Using the most basic of definitions, media can be defined as communication applied through mediation before reaching the intended audience. The intended communication must go through a “buffer” of sorts that interferes to some degree with direct transfer of meaning from one party to another. This definition therefore can include writing, radio, television, the internet, and all of the other classic means of mediation commonly referred to in media studies.
Unfortunately, such a definition has one key flaw: any sort of communication is inherently mediated, including direct, face-to-face communication. In this case, it is through language and non-verbal cues that meaning must pass, mediums that carry any number of potential pitfalls in misunderstanding and limitations. To use the definition offered above would therefore place any sort of communication short of telepathy under the category of “media,” which largely defeats the purposes of such a term.
To refine the definition, then, media can be define as communication applied through mediation beyond that of face-to-face communication. Despite its own inherent problems, face-to-face communication is still seen by many as being “better” than communication that it otherwise mediated. Exactly how “direct” communication is superior to media is difficult to pin down: while it is true that media often lacks certain familiar elements that facilitate communication (particularly the more delicate dynamics involving nonverbal cues), it can often possess elements that direct communication lacks: durability of form, use of complex visual symbols, and ease of transmission to multiple parties, to name but a few. What media “lacks” may not have so much to do with efficiency, then, as much as a loss of intimacy.
“Intimacy” in this case refers to that intangible element that is created between parties in close proximity that helps promote feelings of trust, affection, and connection. Few lovers would claim to prefer writing letters or using AIM to face-to-face encounters. Political candidates recognize the continued value of making live campaign appearances in politically strategic communities, creating intimacy both with the immediate crowd and the population they represent – though the latter still must go through media to access that intimacy.
Which raises an important point: intimacy is still possible through media, and much of the drive towards new media technologies seems in part to originate in the desire for greater intimacy. Oftentimes this requires the introduction of new cues and ideas within the confines of the technology to replace the familiar elements of face-to-face communication that are lost in mediation; a prime example of this is the prevalence of emoticons in internet messaging. While imperfect, these added layers of intimacy serve to “humanize” media, though to what ends can be debatable, depending on what purpose the media in question is being used towards.
Just what it can be used for is remarkably diverse: while lacking the intimacy of face-to-face conversation, media is capable of doing many things direct communication cannot. Some of these advantages are obvious, such as being able to reach significantly larger audiences and cover great distance. Other advantages are more subtle: for example, the loss of intimacy can actually be used to benefit the sender of mass media who desires to enforce conformity of understanding, worldview, desires, etc. upon large numbers. Intimacy promotes an individualized understanding of an interaction – lack of intimacy creates a situation where the receiver is more conscious of the group dynamic and is more likely to be received in a predictable fashion.
Moreover, the desire for intimacy in media can itself be used as a tool for manipulation as well. Since tools used to simulate intimacy are imprecise and often not entirely understood, it is easier to create a false sense of intimacy to deceive the receiver. To go back to the emoticon example, it is far easier to write :) to express a false sense of happiness than it is to attempt to emote such a feeling in person. On a larger scale, advertising can take advantage of an audience’s desire for intimacy through subtle cues meant to make the viewer believe that an ad is speaking directly to them, rather than to their demographic.
On the other hand, lack of intimacy can also allow media to serve as an agent of self-awareness and reflection. The very lack of familiar elements encourages those who take part in media to consider the very nature of communication itself as it relates to self and society, setting the stage for possible revolution (or at least reform) in the social structure.
These potentials, whether they be positive, negative, or neutral, are inherent in all media, though it becomes particularly obvious the more new and unfamiliar the form of media is in question – hence the utopian dreams and dystopian nightmare that have emerged with the introduction of the radio, television, and Internet, each expressing in the language of the era the almost identical hopes and fears we see reflected in the potential of media. Though such potential may be exaggerated at times, the persistent discussion surrounding it suggests that the value of studying media in its continuing evolution will remain on par with the value of studying society as a whole.