Language Pulsations: Media Ideologies

(1) “Is this a good time for you?” I asked shortly after he answered the phone. “It’s fine,” he answered, “Though I normally keep phone calls short. For Skype calls I’ll have longer talks, but on the phone, I normally go for 10 or 12 minutes.” “Sounds good,” I responded, briefly wondering to myself, Does he not want to talk to me?

(2) I received an SMS on the bus to work: “I don’t see you as a friend anymore. Goodbye.” I called the writer of the message after work. “What’s the problem?” I asked him. “You didn’t answer my text yesterday.” I sighed. “I don’t answer texts when I’m busy. It’s nothing personal.”

(3) “He broke up with me in a Facebook message,” she sobbed, “Can you believe it?”

(4) An American college student, while backpacking through India, befriends an Indian guy whom he later adds as a Friend on Facebook. The Indian friends him back–then begins to systematically “friend” everyone who has recently posted on the American student’s wall, despite the fact that the individuals the young Indian man was friending were Americans that he would never meet in person.

Unbeknownst to most of us, we don’t only communicate through the content of our messages–we also communicate crucial information through the medium of communication we choose to use. And what a lot of choices we have–landline, cell phone, call, Skype, text message, email, Facebook (private message or wall post), Tweet, blog post, postcard in the mail, handwritten note in a corked bottle dropped into the ocean…

Everyday we navigate this vast sea of communicative choices. But we are not random in the choices we make. Although often unaware of them, we all possess a set of assumptions about how the medium of communication changes how we conduct an interaction or interpret particular words and statements. In example (1) above, the recipient of the call expresses the belief that cellular phones should be used for shorter, concise conversations or exchanges of information, while Skype is appropriate for more extended discourse. I, not sharing his assumption, question his interest in the conversation. In (2) above, I work upon the belief that SMS messages (or text messages) are non-urgent and do not require immediate response, while the speaker believes that unresponsiveness indicates unfriendliness or disinterest. In (3), the speaker assumes that her boyfriend is uncaring because he delivers his message through a text message. In (4), the Americans involved saw the Indian’s Friend requests as mystifying, annoying breaches of privacy, while he saw it as rapport-building and an extension of Facebook’s networking possibilities.

Media ideologies are  the beliefs we have about how different communication mediums should be used and how they structure communication.  “Phones are for short exchanges of information”; “Facebook is for casual interaction”; “Text messages should be answered promptly”; “Only Facebook-friend people you have met in person”‘; these are all examples of overarching media ideologies that structure how we conduct and interpret words and statements we receive mediated through new media.

Importantly, media ideologies are not true or false; there is nothing inherently more “casual” about Facebook than face-t0-face. The beliefs are simply a matter of convention and practice. Therein lies the rub: in her 2010 book The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media, Illana Gershon argues that because new media are so, well, new, people haven’t had time to develop widespread consensus about how to use them. As a result, social dilemmas constantly arise. However, there is an upshot: these social dilemmas are also negotiated and solved socially, creating “idioms of practice” in which entire communities share similar media ideologies. This is very evident when I listen to my 14-year-old sister spin yarns of high school joy and drama: while there are relational conflicts, she and her peers clearly operate in a relative communicative harmony when navigating them.

Until that beautiful sociolinguistic nirvana in which we all unite as one harmonious community of practice, however, we can expect to continue to deal with conflicts resulting from clashing media ideologies. The only solution is meta-communication: conversation in which both sides explicitly describe their assumptions and beliefs. In other words: “Baby, it’s not you, it’s my media ideologies.”

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Note to new readers: Language Pulsations are columns where I reflect on word history, usage, or other items of linguistic interest. Previous installments published here include:


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