Category Archives: Week 2

It’s More Than Characters and a Catchy Beat: Breaking Down TV and Music

Week 2: Approaches to Media Theory, Communication, and Meaning Systems

I must preface my commentary by stating that this set of readings gave me a lot to think about and I know I’m cognitively only scratching the surface in understanding all the concepts it has to offer. Nonetheless, Professor Irvine’s breakdown of the excessively used terms media, medium, and mediation, as well as Stuart Hall’s illustration of the message exchange process intrigued me. After all, with hopes of creating a magazine devoted to subculture, it is essential to grasp the distinction between and the interactions amongst media and meaning systems.

We typically relate the word medium, as being a channel of content delivery and reception; that meta-layer between information and observation/perception/understanding. Yet as Hall examined, the role of the medium possesses greater autonomy and importance. Mediated messages via broadcast media and especially music are not just new information, characters, plots and a catchy beat. To quote Irvine’s text: “Shifting to the question of mediation as social, political, economic, and ideological processes, rather than considering the contents or material technologies themselves, allows us to convert media into interfaces to the larger social-technical-economic and political systems which they mediate.”

Let’s take a ride and examine the vehicle that is reality TV, specifically on VH1. Created in the 1980s, VH1 is a cable channel that originally catered to showing the lighter and more mature side of popular music, but has now become a lead platform for drama-filled primetime programming. Shows like Love and Hip: Atlanta, Basketball Wives, New York and Hollywood; Black Ink Crew; Mob Wives and the recently nixed show Sorority Sisters have reinforced problematic imagery of minorities and women. I’m certainly not implying that conflicts are not realistic; As Hall’s texts explains, “… within a more traditional framework, his [Philip Elliott] discussion of the way in which the audience is both the ‘source’ and the ‘receiver of the television message.” Yet, reality is compromised in place of staged confrontation when reality TV producers have reportedly instigated brawls between cast members. The visual aspects and camera practices used for these programs deliver implicit messages that slip by even the most observant of viewers. Cameras panning and zooming methods on the female body have an effect on the psyche of young girls. A study conducted by Dohnt and Tiggeman[1] found that girls “who watched more appearance focused television shows were less satisfied with the way they looked.[2]

More fights equals more buzz on social media and higher ratings, which equates to more episodes being aired and more revenue for the shows’ participants. These shows exhibit fragmented truths under extremely magnified lenses that trickle down to affect the international social fabric and solidify racial and cultural stereotypes. While the study titled “Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television” from UCLA’s Ralph J Bunche Center for African American Studies revealed that TV shows with ethnically diverse cast members attract larger audiences, there are still disproportionately more programs with where women and minorities are underrepresented[3]. This absence of diversity sends a message in itself – which incorrectly displays the national makeup of which these programs are produced and displayed.

Consideration of the world of television awakens my interest in uncovering the motives and behind-the-scene environment of the music industry. You can certainly deblackbox the content – the instrumentation, the lyrics, the vocal notes. Yet what are the social, political and economic undertones behind the lyrics of a seemingly volatile rhymester or an aurally soothing songstress? Why does the dynamic of the beat crescendo in the middle of the song? Why does a certain artist always make “club bangers”? – Are they pressured by their label to sell fantasy and not truth? These analyses of frequently used media allow us to peel back facades and avoid distractions from the happenings of human symbolic processes and systems.

After all, it’s never just for show; there’s always a greater purpose.


[1] Dohnt, H & Tiggeman, M. “The contribution of peer and media influences to the development of body satisfaction and self-esteem in young girls: A prospective study.” Developmental Psychology. 42:5. 2006. 929-929. Web. 25 January 2015.

[2] Manwaring, Ayarza. “Reality Television and Its Impact on Women’s Body Image.” 2011. Online Theses and Dissertations. Web. 26 January 2015.

[3] Obenson, Tambay. “Programs w/ Black Leads Dominate VH1’s Top 5 Shows in 2013. Shifting Trends?” Shadow and Act | Indie Wire. 28 October 2013. Web. 25 January 2015.

The cumulative heritage of traces

“If man is the animal which has a history, then the nonbiological, artificial transmission of acquired features is another name for human culture. The animals communicate; they do not transmit. (They know the message by the signal, not the cumulative heritage of traces).”

-Translation of Régis Debray, “Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?”

I have a tendency to think about Argentine tango first when I think about language and communication – perhaps since it’s the language I learned most recently, and one I plan to study for the rest of my life. In Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler notes that “Language is almost invariably regarded as the most powerful communication system by far.” But what about a tactile language that fulfills higher social functions of recreation, artistic expression, and community building and doesn’t necessarily convey explicit concepts or messages, being instead, in a sense, movement and communication for its own sake? (A language that in some ways transcends spoken language since two people without a common spoken language who both know tango can communicate through movement?) Is there a way to take an integrative “complex systems” approach to this particular contemporary medium?

A quick explanation of tango. It’s completely improvised, at least the way it’s danced socially. To dance it, you learn a vocabulary of movement and common phrases as well as a syntax of technique. Once you begin to grasp the basics, there is room to invent. Tango is usually danced to music produced in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1930s and ’40s. (Including in communities of people who don’t speak Spanish and have never been to that region.)

The embrace as the first medium. Tango dancers communicate their content (interpretation of the music, emotion, and personality) through the embrace. Generally one partner is the “leader” (traditionally a man) and the other the “follower” (traditionally a woman). The embrace cuts down many walls: between man and woman, between self and other, between mind and body, and between message and interpretation. Here’s my all-time favorite example of the connection that’s possible through tango. (Note that the music they’re dancing to is contemporary, not classic tango music.)

The music as the first content. Returning to Chandler’s articulation of semiotics, can tango music be an example of double articulation? The same music is referred to over and over, but each time, between the venue, the partner, and the moment in the dancer’s life, it will mean something different. Some core songs are played by different orchestras in different times, perhaps recorded on multiple occasions, perhaps recorded to a record, perhaps transferred to digital formats – or transcribed and played live. Dancers then dance to those various core songs at various moments in time, probably with various partners, definitely with different meanings associated each time.

The couple as the next medium. The embrace and the music make possible the movements that are perceptible to the outside world, be it people at a tango event (milonga) or the millions watching YouTube videos. As first a student, or simply an appreciator of tango, then as a dancer or even teacher, we learn to observe tango from outside the couple. The movements that result from the synergy within the embrace are decoded by viewers, either as part of a community (or outside a community) or as an anonymous viewer online, and also interpreted individually.

Online video as the medium that takes tango global. There is no question that the proliferation of videos of tango performances on YouTube has affected the way tango is taught, learned, and danced. But what is the meaning of that medium itself? For me, what’s powerful about these videos is their relationship with time. They “capture” one couple in one instance of interpretation, but they live on far beyond that instance. The dancers can only dance that particular moment in their lives one time, but I can watch the performance years later or over and over again. In the case of this video, this couple is no longer together, but in the imagined community of tango-video watchers, their collaboration lives on, creating new meanings.

On methodologies: Social Interfaces and Mediology

Recently, I spent some time trying to understand how content becomes viral in social media. In my attempts to formulate how content becomes clickable, and realized that the factors that don’t relate to the content itself were taking effect. Looking at the commonalities of social media platforms revealed that online interaction was strictly structured in all media platforms: Twitter didn’t allow more than 140 characters, Vine didn’t allow videos taking longer than 6 seconds. Later, I realized that all social media platforms had the scrolling-down functionality embedded, which allowed you to scroll through live content with one simple finger movement.

Considering these two properties in regard to cognitive science knowledge, I realized they were attending the same mental process in the brain: the reward network. In social media platforms, content is designed to be consumable and digestible, and the scrolling-down process is designed to enable the digestion of small bits of information. Actually, the process design appeals to human cognition so successfully that a compulsive behavior called the checking-habit[1] is recently identified. Social media platforms are creating addictive behaviors by appealing to the reward schema in the brain. While applying knowledge from cognitive science helped reveal how social media functions, this probably wouldn’t be the case in other topics. Similarly, applying historical research methods probably won’t be helpful in understanding how social media works. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no one methodology to govern all.

Mediology, however, functions as a meta-tool to understand transmission, and it extensively builds on and methodologically develops the idea that McLuhan proposed first – “the medium is the message.”[2] During research, the relation of the unit of analysis with the bigger media-sphere that it is embedded in should be considered, because mediology characterizes the context in which communication or other forms of cultural transmission take place. The concept of mediology is however new, and lacks its own definitions and poetics.

The question of how and what should mediology analyze still remains a question. If mediology takes a broader take on technology, can we consider the recent fashion of deep V decolettes as visual-textual technology? And if it is, how does the trend of this material form of clothing impact feminism – as it motivates woman to defend their right to wear it, an act that materializes their bodies? Furthermore, is it possible to understand cultural transmission in its own terms? Can we really take a step back and understand relationships between language and transmission by using linguistic tools?


[1] Oulasvirta, Antti, Tye Rattenbury, Lingyi Ma, and Eeva Raita. “Habits make smartphone use more pervasive.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 16, no. 1 (2012): 105-114.

[2] McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the message. New York123, 126-128.


The Impact of Technology and Mediology

This week’s reading reminds me a study done by Carnegie Mellon University about a decade ago, led by Robert Kraut of the Human Computer Interaction Institute. He published one of the first major studies on the impact of Internet use by raising a provocative question: “Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Weil-Being?” This question mirrored Florid’s Information Theory: “Since the 1950s, computer science and ICTs have exercised both an extrovert and an introvert influence, changing not only our interactions with the world but also our self-understanding.” With more and more people adopting a new technology, people tend to be critical and sometimes cynical about its extrovert and introvert influence.

Carnegie’s research reveals that use of the Internet was associated with a general decline in communication with family members who lived in the household. Internet users tended to report greater levels of depression and feelings of loneliness and they did before the study began (Sparks, 2012). The possible reasons for the introvert influence of Internet on its users are activity displacement effect, which means people tend to have very limited amount of time to engage in other relationship building activities. Also, it was possibly because Internet relationship replaces traditional strong social ties. Just as Florid further explained: “In many respects, we are not standalone entities, but rather interconnected informational organisms or inforgs, sharing with biological agents and engineered artifacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere.” It seems the new informational environment comes with the fourth revolution is influencing our interpersonal relationships and the well-being of the society as whole.

The explanation of Carnegie’s research underscored the assertion that, “Internet users form more superficial relationships instead of connecting deeply to others.” His theory relies on the assumption that people won’t shift their face-to-face relationship to online relationship or vise versa. As Media Multiplicity Theory and Ledbetter’s research findings shows, Facebook users actually have more close relationships than non-users (Sparks, 2012). They use the tool to contact with old friends, and to deepen their real-life social support. I believe this founding is based on the fact that people often tend to communicate intensively with people they knew in real-life. For people who met online, most people are willing to meet each other face to face. Carnegie’s study was severely criticized due to new technology was seen as a medium that would substitute a conventional communication channel.

Debray acknowledged the nature of new technology in mediology by saying that, “A new medium or technology does not replace or substitute a prior technology, but creates a new configuration of the entire media system with the inclusion of the new.” Consequently, a new medium of communication won’t necessary jeopardize the preexisted and dominating ones. The content of a previously existing medium will be shown in a new medium. However, some information will be lost and some qualities of the medium will be mixed into the mediology process. Therefore, how to preserve a culture (language, art, music etc.) is still an interdiscipliary enigma.


Sparks, G. G. (2012). Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview (4 edition.). Australia; Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.


Historical Case Studies, The Dialectic, and Mediology

Since I am struggling to condense all of the different methodologies into a cohesive blog post, I would like to focus specifically on Czitrom’s “Media and the American Mind,” while emphasizing how the adherence to a single approach–historical, in this instance–might prove problematic in media studies. Interestingly enough, Czitrom’s historical case studies on developed and developing technologies become yet another historical study for future readers seeking to understand the early 1980’s reactions to developing technologies, such as cable broadcasting, public access, and what I presume to be predictions of the laser disc (?). In so doing, Czitrom not only shows us the utopic and dystopic reactions to the development of every major technology since the telegraph, but also (perhaps intentionally?) offers a view into these reactions occurring within himself before (for him) the emergence new technological prospects.

I am not very well acquainted with the historical case study approach, and I hope I am not extrapolating too much from Czitrom’s text in understanding the dialectic to form a central focus of this approach’s methodology; however, Czitrom’s emphasis on the “historical sketch” of “dialectical tensions” appears to bear significant impact on his study. One such example is the dialectic between “the progressive or utopian possibilities offered by new communications technologies” and “their disposition as instruments of domination and exploitation” (184)–in other words, between utopian and dystopian constructions of emerging technologies. The dialectical tensions between, on the one hand, a corporatist and profit-determined potential for new technologies of communication, and, on the other, one that might create a more democratized and populist form of cultural production through the accessibility and affordability of culture-producing technologies, might not be dialectical in nature at all. The dialectic presumes that the latter provides an antithesis of the former, and thus leads to a synthesis, perhaps a sort of resolution between the two. However, instead of dialectical movement, we have only the co-option or appropriation of the latter by the former, a movement by which the corporate, profit-determined side of cultural production (i.e. the “culture industry”) appropriates elements of more democratically produced culture into its broader ideology of consumption as “lifestyle”. Therefore, perhaps the dialectic is not the best model for understanding these tensions.

This is by no means to disparage the dialectic in general, but to question the way Czitrom employs it to seemingly resolve the (perhaps, irresolvable) tensions between each side of the constructed binary. Mediology appears to provide the antidote to such an approach by “abandoning the ancestral oppositions” (Debray)–in this case, between the dystopic and the utopic–in favor of an ecological understanding where the plethora of perceptions are not forced into a single opposition but allowed to form a field of conflicting, diverging, and converging forces. However, I am not entirely clear on the relationship between dialectical and ecological thinking, and this is something that I would like to learn more about.

What’s Interesting in Interdisciplinary Media Theory and How That Helps Us Think about Digitalization?

This week’s readings take a landscape view of the fields that help us to open our way of thinking out of the box. It challenges the assumptions that typical communication text books based on. There are indeed overlapping with the concepts that we were talking about in another class last semester with Professor Irvine. So in this post, I want to talk about something I think is both fresh and thought provoking to me.

Before read this week’s materials, I have a sense of the broad landscape of this class. Also I had a background of journalism and communication. What stroke me most is that, bearing the interdisciplinary method and Debray’s mediology concepts in mind, when I looked back the more mainstream communication discipline. McQuail gives us a very systematic way to understand the field of communication and I think can perfectly answer the question that most of people will ask: What does the discipline Communication mean? The term communication is so mundane that makes it not easy to understand in a academic scenario. Also we usually are confused with the use of the terms communication, information, media and medium. All those confusion and questions lead me to think: do we have to draw a strict boundary of communication as a discipline? If we don’t, what kind of interesting question that we can ask that is beyond the boundaries? Like what Debray says, “by looking from the perspective of mediology, we can ask more ‘interesting’ and ‘missing’ questions.”

So what is the assumptions that will change if we break the wall of disciplines? I think one of the most prominent changes are looking at information technologies and medias as interfaces. As what Luciano Floridi said in his essay Information, “What all these and many other metrics have in common is that they are all historical.” Every technologies that we have now are interfaces of the past and future. It is based on the historic development in both technologies and the numerous interaction with the society. Moreover, technologies and media are interfaces with other systems at the same time. Language, as a model of our “medium” illustrates this point to a great extent. Also, Stuart Hall’s theories of encoding and decoding help us to understand media as “interfaces”. We have our meaning system inside of our brain which embedded in a larger social/cultural context and we communicate meanings through language with other people. Every time we speak, we “offload” the meanings onto language and convey them to the people we talk to. And they receive the language and decode in their own brain. Thinking about other information/media systems such as computer (coding), cultural products (films, paintings, and music.) We “offload” our internal meanings onto those media vehicles and constantly encode and decode them at the same time.

The last subject that I want to discuss particularly is the question that professor Irvine raises in his article about digitalization. Professor Irvine asks that, what does it mean by digitalization? What is digitalized and what is not? What is the implications? I think those are all very thought provoking questions that we normally take granted. However, many years ago, Walter Benjamin talked about mechanical production of photography and its impact on traditional art (eg. paintings.) Interestingly, he then asked almost the same question that we are still struggling with nowadays (or maybe more confused about.) His most prominent concept “aura” stirs heated discussion about the “impact” of new media technologies on old ones. Benjamin was afraid that photographies with its features that can be reproduced unlimitedly, will impact the way we think of art. However, he is less interested in claiming that photography is bad/good than proposing that our NOTION of art is changing. I think every media technology is trying to define and redefine what is real. Same as digitalization. We are trying to use digital representations to build a new mode of reality. Our notion of realness and reality is constantly changing. Too illustrate my point, I’d like to use the Google gallery as an example. Strictly speaking, we cannot experience the so-called “aura” of the paintings and other objects from Google gallery but it does “augment” the reality in some sense. We can juxtapose two piece of arts on computer screen and read information and do comparison. We can zoom in and see the details of them, to a degree that I assume that we cannot see when we are literally standing in front of them. I think from the interdisciplinary point of view, we are less interested how those kinds of technologies IMPACT our culture because they are part of our culture, but more interested in asking questions like: how do we help those technologies to present and transmit culture better? I guess it is still an abstract question. I think more specifically, the question can be, is it possible to include every art all through the world into this gallery and what is our political and economical barriers that block us to do so?

I know I am talking too much about something we WILL talk about in the future. But this post for me, is a way to make my thoughts clearer and hopefully, will help people who read it, a way to think through those readings.

Mass Media Evolution and the Missing Factor of Economy

Scott Schroeder

More so than the discussions surrounding competing media theories and attempts to standardize definitions, I found the ostensible omission of economic prosperity as a contributing factor in the evolution of media and its influence on both encoders and decoders to be particularly interesting. In his book ‘McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory,’ Denis McQuail acknowledges mass media’s rise as “a new social phenomenon and a key feature of the emerging modern world that was being built on the foundations of industrialism and popular democracy.” However, I do not believe the causal relationships between economic prosperity with cognitive development, the development of physical infrastructure, or the influence on media perspectives were ever adequately addressed.

Times of great prosperity are often accompanied by times of great innovation. When members of a society are prospering economically, their focus on earning to provide and maintain essential elements of life can shift more toward the creative influences of art, science, and innovation. This enables cognitive thought processes to become less internal, and stimulate external interests and curiosities. This intellectual curiosity amongst the common people was a driving force in the expansion of the telegraph to serve not just the Federal Government and U.S. Post Office, but to service a market for a population who desired to experience the world outside their own bubbles.

The nation’s economic health has provided the fertile soil which mass media has blossomed from over the past several decades in America. The economy provides the means of industrialization as well as the commercial marketing vehicle which enables concepts and mediums to reach millions to billions of people. These factors created the link between conceptual ideas and putting mass media into action. In the country’s early years, it did not have the financial capacity generated by prosperous commercial entities to promote and materialize innovation like today. This is why Morse’s telegraph was essentially grounded for six years until Morse received a $30,000 appropriation from Congress.

Within the American press media, the condition of the economy can also influence the professional code between hegemonic-dominant positions and negotiated-corporate positions. When the economy is doing extremely well, television newscasters may bias their reporting in favor of political elites, or the hegemons in power who are in charge of governing. In the face of poor economic times, television newscasters may revise their professional code to more negotiated-corporate positions in attempts to better connect with a television audience which may be disenchanted with the political hegemons.

The fact that America has dominated in the field of mass media innovation is not on happenstance. Much of it has to do with the political freedoms enjoyed by Americans as well as the unique and diverse culture of the country. However, financial capacity and economic prosperity have played vital roles not only in the areas of material development and commercial marketing, but also in the areas of fostering cognitive creativity and influencing the opinions and perspectives which get transmitted.