Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Studying Me-dia: the Problem of Method in a Post-Broadcast Age

This is just a first draft of a few thoughts about the problems of methodology in a post-broadcast era in which the totality of broadcast production is supplemented by the entire world of me-dia - of personal communications, collaborative productions, shared information, user-generated content, and networked relationships. It's a pessimistic scenario but I'm convinced the issues are serious ones. Comments and emails welcome.

The question of method is central to many humanities and social sciences. Much thought is given to the question of how to produce and legitimate disciplinary knowledge and many different methodologies have been formalized, discussed and employed. Media studies has a range of favoured methodologies which it uses. Images are subjected to semiotic analysis and texts are analysed using content analysis and discourse analysis, whilst audiences are studied using both qualitative and quantitative methods, from ethnographic observation, open-questionnaires and interviews to more formal, structured questionnaires and interviews. The success of these methods depends, however, on an uncomplicated relationship between the researcher and their object. It is this relationship that gets increasingly muddied by developments in digital media. In particular I’d like to suggest the following challenges to traditional empirical analyses.

The first problem is one of volume. We know the broadcast-era was marked by the industrial factory-line identical, serial mass-production of information, messages and products and their distribution by road, rail or airwaves to encompass and culturally cement together entire populations. Add up all the products of these industries every day and we have a huge volume of media output – an output that broadcast-era media studies could only sample. In the post-broadcast era we have all that plus our own horizontal communications and user-generated content. Add up the almost continuous one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many production of communication, responses, comments and messages we all engage in and we can see that this constitutes a remarkable volume of additional media for the researcher to deal with. And this output is not created by the media factories but through individuals, networks and groups managing their relationships and sharing their lives, thoughts and experiences. It builds up incrementally, with every new message, every post, every update, every comment, every photo, every video and every page. The audience reach of each posting may be tiny but its personal meaning, attention and cumulative effect is huge.

Unlike television, as Raymond Williams famously analyses it in his 1974 book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, this isn’t a ‘flow’ – me-dia has a different experiential temporality: both synchronous and asynchronous. It involves the creation of multiple, synchronous, ongoing messages and productions, with many conversations and contributions happening simultaneously, but each of these is also asynchronous as messages are sent and replies are delayed in discovery and response. Many messages disappear and only some take; some take moments to return, others take minutes, hours, days or more; some die after a brief burst whilst others continue with endlessly changing or shifting titles or content over weeks or months.

This is a near-global ongoing process of the production and pushing of personal messages that can barely be charted other than through abstract company data chronicling the quantity involved, the information flows and the user numbers. The Mobile Data Association, for example, reported in January 2010 that British people sent 874m texts on New Year’s Eve 2009 (up from 400m on the same day in 2008); that they sent 96.8bn texts in the whole of 2009 (up from 78.9bn in 2008 and 56.9bn in 2007); that they sent 601m picture and video messages in 2009 (up from 553m in 2008 and 449m in 2007); with an average in 2009 of 265m texts and 1.6m picture messages a day. By 2010 Youtube’s factsheet was reporting that 20 hours of new video was being uploaded every minute, whilst the production of social networking content is obviously greater. In March 2010 the Facebook website was claiming over 400m active users with more than 60 million status updates being posted every day; 3bn photos uploaded every month; more than 5 billion pieces of content (web-links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums etc.) shared each week, and more than 3.5m events being created every month.

If we add to this all our other personal messaging services, forums, blogs and other activity this begins to give us some idea of the volume involved but it doesn’t help us deal with it. If broadcasting already overwhelmed the researcher, the post-broadcast output eclipses it. Whilst broadcast production was predictable enough to be sampled (in genres such as rom-com, sci-fi and action-movies etc. or categories such as broadsheet and tabloid), the complexity of much of our digital production arguably resists this. We simply can’t keep up with me-dia: media researchers are overwhelmed by the scale of production.

Even comprehending how much is being produced is something that is beyond any academic researcher. The figures of user-production I quoted above came either from private data collection and analysis companies (who release very little information for free, requiring payment for their detailed evidence and reports), or from the web-sites themselves. Whilst Facebook and Youtube are perhaps the only ones who can gain accurate figures regarding the use of their sites one could be suspicious of their neutrality or objectivity given that there is no way to verify any of their claims. An additional problem arising from the volume of production, therefore, is the position of the researcher compared to private companies in discovering and disseminating accurate information about such large phenomena.

The second problem is that of dispersal. Broadcasting was dominated by mainstream, well-known, widely-publicised publishers and distribution channels. The ‘publisher’ of the material, whether a book publishing company, television company, film studio etc., made themselves known and had an official point of contact, making their material available through the expected channels – bookshops, newsagents, cinema, radio frequencies, television channels etc. In contrast much of today’s digital production is atomistic and decentralized. It is happening wherever there are people and wherever there is a connection. Even if the technological channels are identifiable – the mobile network, the broadband connection – the dispersal of its availability and place of ‘publication’ makes it difficult to find or follow. Produced for another’s phone or for a specific website or page we have no conceivable way of mapping all the places me-dia are available. This is the age of thin media: of media spread over every digital outlet.

A third problem is ephemerality. Digital media have a particular relationship with time. As I’ll argue in a later chapter, they can be seen as ephemeral in their physical fragility (the failing hard-rive or USB stick) and loss (the dropped memory stick, the mobile phone left behind in a club or taxi) and in the continued upgrading of obsolete technology (the photos of my children left on my last mobile phone). They are ephemeral in their use and attention: they are the messages and photos that are read, viewed, consumed, passed on, replied to, ignored, deleted, moved on from and almost immediately forgotten (how much of our personal media even survives to the next day?). They are also ephemeral in their relevance and meaning: they relate to present and immediate concerns and personal issues; they relate to what is happening now and one’s personal relations in that moment. Finally they are also ephemeral in their personal and public availability: messages and posts are deleted by ourselves or by administrative individuals on websites and forums. Messages are buried and left behind and sites and pages are left for dead, with their contents and comments forgotten, even inaccessible. In all these ways the ephemerality of much of our digital media impacts upon our ability to study our productions.

Of course in other ways our media aren’t ephemeral. As we’ll see, the retention of electronic trails, of records and copies and archives by hosting companies, websites and ISPs; the long life of our postings and productions (with even long-forgotten pages and comments remaining discoverable); the availability of back-up services (such as Itextuploader which stores texts and personal information), together with the physical survivability of media (the problem of completely wiping or destroying hard-drives), can all ensure the continued survival of media. Broadly, however, we can say that the ephemerality of more personal productions and communication causes problems for their study that don’t exist as much for broadcast media.

The fourth problem is one of access. Whereas the major broadcast media were publicly accessible many of our digital media productions and communications are not. Broadcast products were designed to be open and accessible to the majority of the population: they were made to be seen, were made available through the expected channels and were widely advertised to maximise audiences and revenue. In contrast an individual’s texts, IMs, PMs, social-networking messages, comments, updates, activities and photos are inaccessible without permission and much of it is specifically made not to be seen. This causes a significant problem for media studies which depends upon the ability to recognise and see and analyse media production and consumption. Embedded in private relationships and networks, with highly personal meanings and content and with individuals reluctant to open these spheres up for greater public scrutiny, a significant part of our media productions are invisible to and unavailable for the researcher. Even if they gain access to part of this sphere of media there is no way of ascertaining whether the material is representative: only a miniscule amount could ever be sampled. The key question, therefore, is whether the world of post-broadcast media can ever be adequately studied?

The fifth problem is that of discovery. Alongside questions of access there are questions over how we even find the material we’d like to study. In the broadcast-era that wasn’t a problem. With a limited number of channels of information, listings magazines and advertising pushing the products of the media industries at the population discovery was simple. If anything was missed, reviews and word-of-mouth soon ensured those who missed something would find out about it. The post-broadcast era is very different. We see here a fractal splitting of media interest and attention into entire personalized and optional worlds of specific cultural forms in which we individually sample very little. Our limited interests ensure we miss what all others are interested in. Entire media worlds, interests, fads, jokes, knowledges, arguments and expertise pass silently by us without gaining our attention. Media lecturers are in no privileged position to know about and trace these worlds. Like anyone else they rely upon a limited number of methods – their own interests and hobbies; viral processes such as link-sharing among peers; filter sites such as Digg and mass media reporting of net ‘hits’. For all that these are imperfect tools: we are always missing things and struggle to reflect the diversity of media activities and phenomena today.

A sixth problem is that of content. Traditional media studies studied broadcast content. This was material produced for mass, public consumption, being created for particular reasons, being designed for mass comprehensibility and meaning and possessing prestige and potential cultural significance as an expression of a major productive outlet and its creative staff. In contrast much of our personal, user or peer-produced content is often intended for private or limited consumption, having different modes of meaning, comprehensibility and relevance. It is material with personal or peer significance with few claims to cultural significance or impact. This is a challenge for contemporary media studies: how do you study the ordinariness, incomprehensibility, banality or offensiveness of personal media production. How do you study, and what meaning or significance do we derive from, ‘LOL”, ‘You Suck’, Twat’ and ‘Where RU’?

A seventh problem is the question of ethics. There are, for example, ethical issues in studying individual and peer media production, given the personal nature of the communications and production, the fact that much involves young people (or the age cannot be determined) and much will involve illegal or sensitive activities. Studying media consumer and productive habits that can involve copying and downloading, pornography, libel and abuse and other criminal actions is very difficult yet today studying media consumption and production without including these activities will most likely result in a skewed representation of many people’s behaviour.

The eighth problem is that of production. Broadcast producers were public and locatable whereas me-dia producers may not even be found. Who precisely is the user-name on the sharing sites or forums? How do you establish with certainty the origins and reality of the me-dia content you study? How do you study anonymous, inaccessible producers? In the Post-broadcast era production is often private and identities are hidden.

The ninth, related, problem is that of the audience. As I’ll argue later the concept itself is in need of revision but even on its own terms we are still faced with the problem of how we find these people: how we know about them, identify them, follow their activities and sample and study them. Media studies has often treated the audience as the truth of media – as the teleological end-point and use of a form or message and hence as its ultimate reality and significance, a perspective that both elides the significance of other aspects of communication and mediation and that overlooks the existence of that audience within broader social and cultural and political and economic structures. In this perspective the ‘reality’ of media is discovered by studying individual real-world audience members and asking them about their use and relationship with the text, a method that is seriously compromised by developments in digital media and its anonymity, dispersal and volume. When the ‘audience’ can’t be accurately located, distinguished, claimed as representative or known and questioned with any certainty then this model of academic research is of limited use.

The tenth problem is that of generalisability. A central assumption of natural empirical science was that results obtained and confirmed by observation were spatially and temporally generalisable. Natural ‘laws’ did not vary according to where you were or when it was. Phenomena recorded in one space and time could also be recorded at any place and at any time. The social sciences that emerged in the 19th century were influenced by positivist ideas, taking the practical success of science during that century as the model for their own methods of knowledge production and legitimation. In dealing with human activity and social and cultural phenomena these ‘sciences’ could not realistically produce similar spatially and temporarily generalisable laws but their truth claims did rest on observations that could claim to be objective and that could, they hoped, help to build into a broader picture of media use and meaning. If the evidence couldn’t be absolutely generalized, the broadcast model nevertheless offered enough predictable processes and operations for a broad faith in the truth, value and relevance of the research.

Once we consider media use in the post-broadcast era we realize that we lose even that broad faith. It is more likely that patterns of use, habits and behaviours will increasingly vary once we take into account developments in me-dia and peer or horizontal communication. Plus the fragmentation of users into interest groups with their personalized and optionalised media worlds will reinforce this problem of generalisability. But the real problem is temporal generalisability. The perpetual upgrading and hybridization of digital media technologies, capacities and uses and the variety and ongoing transformation of user behaviours and pleasures means that any knowledge we accrue very rapidly risks being out of date soon after publication. The more specific and detailed the case-study the more it risks its ability to stand for anything other than its own moment and place of capture and its own culture. Our empirical methods, therefore, do exactly what they promise: they tell us, through our observations, what has taken place, but they don’t necessarily tell us about what is happening now.

A final problem I want to suggest is that of accumulation. The Liberal model of science always had a solution to the problems I’ve discussed above: unforced and undirected, freely-chosen scientific enquiry would, it was believed, accumulate into a greater whole, leading (as in the market model, as if directed by an invisible hand) to the most efficient system of knowledge. This model, however, can’t serve media studies today. No amount of individual researchers can cope with the products of me-dia creation and sharing; no amount of researchers can sample, or study, or discover or access, or find enough out about these media worlds. With its more formulaic production, broadcast media could be sampled through studying genres and categories that broadly identified products, demographics and markets. Post-broadcast production doesn’t follow these market-led conventions and is harder to classify and categorise and hence it is harder to sample. Moreover, any sample that is found – types of Youtube video, particular tweeting habits around specific events – is less likely to help contribute to a single, valid, meaningful, coherent view of the media world, constituting a proportionately smaller representation of the media ecology than ever before. The media researcher’s year-long project looking in detail at one carefully-isolated aspect of the media world is increasingly like studying a cup of water to understand the sea.

These are serious problems that media studies, as an academic discipline, needs to address. They are not insurmountable and do not mean the end of any attempts at producing or legitimating knowledge but they do suggest that a greater degree of awareness is needed as regards the reliability and value of more empirically-minded approaches.

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