Transmission in the Digital Age: A Mini-Case Study

With consolidation of digital media technologies and networks, are we transitioning to a “post-media” era where individual media forms matter less than the social institutions, economic systems and industry groups, and political boundaries define information, communication, and cultural expression?

As a “content” strategist for my job, I realize that there is an awful lot of redundancy in digital messaging. The first step in being strategic about content is figuring out who you want to reach and with what message – next step is to decide how to convey that message in the places you want to be (YouTube, Twitter, website, conference, etc) to reach the intended audience. No matter how creative your approach, this will mean redundancy in messaging between different “channels” or “mediums” to emphasize the intended message.

In the case of the program I work on, we seek to transmit (in Debray’s sense of impart in a meaningful and lasting way) a cultural value of pregnancy planning. From that core goal, we develop other core messages (“planning is part of healthy relationships and healthy sex”), then build out content to communicate those messages in a variety of ways in a variety of places. And knowing the message is not enough. For transmission to be successful, the communication must account for context.

Is it hubris to seek to intentionally change a cultural value? Our cultural values are constantly shifting, shaped by economic and political powers. Sometimes those shifts may be organic; sometimes they may be driven by the intention of some power. (Maybe it’s more often than not a combination of those two parts.) This is not new to the digital age.

In contemplating the idea of a post-media era, I found it intriguing to think about the many ways ideas and messages are packaged through these screen-based mediums, as if staring at a screen reading about Taylor Swift on Perez Hilton were conveying a different message from watching a Taylor Swift music video on a screen. Of course there may be differences between the messages in these two pieces of content, but both transmit the essential message (cultural value?) “this person, who you don’t know but maybe you feel like you do, matters.” Debray writes in “The Medium’s Two Bodies” of the importance of redundance in transmission. “Because an excess of originality affects reception adversely, one must know how to use signs that are dispensable – or already familiar to the ambient milieu – to be understood.” (Debray 13) I would say that messages that transcend media go way back. There have been recurring themes across different kinds of media since the beginning of recorded history.

If commercial and political interests shape cultural values, why shouldn’t “do-gooders” try to be a part of that “conversation”? And indeed, part of the strategy for transmitting this cultural shift is to insert messages into the “spaces” where these commercial and political interests are vying for people’s attention. McLuhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” makes sense if I think of the medium as the context and perhaps even the subculture of an online space where a message is being delivered.

Our brand, for example, seeks to have a presence in contexts as diverse as television (mass media, alongside multi-billion-dollar advertisers) and Twitter (tweeting directly to our audience). We seek a blend of influence and intimacy, and navigating the various mediums available to us (even, gasp, analog materials from time to time) helps us do this. Of course we must confront our own set of political and commercial forces. Our message is extremely political and politicized – that our brand attempts to deliver that message in a “sex-positive” way makes it even more controversial. We also face the challenge of simply not being a multi-billion-dollar corporation with resources to figuratively shout from every rooftop. On the other hand, our status as a non-profit sometimes lends credibility.

The powers that be at my organization chose to use digital media and the Internet to transmit their message because they felt this technology offered a unique opportunity to reach their intended audience. It’s true that we have a unique opportunity to get our message in front of many, many people without needing to be there physically. Yet the analog component of our work is still very important – and for us to make any lasting impact, we will need time.

P.S. Speaking of the political and commercial forces and digital media, the Atlantic published a story today about some of the challenges our program and other sexual-health-related brands have been facing lately.

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.