Before describing what Media Psychology is, one must first come to terms with what the term ‘media’ means. Media is a notoriously difficult concept to succinctly and precisely describe. Giles (2010) defines it as “anything humans use in order to communicate some sort of message” (p. 5). McLuhan (1994) has a much more esoteric definition that posits media is “an extension of ourselves” (p. 7). McLuhan’s definition is highly intuitive when one considers speech and text as media, extending an essential part of ourselves, our thoughts. However, McLuhan’s definition is less intuitive when considering someone viewing intermittent puffs of smoke from a campfire; unless, of course, one is able to assign meaning by interpreting intention in the patterns of smoke puffs. This example emphasizes that “media are ciphers (i.e., empty of meaning) until we perceive some form of content, which is then treated as a message” (Giles, 2003, p. 6).
Gitelman (2006) defines media as “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of diﬀerent people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation” (p. 7). While precise, this definition is not as succinct as one would like and, consequently, results in a somewhat befuddled and slightly dissatisfied state of mind. With the preceding definitions as context, a reason crystalizes as to why defining Media Psychology is difficult: Media itself is difficult to define.
When speaking of media, it is not uncommon for people to actually be referring to mass media, the collection of television, radio and print media; however, as communications and information technology advances have facilitated the multiplexed and bidirectional delivery of content to and from producers and consumers in synchronous and asynchronous modes, scholars are concluding that this “definition no longer fits the permeable experience of technology use and applications” (Rutledge, 2012, p. 19). Alternately, there is a move to accept the term media as synonymous with older mass media and coin a new term, new media, to embrace the new paradigm (Socha & Eber-Schmid, 2012).
While it can be argued that the nebulous nature of Media Psychology affords it the opportunity to grow, free of unnecessary constraints; absence of a clear and concise definition does present challenges, for without one, assumptions are made, stereotypes invoked and misunderstanding reigns supreme. Negative views of media and its associated studies span a continuum of disenchantment, from trivial to nefarious. Giles (2003) describes a pervasive attitude within academia that media “are not considered a fit topic” (p. 9) and notes the spread of this attitude to the UK government with the comparison of media studies to a ‘cultural Disneyland.’ At the other end of the spectrum is the view that media are anything but trivial and, in fact, in the case of television, are “instrument[s] of social oppression” (Giles, 2003, p.15).
Out of necessity, media psychology must remain technologically and theoretically current; however it is not focused on content, hardware, or software; rather, it is clearly focused on social connections and the nexus of ever-changing technology and its interplay with human perception and understanding (Rutledge, 2012).
One is left wondering whether any attempt to define media psychology would be complete without describing what it is not: (a) longstanding; (b) static; (c) narrowly focused; (d) precisely bounded; (e) medium-centric; (f) message-centric; and (g) sterile. Additionally, media psychology is not a transient fad. As the rate of technological adoption increases and media become more and more engrained in our lives, our relationships with one another will become increasingly mediated and the need to understand and optimize this an imperative.
Giles, D. (2003). Media Psychology. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Giles, D. (2010). Psychology of the Media. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gitelman, L. (2006). Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Rutledge, P. (2012). Is There a Need for a Distinct Field of Media Psychology? In K. Dill (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Socha, B., & Eber-Schmid, B. (2012). What is New Media? Retrieved July 15, 2012, from newmedia.org Web site: http://www.newmedia.org/what-is-new-media.html.