Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Name of the Medium or Getting on Track with the New

I've been meaning to do a post about this for a while now, so here goes. My department at Fordham University, the Department of Communication and Media Studies, has been doing a bit of a review of our curriculum, and I volunteered to work on our undergraduate New Media track, along with my colleague Ed Wachtel. I should add here that I've known Ed for almost 30 years now, having met him when I was an MA student at Queens College of the City University of New York; Ed was the assistant director of the multimedia lab at Queens College when I started there, and then became director during my second year there, all while completing his doctorate at New York University with Neil Postman in the good old media ecology program (Joshua Meyrowitz was the head of the lab during my first year, before he completed his PhD in media ecology and headed off to New Hampshire, and both Ed and Josh convinced me to apply for admission to the media ecology doctoral program, which I did; Ed went on to Temple University in Philly for a couple of years before getting a position at Fordham, where I eventually followed him).

So, the Multimedia Lab at Queens College featured multi-image lecture support, giant lecture rooms equipped with multiple slide projectors coordinated by computer console, programable with music on a reel-to-reel tape player, all rear projection, and film projection was also available. This was the big, hot thing back in the late 70s, back before PowerPoint presentations and IMAX theaters. And back in the mid 90s, Ed had set up the Edward A. Walsh Media Lab at Fordham for our department, which was equipped with Macintosh computers, and then launched a new curriculum concentration to go with it. His emphasis was on media production, including digital video, which then was a new alternative to traditional analog video. I remember well the department meeting where we discussed the new track, which Ed had wanted to name Digital Media. There were some objections to this designation, and the concentration ended up with the name New Media instead.

Perhaps this was fortuitous, as nowadays almost all media are digital media in some sense. But at a department meeting last year there were some remarks about how the new media are no longer all that new, and some suggestions along the lines of combining the New Media track with the Radio/Television track as Electronic Media. As a media ecologist, I wouldn't mind having an Electronic Media track alongside one devoted to Writing and Print, and one concentrating on Oral Communication, but that would not be the case here. Rather, we have tracks in Journalism, and in Film, and also one that's analytical and critical in orientation, called Media, Culture and Society. And I do believe that there is a very significant distinction to be maintained between electronic media that more or less follow in the tradition of broadcasting, and the new media that we've been talking about since the early 90s, or 80s even, that are associated with computing technology.

So, then, the problem we were faced with is, what should be the name of the New Media track? Some of the possibilities that immediately come to mind are somewhat dated, like Cyberspace (one of my old favorites) or Cybermedia, Virtual Reality, Hypermedia, and the like. Interactive Media was an early favorite, but aside from being somewhat dated too, doesn't cover something like digital video, or even necessarily applies to websites. Internet Studies and Online Media do not cover alternatives like a DVD-ROM or much of video and computer gaming, and neither does Social Media, as much as I like that term. Computer-mediated communication is associated with interpersonal communication in particular. And I could go on and on, but the point is that there doesn't seem to be one good term that covers everything.

So what else to do but enlist the new media in this effort, which I did by posting the following message on Twitter;

Meeting with my colleague Ed Wachtel to revise our new media curriculum. Not even sure what to call it--new media? Interactive? Digital?

I then got a response from New Media maven Howard Rheingold, who wrote (and I relate his tweets with his permission):

I know it's a long word, but "Participative" or "Participatory" media goes to the essence of what is important about "new" media

This suggestion was a new one for me, and I rather liked it. Ed wasn't quite so thrilled with it, so I responded

great idea, thanks! I love "Participatory Media" but my colleague says it doesn't cover his area, digital video production

Howard then answered back with two more tweets:

Does that mean that your colleague means digital video is strictly a broadcast medium, confined to a guild of professionals?

i.e., isn't YouTube participatory?I'm sure you know @mwesch video an anthroplogical introductionto youtube

In that last post, he makes a reference to media ecologist and anthropologist Mike Wesch, and a link to a major address Mike gave, which is well worth tuning into. Here, let me go get it for you, so you can check it out at your leisure:

But not to get sidetracked, I responded with a series of messages about Ed:

He doesn't see digital video as strictly broadcast, but as more than social media like YouTube

He sees production as distinct from interaction and participation, a solitary, sequestered affair, even if collaborative

I did remind him of the portapak revolution of the late 60s/early 70s, which he was a part of, which democratized video

The portapak revolution is a reference to the introduction of portable video cameras and recorders. Here's the wikipedia write-up on portapak. So, Howard responds with

The Martian Report was done on a Portapak in 1977

Well, Rheingold's old portapak video is kinda neat, so let me embed it here

So, I responded with

The Martian Report holds up well, LOL! The portapak pioneers were big on McLuhan, and took the term "media ecology" from Postman

I think it worth noting that a magazine put out by those portapak people, Radical Software, has been made available online (just click on the title). The first issue has an early reference to media ecology, albeit out of context, and includes contributions from media ecology-minded folks such as Paul Ryan (Marshall McLuhan's assistant when he was at Fordham), Frank Gillette, multimedia maven Gene Youngblood, and even Buckminster Fuller. The third issue contains a short piece entitled "Media Ecology" by Raymond Arlo, who was studying with Neil Postman in the media ecology program (but made no mention of the fact, or of Neil, in his article). Anyway, Howard went on to remark

I can't help thinking that concentrating solely on the means of production misses a large part of the point of new media

To which I responded

the problem isn't concentrating solely on means of production, it's making it clear that production is part of the track

And Howard answered

I agree that digital production tools and techniques are important, but you have to make trade-offs for short labels

And I came back with two more messages

If it were up to me, I'd call it Participatory Media, I think that's an excellent way to map the territory.

It's the problem of semantic reactions, and departmental politics.

The term semantic reactions comes from general semantics, in case you were wondering, and refers to the way we make meaning out of stimuli, including the problem of responding to symbols as if they were things. At this point, the conversation had shifted to a meta-level, and Howard remarked in two messages

@stevenbjohnson 's latest book, The Invention of Air, gets into the idea that disciplinary specialization is recent

and of course I understand that departmental politics aren't going to go away, and that names matter there

And that's what this is about, the realpolitik of academia. Which brought to mind an old quip, that I related:

yes indeed! McLuhan and Postman both used to joke that universities suffer from the hardening of the categories!

Now, another friend and fellow media ecologist, Matt Thomas, who had been following this exchange on Twitter, chimed in with

Thanks for including me in the conversation! Why do we feel the need to append new/social/digital/ to media at all?

And Howard answered with

Thanks. What to call "new media" is a puzzle. "Social media" seems to be emerging among early adopters, but could be more active
And later

Because we are in the midst of a sea change from broadcast media to many to many media, which is branching into many forms

And I went on to summarize in a couple of messages:

The problem with "social media" is they're not all social. The problem with "new media" is they're not that new now

The problem with digital media is that everything is digital now, including broadcasting and film. It's a conundrum!

Then a bit later on, I responded to Matt more specifically:

It's an issue for curriculum. We have separate tracks for journalism, broadcasting, film, and more recently new media

Some in the dept. think new media and broadcasting should be combined as electronic media. I think they should be distinct.

So, anyway, I thought we were just going to stick with New Media, but several days later I was able to send Howard the following tweet:

So my colleague came around, and we're proposing to change the track to New Media/Participatory Media, a compromise position

Ed had thought it over, and decided that Participatory Media was a good idea after all, but we also agreed to retain New Media for the sake of clarity. So the next step was for me to prepare a report, on behalf of the New Media Task Force, aka me and Ed, to the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee. Which I did. And I thought I'd share with you the first item first of all, where I presented the proposal for changing the name of the track, and explained it:

1. Name Change: New Media/Participatory Media. We retain the term "new media" for the sake of continuity, and because the term itself remains current. Although the new media are no long brand new, they still are significantly newer than traditional mass media such as television, radio, cinema, and newspapers; moreover, the new media continue to evolve, most recently through the appearance of Web 2.0 and social networking (e.g., blogs, podcasts, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Second Life, etc.).

Because "new media" alone does not adequately identify what is distinctive about this area of study, especially in light of the trend towards media convergence, we have added the term "participatory media" to the name of the track. New media invite and often require participation in two ways. One, they emphasize the active creation of media content, a do-it-yourself approach, media production that is often personal and individual. Two, they emphasize interactivity with the user, as is the case with computer programming, gaming, and the web, and/or facilitate interaction among users, be it mediated interpersonal communication or group discussion, or social media. The term "participatory media" captures all of these varieties of participation under one heading, and also suggests the democratizing potential of the new media. (As a side note of interest, we came by this term appropriately enough through the use of the new media. I sent a message on Twitter that we were considering renaming the track and asked for suggestions, and new media maven Howard Rheingold responded by suggesting "participatory or participative media.")

New Media/Participatory Media stands in contrast to the traditional media of mass communication associated with journalism, cinema, and broadcasting. While all of our tracks overlap with each other to some degree, the other tracks focus on media that tend to be associated with large, complex organizations and relatively established media industries, involving highly professional communicators generally working in competitive, commercial environments (or heavily goal-oriented for the non-profit sector).

The report goes on to detail classes to be deleted from the curriculum, changes, etc. I'll leave out all the administrative material and just include the list of classes that would make up the revised track. This is not an entirely new curriculum, not created from scratch according to my own vision. No, this is a revision of the curriculum that already exists. I therefore make no claims for this as a model curriculum, just an example of one that works.

First, every track in our major has its own introductory course:

A comprehensive overview of the history and forms of the new media and the possibilities they offer for participation and interaction. Explorations of the cognitive and cultural implications and issues surrounding computers and computer-mediated communication, digital technologies, gaming, the internet, the web, social media, and online communication.

This next course is also listed as a Media, Culture and Society (analytical/critical) course (Media, Culture, and Society is another track, but all majors have to take at least two of these courses):

Explores theoretical and critical perspectives on technology, with special emphasis on the impact of technology on communication, culture and consciousness; the symbolic component of technology; the ecology of media; the process of technological innovation and the diffusion of innovations; the role of media and culture in the creation of a technical society.

And now this:

CM*U 2303- DIGITAL AUDIO DESIGN (4.00 credits)
A comprehensive introduction to the principles and techniques of audio production. Instruction in the use of portable audio equipment as well as in production and post-production skills. A hands-on approach augmented with readings and listening to audio material.

Analysis and practice of visual design as applied to new, interactive media such as the World Wide Web, multimedia and hypertext, and as applied to traditional media - print, television and film - in an age of digital production. Classes are structured around readings, viewings and production assignments.

Here's another Media, Culture, and Society course:

A study of the technological, social and cultural events that created digital media and its emerging cyberculture. An exploration of digital media environments and digital research techniques.

And now some more of this:

CM*U 2527-WRITING FOR ONLINE MEDIA (4.00 credits)
An exploration of the theory and practice of electronic writing, writing for websites and blogs, nonlinear and multidimensional computer-based documents, and the linking and networking of text and other media.

CM*U 3222-PROJECTS IN DIGITAL VIDEO (4.00 credits)
Students explore the processes of video making, from concept to screen. They write treatments, develop scripts and storyboards, and plan and execute all phases of digital video production and post-production. Prerequisite(s): CM 2222 or permission of instructor

CM*U 3307-SOCIAL MEDIA (4.00 credits)
An exploration of computer-mediated communication, electronic networking, online Internet communication and emerging interactive social contexts.

CM*U 3978-Online Journalism_CM*V
Description needed.

This next course satisfies the requirement that majors take one course on Ethics, Law, and Policy, and also the College's core curriculum requirement for a Senior Values course:

(4.00 credits)
An examination of the choices and responsibilities which shape personal identity and common humanity for those who regularly employ the tools of digital media and computer technology. Regular use of digital media enables individuals to separate from their physical selves and from the community spaces in which they have traditionally lived. This course focuses on the resulting ethical tensions.

And I also threw in two courses that ought to be added:

CM*V xxxx – GAMING
(4.00 credits)
History and analysis of gaming, including videogames, computer gaming, and online gaming. Examination of issues and controversies, research and criticism on effects, industry, technology, and aesthetics involved.

(4.00 credits)
A study of cell phone and other mobile communications devices.

And that's about all there is to that. Of course, all this is just the result of a task force, aka me and Ed, making a report to a committee. The chair of the committee immediately expressed doubts about the new name for the track, and I'm sure others will have the same reaction. And anyway this would have to be discussed and approved by the committee, and then by the department, so this is far from a done deal. In fact, all this work may have been a complete waste of time. It wouldn't be the first time that this kind of work amounted to nothing more than the spinning of wheels.

Well, it would be a complete waste of time if nothing more came of the proposal, except that it made for an interesting discussion on Twitter, of course, and on this blog. The new media are participatory media, so work that might otherwise never see the light of day becomes a post that might be useful to someone, somewhere, sometime, and of passing interest to others. Not too shabby, not too shabby at all!


Mike Plugh said...

I wish I'd seen this Twitter discussion. As always, Howard Rheingold comes up with thought-provoking and intriguing language. Bouncing around in my head, with regard to this topic, I thought about the following monikers:

Network Media
Open Media

Participatory Media is very good. I think it captures what it needs to capture. I thought about Network Media because that's really what we're doing with these multi-directional media, no? My thesis included the socio-political definition of social network as put forth by Charles Tilly, including the notion that we generate associations defined by our relationship to some other entity. Of course, I concentrated on political claimants and authority, but it holds true for anything you might want to throw out there according to Goffman's theories of identity.

Social Network Analysis

Our networks are becoming increasingly complicated and overlapped in this new medium, or in these new media. The layers and patterns and cross-sections are defined by our political identities, familial identities, professional identities and so on. It's sort of a Meyrowitzian dilemma, actually. We are seeing into the complexity of out personal relationships and the overlap/interconnectedness in a way never before possible and we're confronted with odd and complicated contradictions that we need to redefine and put into new contexts. So, I like Network Media.

I also like Open Media because, for academic realpolitik, it works well with the simple oppositional framework that we like to use to define things. Open Media are participatory, or open, and Closed Media are traditional, uni-directional. We have Open Source platforms like Wikipedia as a model for how this works. The reason I like it better than Participatory is that Participatory Media assumes that participation is about production. I participate when I read a book, no? A book is closed, or fixed, in that new information isn't added to what sits in your hands as you "use" it, but I still participate by translating your words into some semblance of your thinking, with a participatory nod to interpretation and the construction of new ideas.

Nothing will ever be perfect, but the process of naming is a great exercise in General Semantics.

Lance Strate said...

Network Media would not cover digital video and audio production, most video and computer games, other kinds of programs on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, and personal computing in general. It's the same problem as Online Media or Social Media.

Open Media is interesting, but brings to mind open source, which only applies to some computer programs. The Mac interface is notoriously closed, for example.

But yes, it's a good intellectual exercise if nothing else.