products (e.g., newspaper copies, magazines, TV or radio programs, movies) are produced and presented as one integral piece of content. In hypertext and interactive media, content is broken into singular modules that users can deliberately select or arrange by clicking on hyperlinks or applying other forms of control. Consequently, there is no fixed order of reception. The degree of modularization depends on two dimensions: the universality and the size of content modules. If modules are universal, they fit different contexts and can be understood even without context. Universal modules can be applied in any content configuration and can be easily distributed across different media channels (cross-media utilization).
If, for example, a one-hour TV news magazine consisting of several thoroughly composed films that are linked by a presenter is offered as a download on the web, the material has to be separated into self-contained films that users can arbitrarily watch and understand in any order and without the original linkages. The coherence of the initially integral content is, at least partially, lost. This example also illustrates the second dimension: while the initial TV news magazine is a consecutive content unit of one hour, the web version comprises several films of a much shorter duration, i.e., content modules are smaller in size. In many text-based news sites, module sizes are still similar to newspapers or printed magazines such that print and online articles are comparable in length.
There are also extremely modularized media offerings assembled from a huge number of micro-elements. An online restaurant guide is, for example, a database of thousands of cases, each one consisting of dozens of fields or attributes: name of the restaurant, phone number, email address, dishes and beverage prices, different quality ratings (atmosphere, service, taste, or tidiness), etc. Each bit of information is significant only in combination with other bits of content. Visitors, then, can search for information and view different configurations of restaurant lists and profiles. The same principle applies to online games. In an ego-shooter game, each motion sequence, weapon, enemy, monster, and landscape is based on a huge number of separate information bits that are combined according to the situation and the player’s actions.
Unitized media content can be easily adapted to users’ interests and wishes. Automated content configuration permits the permanent personalization of online media, i.e., the repeated provision of a package of content that is automatically selected and presented according to users’ preferences. There are two basic variants of personalization. The user may select his or her preferred topics, departments, genres, actors, and locations and is presented with the content in the future (“customization,” e.g., Daily Me). Personalization in a narrower sense means that the user is automatically presented with tailored content, i.e., without selecting it and sometimes without noticing the automatic adaptation. Mobile services, for example, automatically provide locally relevant information, such as the next restaurant, hotel, or gas station. Amazon is another example: customers are accurately profiled according to their past purchases and viewed products. In future visits, they are presented with new offers and other information fitting their personal profile. These and other profiling practices clearly affect the information privacy of customers or recipients and this is being debated critically in the scholarly literature (see articles in New Media and Society, 8(6)).
Theoretical And Institutional Aspects Of Mass Media
Meaning Of Online Media
So far this discussion has referred to online media as “technical” media, like television sets, computers, mobile phones, broadband cable, or telephone lines. In communication studies, two other perspectives dominate.
First, there is the meaning of institutional media, including a complex and emerging configuration of companies or institutions offering media products, trying to reach defined communication goals, applying processes and rules of content production under public control and regulation, and producing media-specific types of content for audiences with specific needs, gratifications, and patterns of media exposure. According to this cultural meaning, we can distinguish different types of online media, e.g., news sites, television network sites, corporate or product sites, political campaign sites, thematic communities, or search engines.
Another meaning refers to online media as concrete media offerings or products (e.g., cnn.com, msnbc.com, ft.com), which are produced by journalistically and/or economically oriented institutions, disseminated, and received with the help of a technical infrastructure and devices. Most online media providers strive to reach mass audiences with products in order to finance their costly production by advertising revenues (online media requiring a user fee are still restricted to premium content).
The Internet As Mass Medium Or Cross-Medium
In the early days of the Internet in the mid-nineties, scholars discussed whether the Internet is a mass medium or not. At that time, about 5 –10 percent of the population in most western countries were online. The question arose whether the Internet could be seriously compared to the other mass media after having reached a “critical mass” of 10 percent of users (Morris & Ogan 1995). In this discussion, different meanings of media became blurred. The Internet as a technical medium was compared to television, radio, and the press as institutional media. Later, the potentially infinite number of visitors on any website provoked the question of whether the web per se is a mass medium or whether only those sites that are actually viewed by a large audience can be called a mass medium (see, e.g., Webster & Lin 2002). The question of what number of recipients is required to talk of a mass audience is still unanswered, but there seems to be a consensus among scholars to exclude from mass media private sites that are viewed by only a small number of visitors.
In the traditional mass media, almost all news and entertainment content is supplied by professional media companies, institutions, or networks. This also applies to most online news and entertainment media. The majority of today’s successful online mass media were founded by already established media or publishing houses. Online start-ups or standalone online media are still rare, and there are several reasons for this. In the beginning of online media, established media brands were already known to the audience and had a good image concerning news and entertainment quality, and online users trusted the established brands in the online world. Established media houses also had the journalism infrastructure and knowhow to produce content for new media. They were able to reuse existing media content in their online media and to produce or purchase content at a lower price (cross-media utilization). Finally, multimedia houses can offer different media products with complementary content and promote new content across media channels (cross-media promotion). They can, for example, produce a television show, deliver background information or additional videos on a corresponding website, and offer a sweepstake over a telephone line with a usage fee (Ha & Chan-Olmsted 2004).
Source Of Content
In the traditional mass media as well as in online mass media, news and entertainment content is selected, produced, and presented by professional journalists. Today, many online news media additionally contain “user-generated content”: more or less “average users” actively mount different kinds of personal content at a website. This content is, in turn, selected, revised, and assembled by professional site providers. Examples of user-generated content are discussion forums, weblogs, user diaries, personal essays, sound files or films, reader ratings of articles, and opinion polls. Users’ visits to web pages can be logged and transformed into presentable content (e.g., as “Today’s top 10 most read articles”). These kinds of online content are produced in an alleged cooperation between professional content providers and active users, giving recipients the feeling of being fully respected as co-writers. However, the site provider has the power to modify or reject users’ contributions with the aim of creating an attractive mass media product (see Schweiger & Quiring 2005). Other online media are completely user-generated and can be regarded as real communities insofar as users’ contributions are not at all or only lightly controlled by professionals (e.g., Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube).
The Internet and other digital networks are communication platforms for news and entertainment media for private individuals, but they are also a means for all social and economic actors to directly reach the public without the paid (advertising) or free (press relations) mediation of mass media (sometimes discussed as “bypassing journalism”). Most companies, associations, and other institutions in the industrialized world run corporate, product or institutional websites. The Internet is home to an infinite multitude of database applications and services: online games, information services like Yellow Pages, product comparison sites, navigation services, download sites, e-learning environments, search engines, and sophisticated applications like Second Life. The question arises as to whether these are all online media or whether the concept needs to be bounded in some way. There is no simple answer to this question. There is such a variety of online media, services, and applications, and all imaginable combinations of them, that any rigid definition is bound to fail.
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