The advent of the Internet is arguably the biggest game changer in communication since the invention of broadcasting, both via television and radio (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 366). In just the past decade alone both software and hardware technology advances have changed the way the world connects at a blistering pace and birthing cyber communication.
What is cyber communication?
Cyber communication, or digital communications is a broad term applied to communication facilitated by the Internet but also multimedia advances such as CD-ROMs, flash storage, high definition broadcasting and more (Severin & Tankard, 2001, pgs. 366-370).
James Chesebro and Dale Bertelsen argue that all communication technologies break into two categories.
In all, telecommunications and interactive technologies characterize the two dominant types of communication technologies … we suspect that these two forms are undergoing transformations in which they increasingly affect one another (1996, p. 136).
Indeed, the two kinds of technology Chesebro and Bertelsen account for are affecting one another in profound ways creating the concept of cyber communication, a smaller subset of digital communication, specifically focused on interactivity and the Internet.
Defining cyber communications starts with an understanding of what cyber space is, the virtual realm that the word cyber, in cyber communications, relates to. In 1992 Michael Benedikt defined cyberspace as
The globally networked, computer sustained, computer accessed, and computer generated, multidimensional, artificial, or virtual reality. In this reality, to which every computer is a window, seen or heard objects are neither physical no, necessarily, representations of physical objects but are, rather, in form, character and action, made up of data, of pure information (pgs. 122-123).
The term cyberspace was born from authors of science fiction. Many researchers of cyber communication and new technology attribute the term cyberspace to William Gibson and his novel Neuromancer (Winston, 1998, p. 333, Turkle, 1995, p. 42). With the introduction of Internet technologies, popular tendency was to attribute the term cyberspace to the virtual place where online interaction occurs (Wood & Smith , 2005, pg. 18-19).
More recent authors have distilled that definition down to refer to the virtual communications that take place facilitated via the Internet. They can include chat rooms, email, websites, and more (Turkle, 1995, p. 9-12). In recent years, one can add social networking technologies, also facilitated by the Internet, to the list of cyber destinations for communication.
With this framework we can come to a working definition for cyber communication as communication that is facilitated through the use of the Internet and networked technologies or applications that are powered through these means.
Cyber Communication as New Media, Characteristics
In media studies, it’s common to find discussions of cyber communication to appear within the context of old versus new media. Several authors have written on the notion of new media and sought to define it, in contrast to old media. One of the key concepts of new media is an understanding that “the new media are not simply a linear extension of the old (Dizard, 1997, p. 11).
Dizard goes on to explain that both old and new media offer information to large audiences but that a key difference is “new media can expand the range of resources to new dimensions; for example, they can provide on-line interactive links between the consumer and the information provider” (1997, p. 11). With Dizard’s analysis of what differentiates new media from old, it’s clear that a study of cyber communication also needs to examine the elements that characterize new media.
One of the leading authors on new media definitions, characteristics and challenges is Lev Manovich. Chief among his concepts is the notion that no list of characteristics or definitions applied to new media including focused research areas such as cyber communication is exhaustive or etched in granite. Rather, Manovich argues, “they should be considered not absolute laws but … as general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization” (1999, p. 27). Manovich presents four key characteristics of new media: numerical representation, modularity, automation, and variability (1999, pgs. 27-48).
Numerical representation is the notion that all new media objects are created on computers either from scratch or through converting old analog media into digital media. The process of digitizing analog media, or creating new media from scratch requires the content to be broken down to data that is read by a computer, a series of 1s and 0s and therefore read numerically and through the manipulation of algorithms (1999, pgs. 27-30).
Modularity in Manovich’s context refers to the nature that all new media has the same “modular structure” throughout (1999, p. 30). Specifically, that the representation of images, sounds, videos and text can be broken down into bits and pixels, smaller pieces that retain their own unique identities, but when assembled together create larger objects (1999, pgs. 30-32). A similar concept for this exists in biology how individual cells can individually be unique but when combined together take on a new mass.
Automation is an inherent characteristic of new media because it can only occur when the numerical coding and the modular structure of a media object exist (1999, p. 32). Specifically, automation allows the removal of human intention from process. This is common in Internet applications and software that allows actions to be run by a computer, a process that normally requires heavy human interaction, such as the use of Adobe photo software and applications to automate generation of 3d Dimensional images (1999, pgs. 32-36).
Variability simply refers to the notion that new media objects are not fixed and can live in a potentially infinite number of versions and in an infinite number of virtual locationsc(1999, pgs. 36-44).
These four characteristics of new media outlined by Manovich are clearly seen in the realm of cyber communication, facilitated by the Internet, which creates media through numerical coding and modularity allowing for automation and variability. However, Manovich isn’t the only author who has sought definitions and characteristics of new media.
Another characteristic found in literature for new media, and perhaps a key piece of cyber communication today, is the notion of interactivity. The definition of interactivity can often depend on the context in which you view it. For example, Severin andTankard claim “people with backgrounds in computer science tend to think interactivity refers to the user interacting with the computer” (2001, p. 370). Additionally, Severin and Tankard claim that “communication scholars tend to think of interactivity involving communication between two human beings”(2001, p. 370). What Severin and Tankard assert is that when it comes to the Internet both are taking place.
A study conducted in 1998 (McMillan and Downes) suggests that interactivity in cyber communication and as a characteristic of new media is more focused on informing rather than persuading and places a high value on the end user. The study, based on interviews with technology experts, points to interactivity in new media as control by user, activity by user, two-way communication versus one-way and communication that takes place without the confines of time and space (pgs. 157-177).
Mass Communication Theories Applied to Digital Communication
The speed at which technology changes and impacts cyber communication has proven challenging for researchers to keep up with and conduct the studies necessary to successfully develop theories applied specifically to cyber communication (Severin & Tankard, 2011, p. 379). However, there are established mass communication theories that can apply to cyber communication and new media. Among those theories are: The knowledge gap theory and agenda setting.
While few theories exist for just the concept of cyber communications, authors such as Roger Fidler have explore the impact of technology on media creating theories such as Mediamorphosis.
As technology and cyber communication becomes more social and fragmented, it’s also worth looking at selective exposure and to ask the question: does technology accelerate select exposure creating, in my own opinion, a form of intellectual inbreeding. We’ll explore each of these concepts briefly.
Knowledge gap theory has been applied to traditional media. One of it’s key identifiers is the notion that as time goes by, the consumption and processing of knowledge on an individual topic is acquired at faster rates among more affluent individuals than with those who lack economic or education means (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970, pgs. 159-170). When applied to cyber communication or new media, it forms a “digital divide” (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 377). “One of the problems facing society is that the rich benefits of the Internet might not be equally available to everyone” (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 377). Cyber communication and new media make the creation and sharing of information a high efficient process, if one possesses both the tools and knowledge necessary to find the information.
Agenda setting theory as applied to traditional media asserts that the media’s power to distribute repetitious messages has the power to leverage or heighten audience perception on issues. In other words, because media is a source of information, it has the power not necessarily to tell audiences what to think, but they play a key role in telling audiences what to think about (Severin & Tankard, 2001, pgs. 219-241). It’s unclear if agenda setting theory will play out in cyber communications and new media. Arguments against it include the notion that audiences online are too fragmented. However, there is early evidence that it could play out in new media as well. Severin & Tankard cite a study conducted in Korea that examined issues and their priority between online media and traditional media. Issues such as job and the economy were segmented. The results of that research found that a topic with a high priority in one form of media (traditional or online) also had a high prevalence in another, suggesting agenda setting theory could also apply to new media (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 373). While it’s not 100% clear there is a correlation, the concept of agenda plays well into another communication theory, the notion of selective exposure.
Selective exposure explores the role of perception in communication and outlines “the tendency for individuals to expose themselves to those communications that are in agreement with their existing attitudes and to avoid those communications that are not” (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p.80). In today’s cyber communication realm, the notion of audience fragmentation is a concern. Researches such as David Tewksbury (2005) have explored the concept of audience fragmentation specifically in relation to online news sites and found that audiences online are highly fragmented and easily grouped by demographics and psychographics (pgs. 332-348). The narrowing of audience focus on content continues to accelerate with social technologies that connect us to those with similar values. Internet users now spend more than a quarter of their time online plugged into social networks, and consume a bulk of their news and information from these sources (Jon, p. 2b). A logical question to come from that fact would be, do new media technologies facilitate and accelerate the selective exposure process? Emerging technologies create content silos in which we see only content shared from within our circle unless we seek out diverse perspectives or have a diverse circle of influencers.
As mentioned before, the development of new theories or even looking at the application of existing theories continues to be a challenge in regards to new media and cyber communication. Questions like the one this essay just asked in regards to new media and selective exposure continue to be the central force in theory and new media discussions (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 379).
One of the more prominent theories developed around new media and cyber communication however is Roger Fidler’s theory of Mediamorphosis. Fidler defines mediamorphosis as “the transformation of communication media, usually brought about by the complex interplay of perceived needs, competitive and political pressures, and social and technological innovations” (1997, pgs. 22-23). The premise of the theory is that media systems are highly adaptable, and in regards to “other systems, respond to external pressures with a spontaneous process of self-reorganization.” (Severin & Tankard 380) Suggesting perhaps another characteristic of new media, adaptability.
While the technology will continue to change at a blistering pace, the concepts of new media and cyber communication can still be examined from existing communication theories. However, as this essay and research has suggested, there continues to be a need for continued research and exploration of new theories as technologies change the way we communicate.
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