Medium as Process: An Overview

If computer conferencing challenges the established boundaries of interpersonal and mass communication, it does so by revealing a unifying construct in what was thought to be a dichotomy; by revealing a continuum in what was thought to be a boundary. This chapter:

It takes as its starting point the factors which are generally seen as differentiating interpersonal communication from mass communication. These criteria for separation, as proposed by Reardon and Rogers (1988), include:

Channel and Medium

The first of these criteria, channel type, is the least well described. The term does not define itself. Schramm (1973), for instance, lists six "commonsense" notions of channel type. Reardon and Rogers describe two of these notions, opportunity for feedback and multiplicative power (number of potential recipients), but neither is used to describe channel type. These notions correspond to Reardon and Rogers' second and third criteria. Schramm's remaining notions make, moreover, poor differentiations of interpersonal and mass communication:

  1. "Sense based" definitions will reveal both interpersonal and mass media for every sense. The audio of broadcast radio is also the audio of Citizen's Band radio and the telephone. The visual of broadcast television is also the visual of video teleconferencing and face to face communication. The visual of the newspaper is the same visual as an exchange of personal correspondence. Among the major senses, only touch makes a poor transition from interpersonal to mass media, and one can certainly argue both interpersonal and mass media applications of touch.
  2. Widely varying "levels of receiver control" can be found among both interpersonal and mass media. A telephone can be hung up as easily as a television can be turned off. A newspaper can be thrown away as easily as a letter. A major media event can be as engrossing and difficult to ignore as any conversation.
  3. Widely varying "message coding" schemes can be found among both interpersonal and mass media. Print is as important to the notes passed surreptitiously among schoolmates as it is to the books they are tested on. Nonverbal communication is as important to the slapstick of movies and television as it is to the subtleties of face to face communication.
  4. Varying levels of "message preservation" can be found among both interpersonal and mass media. Letters can be preserved as easily as books. Telephone conversations can be recorded just as television programs are.

If Schramm's notions of channel type aren't Reardon and Rogers notions, they don't say what their alternative notion is. A previous work of one of the authors suggests, however, that there is no alternative notion. Rogers (1973) describes "two channel types, interpersonal and mass media". This description, when combined with Reardon and Rogers suggestion that Interpersonal and Mass Media are differentiated by channel type, results in a circular definition: The difference between interpersonal and mass media (Reardon and Rogers, 1988) is their classification as interpersonal and mass media (Rogers, 1973).

It is possible, in viewing this circular description, to conclude that we have hit a dead end and reject channel type as differentiating interpersonal communication and mass media communication. It is more reasonable, however, to see the definition as a reflection of a flawed conception, one which assumes that channel equals medium. The flaw is in the concomitant view of medium as a predefined static entity with fixed characteristics and fixed effects.

Does Channel Equal Medium?

The equation of channel and medium has the status of a fundamental definitional assumption of the study of human communication. It can be found, in one form or another, in the early chapters of just about about every introductory text in the field. Gumpert and Cathcart (1979, p. 13, emphasis added), in the process of defining medium, make this point clearly. "Most textbook definitions of the media explain them as a means of transmission; a channel for carrying a message to an audience." This definition is ultimately only half of the story. Had the authors needed to define channel, they might well have reversed the definition by stating that "Most textbook definitions of channel explain them as a means of physical transmission; a medium for carrying a message to an audience."

This second definition is, in fact, as representative of definitions of channel as the first is representative of definitions of medium. Medium is not, according to these definitions, simply a function of channel. Medium is channel is medium. In an informal survey of four introductory communication texts (literally the first four the author pulled from the bookshelf: Murphy, 1977; Simons, 1976; Steinfatt, 1977; and Tubbs and Moss, 1980), each demonstrated, in different ways, the equation of channel to medium to channel:

Although these definitions and exemplars are ostensibly statements of equivalence, one cannot conclude that channel and medium are synonymous. We may define channel in terms of medium, but there are exemplars of channels that we do not generally think of as media, including telephone lines, radio waves, and human senses. We may define medium in terms of channel, there are exemplars of media, particularly mass media like newspapers, films, radio, and television, which are not usually thought of as channels. Medium and channel may be defined almost identically, but it is common for definitions of medium to define channels as the physical carrier of messages that operate in larger systems/processes called media.

Definitions of Channel and Medium

This study chooses to accentuate these differences in the extreme, It pushes channel into a component role as a physical carrier of information. It pushes medium into an encompassing role as a system and process within which people can communicate with others. The definitions:

A channel is a physical means of carrying information between points. When used as an ingredient of a medium it provides a means of moving the information that comprises a message. Channel is exemplified by agencies that physically carry messages. These agencies include light, sound, paper, radio waves, electricity, people (when they collect a message from one person and deliver it to another) and similar physical agencies of transmission.
A medium, by contrast, is a system and process which mediates communication between people. It includes one or more channels, but these channels are only a small part of a larger system/process. A medium includes a variety of mediators (defined in the next section), only some of which are the physical channels used for moving messages from one place to another. The medium also includes a set of characteristics related to its set of mediators and they way they are used together, a set of effects which the medium has on those who use it, and a set of practices that govern the way it is used. The medium as system is observed in the interrelationship of a variety of mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices. The medium as process is observed in the changing patterns of these relationships, and dynamic evolution of mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices as people use it.

These definitions do not deny a relationship of channel and medium. Each is used as a part of the definition of the other. There can be no medium without a channel to carry information. Similarly, channel has meaning only when discussed in the context of a medium.

It is intended, however, that these definitions strongly differentiate the two ideas they define. This study regards the physical means by which messages are carried with great indifference. Physical channels are frequently interchangeable within media. It matters little to the telephone, as a medium, whether its signals are carried by electricity, light, radio wave, microwave, satellite or other similar physical channel. It matters little to a personal letter, as a medium, whether it is written on paper, plastic, diskette or even audio tape.

Even where the physical channel matters to a medium, other mediators are often at least as important. These mediators, including storage media, filters, and interfaces, are often overlooked in traditional models of communication which accentuate sender, receiver, channel, noise, and feedback. One cannot, however, ignore such mediators when one seeks to understand how one medium is different from others.

It is a system and process of communication, computer conferencing, that we seek to understand in this dissertation. It is in a system and process of communication that we can find a useful differentiation of interpersonal media from mass media that acts less as a boundary than as a continuum. Hence it is the concept of medium, including mediators like channel and other elements, that is of primary interest to this exposition.

A Grammar of Media

We shall define four terms (groups of elements) as the generating features of media. These are: Mediators, Characteristics, Impacts, and Practices:

The physical agencies that receive, store, transmit, shape, modify, direct, and deliver messages within a medium. One cannot say that a medium exists because a particular combination of physical agencies is possible. There is a potential infinity of such combinations, only a relative few of which attract the user support that is required transcend the status of proto-medium. A single medium may exist in a variety of such combinations, moreover. Different instances of the same medium may involve a range of mediators that provide variations an a common theme. A single instance may readily change one mediator for another or use similar mediators in parallel.
The essential qualities of a communications medium. These qualities, including the potential number of message recipients, the potential for feedback, the speed with which a message travels from sender to receiver, and others, provide a basic description of the possibilities, in terms of both opportunities and constraints, that a medium offers, and provide a good base for comparing the nature and possibilities of different media. One cannot fully distinguish media on such characteristics. A comparison of media on such characteristics will almost always associate media that, although clearly different, are not easily distinguished on characteristics alone.
The actual effects that use of a medium has on those that are directly and indirectly associated with it. These effects, whether observed in individuals, groups, communities, organizations, societies, or other media, are less important to this study as goals than they are as a driver of change within media. This study differentiates two principle variants of effect. The application effects of media are their intended effects. A medium must find distinctive applications if it is to succeed. The outcome effects of media are their unintended effects. These outcomes can become a means to discovering new applications. Where undesirable, outcome effects become a driving force for change in how a medium is used.
The mutually agreed upon constraints that communicators adhere to when making use of a medium of communication. These practices, which include the rules, roles, norms, codes, and patterns of interaction that people evolve in the process of using media, represent an attempt to shape the use of a medium to the needs of a community of users. Practices can be observed at many levels within a medium, some of them fully orthagonal to others. These levels include, but are hardly restricted to, the individuals that use media, the languages that are used in media, the relationships that are maintained through media, the regions that media are used in, specific instances of media, and the genres that differentiate themselves within media.

Many of these practices will be independent of the media in which they occur. Others will be restricted to distinctive groupings of events within the medium which we will call genres. Some will be both specific to given media and broadly used across events within the medium. These events will frequently include jargons, opening and closing rituals, feedback behavior, constraints on individual behavior, and other classes of practice. There should, for any medium, be characteristic practices which, if invoked, allow the medium to be distinctly identified.

None of these terms fully describe a medium. They provide, rather, four interrelated views of what a medium is and how a medium evolves. Mediators describe how a medium is physically constructed. Characteristics describe what a medium is as a means of communication. Effects describe how a medium impacts the people who use it and are touched by its existence. Practices describe how a medium is shaped by its users.

Each view is clearly interrelated. One can argue that practices are mediators by showing that they act to change the flow of messages. One can argue that mediators are practices by showing that they are selected by users as a way to shape interaction. One can argue that practices are characteristics, that practices are effects, that effects are characteristics, that characteristics are effects. Almost any of these terms can be transformed to the others through reasonable argument.

A model of the elements of media

Grammar as Model

As used here, however, the terms describe distinctive elements in a circular process, illustrated in the figure above, by which media are defined and redefined by the people that use them. The effects of media engender practices as the users of media attempt to limit problematic effects and enhance desirable ones. The use of practices engenders changes in mediators, characteristics, and effects as people attempt to redefine a medium in a way that makes stressful or frequently violated practices unnecessary. Changes in mediators often engender changes in characteristics. Changes in characteristics often effect changes in effects and practices.

Each concept is critical, in its own way, to the definition of a medium of communication. Mediators combine into systems (proto-media) that allow communication to happen. Characteristics represent the potential of that system for those that try to use it. Effects are the reality of that system for the environment in which it operates. Practices are the rules that people agree to as they work to master the system; to control or enhance various effects. There is no possibility of communication without mediators. The mediators are clearly in useless combination if they fail to engender communication characteristics. The proto-medium is clearly not being used if it fails to have effects. The proto-medium is clearly not very important to people if it fails to attract practices.

No view takes precedence over the others. One cannot say that a medium starts with mediators or characteristics or effects or practices. A medium may start in the availability of a new mediator (the computer, for instance). It may also begin in a search for a medium with specific characteristics, the need for a medium with specific effects, the desire for a medium that doesn't require specific practices. Indeed, the availability of a mediator won't matter if it cannot be usefully packaged with other mediators in a way that gives it distinctive characteristics and/or effects, if it doesn't meet a need for communicators.

Medium as Invention

Taken together, these terms describe a medium as a system. Changes in the particulars of any of these views has the potential to provoke changes in the others. Hence while effects may or may not be useful as a description of a medium, the impact effects have in provoking practices and changing the process by which the medium operates makes it necessary to treat it as an element of the entire system that comprises a medium.

In the component process that is a medium, the process is one of invention. A medium is viewed here as a process which people create and recreate in an attempt to facilitate communication. The medium facilitates messages by providing a way for them to move from sender to receiver/audience in a manner that is mutually acceptable. Indeed, a message can be regarded as meaning that has been translated to and through a medium. The medium bonds agents by providing a way for them to share themselves with each other. It can be argued that meaning is to the mediated (agents) as message is to the medium. The medium is invented by agents for the purpose of facilitating messages and, ultimately, meaning.

Medium as "black box": A medium as a "black box" that bonds agents by facilitating the exchange of messages in a mutually acceptable manner.

Each term reflects important elements of the larger model. Mediators provide the means by which messages are carried from sender to receiver. Agents select mediators to facilitate the movement of messages in particular ways. Characteristics describe, in generic terms, both the flow of messages between agents and the nature of interaction between agents within a medium. Effects describe the ways in which a medium impacts the agents that use it. When those effects match agent's purposes they become a key criterion for selecting one medium over another. Practices describe the ways in which agents exert mastery over a medium to facilitate interaction.

Although neither agent nor message is presented as a defining feature of media, neither can be entirely separated from the process. It is messages that are enabled by media. Hence the practices, mediators, characteristics, and effects associated with a medium will be shaped, to a large degree, by the need to construct and receive effective messages. It is, moreover, agents who invent media. Hence the mediators, characteristics, effects, and practices associated with a medium will be selected to meet the needs of those agents.

Agent and message are ultimately orthagonal to this model. Each acts to define what is important in each element of our grammar of media, yet each can participate in any medium by adapting itself to that medium's mediators and practices. The medium will, moreover, act to shape both agent and act. The medium will integrate the agent into various communities of agents. The medium will constrain the content of the message, and integrate it into a community of messages -- a conversation, a transcript, or perhaps a genre.

A medium, as expressed in these terms, is an invention. It is created by agents for the purpose of agency. It starts as a reaction to what is and is not possible; as a set of mediators, a set of characteristics, a set of anticipated effects, and a set of preliminary practices. The result is a potential for communication; a proto-medium that people may attempt to use for the purposes of communication. The reality of a medium only arises from the initial success and subsequent evolution of the proto-medium. Mediators will be changed. Characteristics will be varied. Effects will be discovered and either enhanced or minimized. Practices will be evolved.

The evolution from proto-medium to medium only occurs in the success of this process. Desirable effects must be found. Undesirable effects must be minimized. Practices must be acceptable to the population of users. Failure to evolve may mean that a proto-medium is never successful or that a once successful medium falls into disuse. Success as a medium means constant adaptation in the face of the changing needs of agents and the evolution of other media. A human communication medium is a human invention. The process of becoming a medium, as expressed in these terms, is an ongoing process that defines what a medium is, if it is used, and how it is used.