Some sociology on the coupling of social media and mass media

Reading Notes: Social Media, Mass Media PDF, 45 pages

The Reality of the Mass Media, by Niklas Luhmann, and Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity together provide a rich basis for unpacking how online media, and social media (user generated content) in particular, couple with the mass media. Each observes the other, further extending and enriching the content of news, advertising, and entertainment through the participation of members of the audience on blogs, content aggregators, social networking sites, and even on recent hits like Youtube. These reading notes are theoretical in tone and substance, and are intended for those interested in social interaction design, especially in how it maps to theories of mass media and a sociology of the media’s construction of a reality reproduced daily by social media users.

Reading Notes: Social Media, Mass Media PDF, 45 pages

From the reading notes summary …

Social Software Design Notes (SxD)

Reading Notes on Modernity and Self Identity by Anthony Giddens and The Reality of Mass Media by Niklas Luhmann

These reading notes describe a systems-theoretical view of mass media and web and social media that posits a) that users, regardless of their individual intentions and interests, engage mass media in form and in content, and that b) the social web extends the domain and reach of mass media while also presenting it real challenges, and c) that this exchange occurs through the social practices of online communication and interaction as well as through the structural and functional coupling (e.g. business) of web media and mass media. In short, the social web offers users a chance to communicate and interact around cultural narratives, news and events as told by the mass media, and more without themselves belonging to the mass media, and the mass media, by observing this user generated content, can inform itself and adjust accordingly. But the social web and the mass media are doing more than observing one another (blogs on movies, cited in newspapers or on TV, and so on): the very forms in which many new online phenomena (call them social media, social software, web 2.0, etc.) take shape implicitly, if not explicitly, refer to forms of mass media communication. In other words, the social practices users engage in refer as much to the mass media as to daily social interactions. This, if it were accurate, would offer an interesting view of social media, for it would suggest that people understand and can engage with the online world through the mass media world and can make the mass media their own. To suggest that users don’t simply take what they do in every-day life and adapt it to the online world, but refer also to the how content is produced on the radio, on TV, in films, in advertising for examples of form and representation if not also narrative construction and distinctions between truth and fiction, truthfulness and falsehoods, would be to suggest that the way forward for social interaction design should involve merging direct and immediate communication interests of individuals with the indirect or mediated means of production of media’s abstract forms.

The above thesis is constructed in these reading notes from the sociologies of Anthony Giddens and Niklas Luhmann. It offers a bridge from user-centric design to media theory and avoids the weak subject position common to many structuralist theories by suggesting that users put their understanding of the mass media to their own use. Mass media constructions of a world can equally serve individuals who, engaging in mediated communities and social interactions, need forms of representation with which to package their communication so that it can be understood by those who come across it. Unable to be there when communication occurs (online), users rely on the familiarity of packaging to provide context for their communication. Packaging provides the promise of control over the reception and interpretation of their communication. (Utterances uttered in face-to-face interactions don’t serve users of online social media insofar was users can’t be present online to utter the utterance in the presence of others in the first place.) And what better source of forms of presentation than the media, which invented the possibility of representational languages and systems in the first place? Media theory takes a functional view of mass media, claiming that the production of stories and events not only sustain business, industry, politics, law, and so on, but connect to consumers by producing news of interest to them. These reading notes suggest a view of new media that connects online and web media to mass media with the difference that users are involved in social practices that engage the Self in relations of trust and trust commitments. Seen from a business perspective, then, social media extend the fictions, and to some extent the functions, of realities constructed by mass media. This time, however, individual users are the systems’ “producers,” storytellers, journalists, and so on. Communication and interaction extend mass media distribution, and accelerate and extend the reproduction of news and events. Social media also contribute the truth and authenticity that belongs to interpersonal communication, and which can only be emulated by mass media.

Social software systems vary in theme, or genre, as well as in their UI and design. Dating sites (, focus on personal information; their users are interested in people. Career networking sites ( focus on people also, but present the professional in the context of professional networks and histories. Both dating and career networking sites are thus biographical and representational. Myspace and Facebook also deal with people, but this time more actively than dating and career networking sites, for they not only capture social networks but produce them. In many ways they resemble interactive mass media: they’re involved in creating social scenes, they spawn and promote bands, clubs, events, news, and so on. Blogging and discussion sites also engage in the creation of news, but this time emphasizing news, viewpoints, perspectives, and expertise more than member personality. There are recommendation sites and systems too, which tend to subordinate the biographical presentation of a person (e.g. personality and character) to the objects reviewed: books, movies, music, restaurants, web sites, travel, products, and so forth. All of these systems engage similar technologies, user interface techniques, and user practices. It seems highly likely that as users, our use of these sites is informed by our understanding not only of the genres of mass media programs, but also their means of production. In other words, we know something about how to present news, we get the difference between news and advertising, we know a lot about celebrities and why we’re interested in them, what makes them popular, and how to talk about them. Social practices of social software use, in other words, are informed by existing mass media. But now we can participate in a world online that is coupled to the mass media through observation of it, at a minimum, and structurally, at a maximum (where social media are functionally, economically, and structurally coupled to the function, economics and structural organization of mass media). Mass media do not permit two-way communication with their audience; social media of course do. These reading notes cover two sociologists (Anthony Giddens and Niklas Luhmann), whose work can help us unpack the social practices emerging around social software and social media within a higher-level analysis of mass media (media theory).

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