Media and its consumption has evolved down the years from a traditional broadcast culture to what has been dubbed in modern times as a participatory culture. Unlike the traditional broadcast culture of old – government or commercial organisation approved and/or distributed sources of media transmission, such as network radio and television shows – a participatory culture is. “…a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.” (Jenkins 2006, p. 5) This piece will look to explore participatory culture with respect to the progression of key media and communication technologies and by; identifying factors that gave rise to the introduction and diffusion of these innovations, as well as the impact that these technologies have had on society, and how this has influenced the cultural progression.
The explosion of media production and distribution in the 20th century catapulted society into the future in a way that could not have been predicted at the time (Randle 2001). With the invention and mainstream distribution of radio, the television and the mobile phone these three inventions, while all different in their nature, were able to create three very similar cultures by which they would come to be identified. The first major milestone in modern media came with the radio, a transmitting device which not only changed the way people were able to consume media, but also how they could communicate – particularly those in the armed forces (Sterling 2012). Military use would come to be seen as a recurring theme in the development of media technologies, at least in their infancy, as it was war again – this time the Cold War – that would spur the popularity and mainstream exposure of the television (The Paley Center for Media 2016).
Although chronologically both the Internet and computers were being developed around the same time as the television for the purpose of this essay they will be referred to as the last instalment in the trifecta of communication technologies that shaped the culture of media as they did not become part of the mainstream media culture until the internet was publicised in 1991 (Wright 2014). Another child born of the military the Internet, in its infancy at least, was used as a means of cross-country and international communications before it become the public domain world wide web of today (Leiner et al. 2016) All three of these technological creations were initially brought about and popularised amidst the fear and propaganda of war. While it may not have been the intention at the time to advance technology in the way that it would eventually the effectiveness of these inventions cannot be disputed as they have all stood the test of time.
The introduction and diffusions of these inventions, while impressive, can only tell part of the story. The inventions themselves would not have been half as successful as they were if they could not have drawn in the public, kept them captivated and constantly looking for new and exciting ways to use their devices for creative expression. This was the beginning of the era of broadcast culture. The societal impact of the radio was unparalleled by anything else of its time (Gugliotta 2007). News and current affairs, stories and radio plays and later music were all given a new medium of transmission and, thanks to the large number of radio trained military personnel who were out of work at the end of the war ham radio operators were able to give new life to the medium and utilise their skills (Sterling 2012, p. 224). Ironically, their independent broadcasts would be some of the earliest examples of participatory culture in the modern technological age.
This laid the foundations for the television to, much like its wireless predecessor, revolutionise media consumption and capture the imaginations of people the world over (Bignell 2012). The lasting effect that television would have on households can be summarised perfectly by a quote from Television journalist Andrew Anthony in his review of Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation (Moran 2013). “Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from Friends on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?” (Anthony 2013). Such was the profound influence of the television entire household areas were redesigned to make it the focus – an alteration the likes of which had likely not been seen since the introduction of a designated sleeping quarters. The next step in the natural progression of technological evolution then was the personal computer and with it the modern day smart devices, which have allowed a greater, constant connection to the virtual world around us.
Where as radio and television brought people together in physical groups, albeit as individuals experiencing the same thing together (Anthony 2013), the computer allowed groups of people to experience things simultaneously without having to leave their house – often from different states, territories and even countries. With this new level of connection and ability for social interaction came the rise of user created content and with it the notion of a participatory culture (Johnston 2016). Though the user generated content created online is no different to the independent content created by radio operators of the 1930’s the notion that it is easier to interact with and participate with makes it different from the traditional broadcast culture. The two cultures themselves have many similarities; most notably encouraging inclusion and participation amongst their subjects.
The main point of contention then becomes the ease at which modern media can be distributed online – to the point where anyone with an Internet connection now can become a content broadcaster without any real experience or training (Gates 1996). The logical reasoning behind this interpretation is that through the birth and evolution of convergence (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, p.5) where elements of traditional broadcast culture have been combined with new media the simplest way to categorise it within the mediasphere is by labelling it differently. Where participation then becomes the pinnacle of the mediums public interface it is only fitting that the new culture then be christened participatory.
Through critical analysis of the evolution of media consumption and broadcast culture it can be seen how society has moved from a traditional broadcast culture to the modern participatory culture. Irrespective of definitions the analysis discussion shows that while there are differences when looking at the influence of specific technological advancements there are also very strong similarities between the broadcast and participatory cultures. Both cultures encourage inclusion and, where possible, participation. The key point of difference is the ease at which media consumers can become media producers in the modern culture thanks largely in part to the ease at which media manufacturing technology can be accessed. This begs the question, had radio and television technology been more readily accessible in the 1950’s would the era of the participatory culture have begun sooner?
Anthony, A 2013, ‘A history of television, the technology that seduced the world – and me’, 8 September, viewed 11 September 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/sep/07/history-television-seduced-the-world>.
Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, ‘Broken Concepts’, viewed 11 September 2016, <http://www.acma.gov.au/~/media/Office%20of%20the%20Chair/Information/pdf/ACMA_BrokenConcepts_Final_29Aug1%20pdf.pdf>
Bignell, J 2012, An Introduction to Television Studies, Routledge, New York: NY.
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