The digital age arrives with a set of big communication challenges for traditional mainstream media: new relations with audiences (interactivity), new languages (multimedia) and a new grammar (hypertext). But this media revolution not only changes the communication landscape for the usual players, most importantly, it opens the mass communication system to a wide range of new players.
As far as enterprises, institutions, administrations, organizations, groups, families and individuals start their own online presence, they become “media” by their own, they also become “sources” for traditional media, and in many cases, they produce strong “media criticism”: opinion about how issues are covered by legacy media and delivering of alternative coverage.
Blogs and social media represent the ultimate challenge for the old communication system because they integrate both: the new features of the digital world and a wide democratization in the access to media with a universal scope.
The global process could be understood as a big shift from the classical mass media models to the new media paradigms: the user becomes the axis of communication process, the content is the identity of media, multimedia is the new language, real-time is the only time, hypertext is the grammar, and knowledge is the new name of information.
1. From audience to user
During the 80’s, the merge of satellite and cable technologies enabled broadcast media the delivering of content to thematic segmented target audiences, evolving from broadcasting to narrowcasting. From the 90’s on, internet opens the way to a next step: from narrowcasting to pointcasting.
Online content provision not only could fit niche targets but even more: it could be arranged to meet the specific interests and time constraints of every individual user. The de-massification of public communication arrives with the personal configuration options of online media and services.
The passive unidirectional way of media consumption is replaced by the concept of an active user seeking for content, exploring and navigating info-spaces. Users become also content producers in many web environments, mainly the social web.
The communication process in the actual scenario is user centered: users have the control to choose, to decide, to search, to define and configure, to subscribe or unsubscribe, to comment and, most important: to write, talk and film. Self-media, nanopublishing or thin media are the new names for the strategy of those users who decide to become even more active and start low profile digital native media activities.
2. From media to content
The focus shift from the industrial production constraints (press, radio, television) to content authority in order to define media. National Geographic and CNN, for example, are not a particular kind of media, but brands which represents authority over an area of content (natural life) or expertise in current affairs content management (journalism).
The media convergence towards digital resets media identity, shifting from platforms to contents and outstanding brand image in relation to a type of content not to a media format. Media brand image is one of the most valuable actives of media companies in the new environment: a source of credibility and prestige for digital content.
Today media starts to understand that their business is selling the content, not the holder: multi-platform services to be accessed by users from a range of terminals according to the user’s situation and needs.
3. From monomedia to multimedia
One of the strongest issues about digitalization is that text, audio, video, graphics, photos, and animation could be arranged together and interactively on a single media for this first time in history. This multimedia identity of the actual environment allowed all media industries to converge online (press, broadcast, movies) and this is the reason why media distinctions related to use of single language (textual, audio, visual) tend to be erased. Online media are multimedia, and multimedia is a new language.
This meta-medium nature of the net should be understood at the light of older media revolutions: the first step of older media being the content of newer media is followed by a next step in which newer media develops its own language and content, and older media redefine their identities.
4. From periodicity to real-time
Regular frequency was a strong paradigm of the old scenario to the point the many media were defined in relation to its time constraints (daily, weekly, monthly). Online media (whether they are digital versions of a daily newspaper, or a weekly or monthly magazine) assume that they must to be real time updated to survive in the new environment.
What we lost in the road from periodicity to real-time is the reflection. What we gain is dynamism and conversational styles. Sharing news and opinions with the ability to interact in real-time are the seed of cybercommunities.
5. From scarcity to abundance
Space for the print media and time for broadcast media ceased to be the limit to content and now the time of the user is the new scarce resource.
One of the strong effects of “readers becoming writers” is the proliferation of online information without clear attribution of source authority and heterogeneity of content quality. The overflow of information calls for new skills and tools to manage data, news, and opinions.
Content syndication, news aggregators, news readers, popularity rankings, recommended reading, most viewed lists, trending topics, are but just a few of the tools available to navigate the chaos of abundance.
6. From editor-mediated to non-mediated
The gatekeeper paradigm was broadly used to explain the role of media editors and the agenda-setting theory and to describe the functions of media in defining the daily issues.
This intermediation function should be revisited nowadays in the light of the decentralized nature of the net. Together with legacy media, many other informal sources become relevant to establish the agendas (because the agenda does not exist anymore).
Worldwide publishing without editors, but with a close peer review daily process and in most cases open to comments from readers is the nature of social web publishing. As a result of that, the agenda of relevant current affairs goes beyond the established media land and now is share with a wide variety of new sources, most of them not media, including social web portals, mailing lists, e-bulletins, search engines, newsgroups, forum and weblogs with their respective feeds when available.
7. From distribution to access
The broadcasting paradigm of one to many unilateral distribution is replaced by both: many to one access and many to many communication. Client-server architecture of the internet started a new model based on the decisions of the users.
The access paradigm is complementary with the user center paradigm and both explain the strong interactive nature of the new environment. Access means to seek, search, navigate, surf, decide, an active attitude, a will to connect and communicate, the contrary of the passive reception of media content.
“My daily visits”, “My homepage”, “My favourites”, walls and timelines are expressions of this personal way to seek for content, and the lasts attempts of contextual advertising shows how the old dynamics has change: now advertisers are looking for targets outside the media arena, testing ways for a personal approach based on keywords searching and database mining.
8. From one way to interactivity
Far from the single-direction point-multipoint asymmetrical distribution model of legacy media, with the net emerges a bilateral inverse model many-to-one based on the client-server architecture of the internet, but also a multilateral horizontal and symmetrical many-to-many model.
The fact that content providers and users access the same channel to communicate, enable the users to establish a bilateral relationship with media and also a multilateral relationship with other users of the system. Secondly, by the same rule, users could become content providers.
In the new environment, the user has the ability to choose between content options and to define the time for access, but interactivity also means the capacity to change the aspect of the content, to produce content for a system and to communicate with other users.
The first level of interactivity has to do with the possibility for the user to choose the format of information display (browser and navigation interface configuration).
The second level of interactivity is the possibility for the user to produce input for a system. This contribution could be co-authoring, writing comments, answering pools and tests, posting news, and so on.
The third level of interactivity has to do with the possibility for the user to communicate with other users of the system in real or delay time.
Dealing with interactivity in the context of media with a long and strong tradition of one- way distribution of content is one of the most important challenges that mainstream media has to face.
9. From linear to hypertext
Analogue media narrative construction is linear and narrators have the power to control the story organization and tempo. The digital platforms enable narrators to organize content by fragmenting it into small units (nodes) with multiples paths between them (links). Hypertextual narratives empower the user shifting the control of the narrative from the narrator to the reader.
From linear temporal media, we are shifting to non-linear spatial content. Hypertext becomes the grammar of the digital world.
Reading text lines, listening or watching temporal (linear) audiovisual media are typical activities of traditional media consumption. The digital nature of the actual environment opens the way for a spatial, rather than temporal, organization of content. Websites, blogs and social media profiles are spaces to visit. Virtual spaces where users perform activities: they meet each other, learn, gather and share news and opinions, do shopping and gaming, entertain and create.
The pathways of the info-spaces are built on links. Creating and activating links online could be the new name of alphabetization. Reading and writing by linking, this is, exploring and creating hypertextual environments on a daily basis is the most strategic skill digital natives are achieving.
10. From data to knowledge
The extraordinary amount of data available in the Digital Age bring back the strategic role of media as social managers of knowledge, a role to be shared with an increasing number of new players.
The analysis of data and its transformation into knowledge (not the management of a platform) becomes the axis of media activities. Today, the strategic mission of media is the information about the information: information intelligence, interpretation, filtering and searching combined with the challenge of new interactive multimedia narratives and delivered by a wide range of channels.
This new scenario for public communication in the internet era should not be understood in an apocalyptical way, but it should be considered, instead, as the opportunity to redefine the profiles, the professional challenges and the academic training of communicators, and also to rethink the changing nature of media and mediators.
Adapted from originals published in: BlogTalks: First European Conference on Weblogs (2004) and Towards New Media Paradigms: Content, Producers, Organisations and Audiences (2004).