Effects of Media

If characteristics represent the possibilities inherent in a set of mediators, media effects are the actual impacts, both direct and indirect, that a medium has both on the individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and societies that use that medium, and the other media that must compete with it. Media effects, as viewed here, are not the effects of individual messages. One can take any message and deliver it, with varying effect, across many different media. A film can be be shown in an auditorium, broadcast on television, or rented on videotape. A speech can be delivered from a podium, printed in a brochure, broadcast on the radio, reprinted in a newspaper, or channeled to an audience in a large number of other ways. The effect of the message will vary, not only with the skill with which the message is crafted, or crafted for a particular medium, but with the medium of delivery.

It is, in part, this medium-induced variation in a message's effects that is at issue here. The sources of these variations are as diverse as the characteristics of media. The larger audiences provided by publishing and broadcast media add to the reach, and potential effectiveness, of messages. The peer pressures associated with more interpersonal media can make messages effective in different ways. The persistence of publications gives published messages effects over time that are not as strong in more transient media. The small screen of the television changes what can be shown effectively, especially when compared with the large screen of motion pictures.

The effects of media are not constrained by or to messages. A medium that enables long distance communication may, regardless of the messages that are transmitted through it, have the effect of fragmenting physically propinquitous communities. A medium that enables long distance communication between geographically separated groups may have the effect of creating non-propinquitous communities based on interests, again fairly independently of what messages are shared.

The effects of media are not, moreover, constrained to either the senders or receivers of messages. In a medium like face to face communication or the telephone such distinctions are meaningless. All participants are both sender and receiver of messages. In a medium like television in which sender and receiver can be clearly distinguished, the medium has effects relative to both. Any successful medium can be expected to have effects that are not directly related to sender or receiver. A medium that provides its users with better information may provide those users with a competitive advantage relative to non-users. A medium that involves individuals with geographically distinct others may affect the memberships of geographically propinquitous groups.

The concern for the effects of a medium here is, at some risk of being misunderstood, a concern for those those effects for which it can be stated that "the medium is the message". When a medium changes a class of message in a generic way so as to make the message more or less effective, that change is an effect of the medium. When use of a medium enhances or diminishes productivity that change is an effect of the medium. When use of a medium results in changes in the way people work, view the world, and/or interact with each other, those changes are an effect of the medium.

Understand, however, that the effects of media that we are discussing are not the deterministic and unchanging message of McLuhan's media. We do not view media as being inherently "hot" or "cold". We view media as dynamic entities which change in the process of being used. A medium starts with a set of mediators. Those mediators, when combined in a given way, will have characteristics. Use of a medium with a defined set of characteristics will have a set of effects.

The effects of a medium should not be viewed as an inevitable end which serves a judgement on a medium's inherent morality, but as a force for change that acts to shape what a medium becomes. Classes of messages that are made more effective by a given medium will be more likely to be delivered via that medium, often at the expense of other media. Classes of messages that are less effective in a given medium will likely migrate to other more effective media. When ways of using a medium create problems for individuals or groups, they can be expected to agitate for restrictions on such behavior. When ways of using a medium solve problems for individuals or groups, they can be expected to try and expand such use.

Applications and Outcomes

A medium is not a static entity with fixed mediators, characteristics, and effects. A medium is a dynamic process which its users evolve to their needs based on two variations in effects: applications and outcomes. Applications are the things people seek to accomplish in using a medium of communication. They are a force by which messages are directed to media and by which media are selected for use. The more important the application, the more distinctive the power of the medium relative to the application. The more applications associated with a given medium, the more successful, and effective, that medium will be. Outcomes, by contrast, are very often unintended effects that occur in consequence of a medium's use. Outcomes will, to the extent they are desirable, be converted to applications. Outcomes will, to the extent that they are undesirable, act as a spur for selecting, controlling, or changing a medium.

Applications and outcomes are differentiated primarily by intent. When a medium is utilized for a purpose (finding some information, for instance), its success in achieving that purpose represents a measure of the application effects of the medium. If, in the process of satisfying that purpose, the medium has other unintended effects (making the information available to others, for instance), those effects are a measure of the outcome effects of the medium.

The boundary between application and outcome is tenuous. Today's recognized outcomes can be tomorrow's applications. Where one discovers, for instance, that a medium has the unexpected effect of raising morale within an organization, one might expect others to adopt the medium for the purpose of raising morale. Similarly, today's applications can become tomorrow's outcomes. Where the use of a given medium to raise morale becomes obvious, it may lose its effectiveness or even become counter-productive. The perception that a medium is being used as a vehicle for mind control may actually lower morale.

The ambiguity of this boundary can be regarded as a symptom of the dynamic quality of media. We learn what a medium can be used for by using it and discovering applications in its outcomes. When we ask a question and get a rapid response from an unexpected source, we become more likely to ask questions using that medium rather than another. When we ask a question and get no response, we are less likely to use that medium to obtain answers to questions. When we find a medium to be a good source of information we are more likely to both use the medium and look for ways to make it more effective (with more, better, and new kinds of information). When we find that a medium deluges us with information, we are likely to look for ways to control the deluge. If we fail in creating such controls, we are likely to reduce our use of the medium.

One might summarize the most important features of applications, outcomes, and the boundary between them as follows:

  1. We will tend to use a medium because we can make good use of it. The success of a medium is ultimately bound to the applications to which it can be put.
  2. When we find the unintended outcomes of media useful or pleasant we will try to repeat that success by applying the media to the achievement of similar outcomes. The effects of a medium are a force for discovering its potential.
  3. When the unintended outcomes of a medium we use cause problems for us, we will tend to look for ways to control or change that medium. The effects of a medium act as a force for change in that medium.

Effects and Characteristics

It is in these actions that effects make the connection between characteristics and practices. Characteristics enable effects, including both applications and outcomes, by defining essential elements of how people can communicate via the medium. Characteristics do not, however, define effects. One expects there is an infinity of potential media effects, most of which will apply to a variety of media, often without regard to specific characteristics. Indeed, one suspects that it is impossible to directly map the effects of media to the characteristics of media.

It can, however, reasonably be expected that media which are typologically similar when compared by their characteristics will have similar applications and potential outcomes. This expectation can be supported in a simple comparison of the extremes of the informal typology presented above. Television, radio, newspapers, books, and films, are all more readily applied to mass entertainment, wide dissemination of news, distribution of advertising, and other mass media applications than are the telephone, face to face communication, or electronic mail. These latter media are, by contrast, all more readily applied to asking questions, debating divergent perspectives, providing personalized tutorials, or engaging in intimate conversations than are the former.

It should not be the case that any potential effect is restricted to the media in any given typological group. Any of the media listed here might be used with some level of effectiveness for any of the applications listed. It is, however, proposed, that the characteristics which made a medium particularly effective for a given application will probably make other media with similar characteristics similarly effective for that same application.

Characteristic-Based Typologies and Media Success

A characteristic-based typology of media would, under this expectation, provide a quasi-statistical statement concerning medium's prospects for having effects. Typologically similar media can be expected to compete for the same applications, and the success of one medium in a given application will probably be at the expense of another medium's prospects for success. A typologically distinct medium, by contrast, may well develop applications that are highly distinctive and for which it need not compete with any other medium. It may, moreover, service existing applications so well as to destroy the competitiveness of other media for such applications.

Typologically Similar Media

Given two media that allow synchronous communication between geographically separated dyads (the telephone and computer conversation), one would expect them to compete, at least to some extent, in filling the need for long distance interpersonal interaction. When one medium is more successful than a typologically similar other, its success will often be at the expense of its competitor. Where, for instance, two people find computer conversation (real time simultaneous messaging via computer between two or more individuals) more convenient than telephone conversations, one might expect them to reduce their use of the telephone.

Note that this typological similarity may have little basis in mediators. The audio tape letter and written letter, when viewed from the perspective of mediators, are clearly distinct. They use very different forms of memory and radically different interfaces (pen versus tape recorder). Although both permit the use of words and at least some level of review, one is amenable to the inclusion of pictures while the other is amenable to the inclusion of music. When viewed from the perspective of characteristics, however, the media differ primarily in the modality used (spoken/heard versus written/read), and can be regarded as almost identical. If both are mailed, delivery times are similar. If equipment is readily available, composition times are similar. The bandwidth of the media (one channel) is about the same.onechan. There is little difference in the size of the audience the message can reach, the distance that can be traversed for delivery, or the time required for delivery.

The differences in mediators clearly differentiate audio tape letters and written letters as media. The differences in characteristics are few, however, and the media are locked in a competition which written letters almost always win. There are few characteristic applications of tape letters. One, correspondence with blind individuals, is based entirely on the difference in modalities. Another, dictation of written letters, is really a use of one medium to support the other. A third, entertainment or gift letters, again capitalizes on the difference in modalities to allow music, story telling, and other spontaneous family activities to be recorded. Another competitor, videotape letters, is now displacing tape letters in the latter application, moreover, and the medium has always had other competitors to its use with blind individuals.

The success of written letters in such competitions may have little to do with the technical merits of the two media. Written letters are easier to edit and review, but tape letters have an arguably simpler interface. A three year old who hasn't yet learned the interface fundamentals of written letters (reading and writing) might easily master the interface fundamentals of tape letters, which include talking, listening, and mastery of a small number of pushbutton controls. What does differentiate the media is history. Written letters have been in widespread use for a long time, and it can be expected that factors like primacy, familiarity, practice, and general use will often be at least as important as technical merit in deciding the winners in competitions among media.

Indeed, one might go so far as to state that established media will rarely be displaced by newer, but typologically similar, media. The success of a new medium almost certainly depends on the extent to which it can distinguish itself from existing media.

Typologically Distinct Media

Typological distinction confers two natural advantages to a new medium. First, it increases the possibility that it will be able to satisfy new needs, that it can be applied to accomplishing things that other media have not accomplished well or, in some cases, at all. Success in identifying even one such distinctive application can be enough to assure at least some level of success for a medium. Second, it changes the mix of existing applications to which the new medium can be applied. The most successful media are applied in a variety of ways to satisfy a range of needs.

It is no accident that today's most successful media, certainly including face to face communication, the telephone, television, and broadcast radio, have highly distinctive characteristics and little direct competition. Face to face continues to offer simultaneous interactivity with high bandwidth across multiple channels. No other medium offers bandwidth that even comes close to that associated with face to face communication. The telephone offers simultaneous interactivity across long distances on the audio channel. Until the emergence of computer conversation, no competitor really came close to offering its mix of interactivity and traversal of long distances. There remains no assurance that computer conversation will ever displace the telephone as a long distance substitute for face to face communication.

Television offers non-interactive wide area broadcast entertainment on the audio and visual channels. Radio, with its audio channel non-interactive wide area broadcast capabilities, is its nearest competitor. Television beats radio consistently in those applications where the video channel is practical. Radio is a consistent winner, however, in applications where the video channel is obscured or impractical. An automobile driver has to watch the road. People involved in outdoor activities (where the video of television washes out) and movement activities (jogging or yard work, for instance) also have difficulty watching a screen. The radio provides effective alternative in these kinds of applications.

Patterns of Media Competition and Decline

Radio provides a good example of the effect a new and highly distinctive competitor can have on a medium's evolution. Many of the kinds of programming that were featured on the radio in the 1930's and 1940's, including variety shows, serials, soap operas, dramas, and celebrity talk shows, became central fare of television programming in the 1950's, all but disappearing from radio in the process. Changes in radio programming in subsequent years, including the evolution of genre-specific all-music (rock, soft rock, easy listening, country, jazz, etc.) stations, all news stations, sports radio, talk radio, shock talk, and other formats all reflect radio's search for new niches in which it can succeed with little competition from other media.

Other media have not been so fortunate. Silent film was rapidly relegated to the status of an obscure art form and historical curiosity after the introduction of sound films. The telegram, long under attack by a variety of competitors, including the telephone, telex, facsimile, mailgrams and, most recently, various computer media, has declined almost to the point of disuse. The dominant player in the telegram market, Western Union, has recognized each of these competitors. It was a major provider of telephone service at the beginning of this century, but ultimately sold its domestic telephone network to AT&T and spun off its long distance telephone operations as another company. Western Union's major revenue source today is telex, but it also competes in the store and forward facsimile and electronic mail markets. Mailgram, a joint venture with the post office (using equipment supplied by Pitney Bowes), is an explicit recognition of the telegram's poor health. It uses the mail system as the carrier and switching system to provide slower (1 day) and less expensive delivery of telegram-like messages in an age when the speed of a telegram has become less important than its style.

The decline of silent film and the telegram make an interesting contrast. The immediate and complete decline of silent film is highly atypical of the decline of media. Most media, much like radio and the telegram, fight back by expanding into existing noncompetitive niches and looking for new applications. Not so with silent film. It would be convenient to state that this occurs because movies with sound tracks are vastly superior to silent films. This is certainly true to some extent, and certainly accounts for the failure of silent film (as a mass medium) to find even one useful niche to survive in. More important, however, is the success of movies with sound tracks in coopting the means of production and distribution pioneered by silent film. The people who once made silent movies added sound to their movies.

This doesn't usually happen. The decline of the telegram was slow. Indeed, despite competition from both the telephone and telex, use of telegrams grew through at least the 1940's. A similar pattern can be seen in the media that were impacted by the rise of television. Radio, movies, magazines, and newspapers have all undergone periods of retrenchment in the face of television's assault on the applications and audience of each.

Television severely affected the mass market magazine. LOOK, LIFE, and the Saturday Evening Post are perhaps the most famous casualties. Television resulted in major changes in the mass market movie. The studio system dissapeared, the B movie was coopted as the television series and TV movie, and the number of movie theatres in the U.S. declined substantially. Television substantially changed mass market radio, coopting much of radio's existing content in the process. Television resulted in substantial changes in the newspaper industry. The evening newspaper all but disappeared in the wake of television news. Large numbers of morning newspapers have folded as well, and there are now few cities in the U.S. with more than one successful daily newspaper.

Each of these media has responded to television, and eventually found at least some new growth, through variations in the strategy used by radio: attention to niche applications. The magazine industry, for instance, recovered through the evolution of a broad range of specialty magazines targeted to specific well defined audiences. Sports Illustrated, for instance, took the style of LIFE magazine and applied it to the narrow niche of sports. Its success is based on its appeal to a broad market of sports enthusiasts whose appetite for sports news could not be satisfied by a television industry intent on appealing to a broader audience. Today's magazine industry is marked by a tremendous range of titles, with each specialized to a particular niche audience.

The movie industry discovered similar forms of specialization, with star oriented movies increasingly giving way to audience oriented movies, starting with the beach flicks of the 1960's. The teen and young adult market for which those movies were targeted remains an obsession in the movie industry today in variations of the action, horror, and teen versus adult genres. Success, in today's movie industry, breeds formulas and endless sequels, each targeted at the same demographic audience that made the previous invocations successful.

One can argue that newspapers have changed the least among these media, with the biggest impact of television measured in the number of newspapers that no longer publish. The front page of today's New York Times differs from that of 1949 (or even 1891) mostly in the specific news reported, the size of the type font used (today's is somewhat larger), the use of photographs (not quite as common then), and some details in the masthead. Both papers featured similar kinds of advertising. Both included a variety of regular features, including an editorial page, letters to the editor, and other features. The same can be said for many metropolitan newspapers. Indeed, all current U.S. metropolitan daily newspapers had 1949 editions.

This apparent lack of change reflects the requirement that, regardless of specialization, today's newspaper must appeal to a large audience to be successful. Hence whatever specialization is done must be accomplished within the confines of a single edition in which different sections target different audiences. The New York Times is but one of many newspapers that offer a different special section in each daily edition. The Monday edition offers expanded sports coverage in a special sports section (a whole section of the paper instead of the usual few pages). Tuesday features the "Science Times", which focuses on science and computer news. Wednesday offers "The Living Section", Thursday "The Home Section", and Friday features a "Weekend" section which focuses on entertainment and special events that are about to happen. A special business section is published every day.

This kind of specialization (especially the Monday Sports section and the Friday Entertainment section) can be found in nearly every successful daily newspaper operating today. The exceptions, notably the Wall Street Journal, generally appeal to a specialized audience to begin with. None of these features is particularly new to newspapers. Sports, science, entertainment and other stories have always been a part of newspapers. The difference is in the way they are packaged and marketed. What once was one or a few pages in the middle or back of the paper is now a separate section with its own front page. Much of today's newspaper marketing effort is focused around these special sections, moreover, as newspapers attempt to expand their core audience.

Effects and the processual character of media

It is hoped that two points will have been understood in this discussion of the effects of media:

  1. that a characteristic-based typology of media may provide insight into a new medium's prospects for success.
  2. media evolve in response to both the competitive media environment and the preferences of their users.

The second of these points is probably the better demonstrated. It is also, from the perspective of the present theory of media as process, probably the more important. If a medium is a process that changes in response to both its competition and the preferences of its users, there must be a mechanism by which such changes can be proposed, negotiated, agreed to, and enforced. We find just such a mechanism in the fourth element of our grammar of media -- practices, which will be discussed further in a coming chapter.

The first of these points has hardly been demonstrated. It remains to be seen if written letters are actually typologically similar to tape letters, despite their substantial technological differences. It remains to be seen that television is typologically similar enough to newspapers, magazines, radio, and movies to coopt their content, yet typologically distinct enough to succeed in the face of established competition. We should be able to test these predictions as we develop a more formal typology of media in the next chapter.