Thursday, 28 May 2009

All pull and no push

What happens when people are given unlimited scope to 'pull' out the media content which gives them the most gratification?

Blumler and Katz's 'uses and gratifications' mass media theory and the later 'expectancy-value' model from Palmgreen and Rayburn were both founded in the last century when following your particular interest, hobby or obsession through media was limited by the narrow range of mass media outlets and the cost barriers to specialist content. It must have been relatively easy to measure satisfaction levels with particular media and to research what would make audiences migrate to better levels of gratification. And the size of audiences probably allowed researchers to work with significant error margins.

The notion of understanding channel choice by analysing the individual search for gratification still seems potentially a very powerful model. But deep insights will surely be gained only by stretching the model into a more psychological approach. That would open the way to assessing the full impact of a media world where individuals can pursue personal obsessions to a degree unimagined in the mass media age.

Instant access to any kind of gratification takes the solitary individual beyond previous barriers of peer pressure and conformity. Unmediated communication removes gatekeepers applying an interpretation of consensus or established norms. But what do we know about the impact of leaving behind these filters? What happens, for example, when people seek only those with whom they agree, find them easily and remove themselves from the pressures of building consensus? Has anyone researched whether social and online media trigger or accelerate latent addictive tendencies? The alarming ease with which gambling and porn colonised the web is not encouraging.

Shirky cites Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone about the destruction of social capital in the US. Is it really feasible to think social media can compensate adequately for this loss? Why should we expect someone enjoying ever deeper exposure (even addiction) to their own obsession to bother with the complexities and compromises inherent in community activism?


  1. I think you have touched on a very important aspect of social media. It is an alarming trend where society is getting rid of all the tools of online control, allowing people to pursue what fancies their whims. I see this fueling conflict at some point, when cyber communities who can't agree form opposing groups and what you end up having is a cyber war that could eventually turn out real and get waged on the streets. Without any gate keepers in the social media, how do we keep our children safe? Terror abounds online, with bombs, violence, cyber crime, identity theft and you mentioned pornography and gambling. I dread what will happen if we all accept what is morally unacceptable now, for example, child pornography. It will be the end of society as we know it and technology will have caused it.

  2. Justa, I share your concerns, which raise big issues for the ethics of social media PR. I think it is especially important for those in authority to get involved with social media in a meaningful and credible way. In the absence of old-style filters and gatekeepers there is a new responsibility to counter extreme views with clearly articulated reason and humanity.

  3. The Singapore government has prosecuted domestic Internet users for various offences under sedition and defamation laws. This seems to work as an effective deterrent to publishing extremist views and, one assumes, as an encouragement to self-regulation, an important concept online. Crime online may in fact be no more prevalent than it is in physical society. It's simply a matter of appropriate policing.

  4. Jantzen - thanks for the interesting comment. Were the prosecutions fully reported to allow people to consider and debate the actions of the Government as gatekeeper?

  5. Fully reported here in Singapore for example see the following link ( Not sure if the cases make front page headlines overseas.