The New Media Literacy

For several decades now, media literacy has been in the discourse of consumer society.  Sociologists, philosophers, feminists, and critical social theorists have warned us to beware the messages transmitted to our spongy, impressionable brains through the channels of mass media.  Subconsciously enculturated into a materialist, capitalist, and vain world of crippling self consciousness, we are constantly bombarded with affirmations that we aren’t good enough, and that we always need to acquire more (or less, depending on if we’re talking about money, goods, or weight).  Or so goes the watered-down (but nonetheless transformative) version of the story.  Digging a little deeper, and approaching a more critical stance towards our social values and institutions, media literacy theorists have argued that persistence of the messages, signs, and symbols projected at us helps naturalize the meanings of those messages, validates their existence, and basically perpetuates a system of institutional racism and gender discrimination, or at least reproduces the mechanisms by which we justify the marginalization of non-mainstream behaviors, ideas, and personalities.  For many of these years, print media, television, and popular music have been the most obvious culprits of this social engineering process, with good reason.  But for the past decade, we have witnessed the decline of the print media, network television, and music industries, and the simultaneous rise of cable and internet-based television (which has necessitated the evolution of the advertising structure that dominated print and television media for so many decades), personalized media consumption, and social networking.  Arguably, the entire landscape of media has changed, and with it, so has the nature of the messages we receive and internalize.

I began thinking about this after reading Farhad Manjoo’s criticism of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook.  While Manjoo’s critique focuses on Facebook’s push to “socialize” (read: share) all of our consumptive online activity, what struck me is that here we have a great case study for investigating the role of new media on our collective consciousness and social practices.  Facebook boasts the following numbers on its statistics page:

  • 800,000,000 active users
  • 50% of active users log in at least once a day (if you’re counting, that’s 400,000,000 log ins)
  • Over 900,000,000 “objects” (pages, groups, events, community pages) exist on Facebook for people to interact with, of which the average user is connected to 80
  • Every month, more than 500 million people interact with a Facebook app or Facebook Platform on other websites
  • And my favorite, “There are more than 475 mobile operators globally working to deploy and promote Facebook mobile products”

To say that Facebook is ubiquitous for the internet-accessing, media-consuming world would probably be fair, if only a slight over-statement.  But let’s just say that Facebook has a clearly “far-reaching” domain.  There are a few things that I find fascinating about this:
  1. The social nature of Facebook has morphed the public user role from “consumer” to “consumer/producer”
  2. The messages transmitted through the Facebook channel come from multiple forms of media-producing entities: local individuals and groups that share our cultural values and discourses, “global” individuals and groups that have different cultural values and discourses, local corporations that have an intrinsic understanding of their local constituencies (and target them as such), and global corporations that have a foreign understanding of their non-local constituencies.
  3. The personalized look and feel of the Facebook interface offers a consumption experience that differs from that of traditional mass media channels.
  4.   The sheer size and reach of Facebook (still a privately-owned company at the time of this posting) harkens the imagery of a virtual “empire”, which it runs with particular interests, understandings of social practices and values, and goals for the future (including its own survival).

As regards media literacy, I feel like we have something akin to the quantum revolution taking place; a crazy, unpredictable, unintuitive world where the closer we get to identifying the cause of a phenomenon, the more we lose sight of the object.  Did that sentence make any sense at all?
 If not, maybe I’m on the right track.  My point is this: because Facebook allows us to consume all forms of messages, from our friends, relatives, community groups, and major corporations in a seamless, elegant, branded format, all while under the guise of personal choice and preference, it is harder to distance ourselves from the evil, mass media monster that was so easily identifiable in years past.  This is not to say that Facebook is evil, or a monster, as mentioned above, it is large, has a far reach, and is privately owned.  It is also privately constructed.  Any part of the Facebook experience that is developed by a third party must adhere to Facebook’s branding guidelines.  We call these constraints.  Now, constraints can be both a productive force, as well as a restricting one, but the are constraints nonetheless.  These constraints form the virtual “walls” within which we experience the messages, images, advertisements, coolness, bullying, community, rejoicing, grieving, and mundanity of the Facebook channel.  In other words, Facebook is a means for delivering an experience of socialization.  What are we socialized into through Facebook?  I’m not sure.  But I bet we all experience it a little differently.  That is what I find so fascinating.  With a magazine advertisement, we see the same photo, read the same slogan.  With Facebook, we see photos of our friends mixed in with Facebook’s branding.  Media companies like Youtube, Hulu, and Netflix offer infinitely more breadth of viewing options than did network television, and with fewer (if any) commercials, and riskier material.  Advertising features far less prominently to the untrained eye in these formats (behold the power of product placement).

Personally, I enjoy Facebook and the experience it brings.  I like being able to share websites, articles, videos, and photos with friends, and I like reading about my friends’ experiences.  One of the great things about the sharing protocol of Facebook is that it is, by nature, more personalized than, say, the recommendations Amazon delivers to my email inbox every morning.

So yes, please, Facebook, crowd-source my willing friends.  But only my willing ones.  Is there a “like” button for that?
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