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The rise of mediated interaction (Thompson 1995)

April 4, 2010

These are notes from chapter 3 of Thompson, John, B. (1995) The media and modernity: A social theory of the media. Cambridge: Polity. The author’s stated aim for this chapter (p. 82) is to fashion a conceptual framework around the types of action and interaction enabled by modern media.

81-2 How did the rise of communication media transform pre-modern forms of social interaction? The argument here is that modern media brought about ‘new forms of action and interaction and new kinds of social relationships’, as well as a reorganisation of human interactional patterns across space-time.

82 Modern comm media also usher in new species of ‘action at a distance’

Three types of interaction, 82-87

1. Face-to-face interaction: co-present in space and time; rich symbolic cues (frowns, smiles, winks, gestures…); dialogical

2. Mediated interaction, e.g. phone conversations, letter writing, etc. Separated in time and/or space; dialogical.

3 Mediated quasi-interaction: ‘symbolic forms produced for an indefinite range of potential recipients’; impoverished symbolic cues; monological

86 This framework can help us gauge impact of modern media from mid-C15 to present: f2f interaction ever more supplemented by the other two types of interaction; as a result we have a new ‘interaction mix’ in our social lives

The social organisation of mediated quasi-interaction

88-100 Goffman’s front regions vs back regions and how they apply to contexts of media production and reception, with TV as the example. Like all media, TV separates the production and reception contexts. Skilled TV viewers learn with practice to ‘interpolate’  TV’s space-time coordinates into those of their day-to-day lives – a ‘discontinuous space-time experience’. The ‘anchor frame’ is context of reception, given how people’s life trajectories embedded in daily life.

97 Because it’s monological, TV performers don’t have to reflexively monitor others’ reactions to them. But this creates uncertainty, which can be somewhat reduced via panel discussion or chat shows. For recipients, much fewer constraints than in f2f interaction, the people in the box can’t hear or see them.

98 Not quite participation, rather quasi-participation in this kind of interaction

98 Tele-visibility of front-region TV people, e.g. chat show presenters: ‘present to the recipients but absent from the context of reception’; strange mix of symbolic richness and structural/communicative asymmetry.

99 This distance gives TV personalities an ‘aura’  [see also Couldry on media vs. non-media persons]

Action at a distance (1): acting for distant others, 100-109

101 Four ways of acting for distant others:

(1) ‘recipient address’: now obsolescent way of TV person directly addressing viewers, facing camera; these days often pairs of newsreaders to break monotony; prime ministerial or presidential address must balance intimacy and solemnity; there are direct and indirect addresses to recipients

(2) ‘mediated everyday activity’: e.g. filming a day in the life of a family or group; although seems natural, filming does of course affect people’s behaviour; can also be simulated, e.g. doing something supposedly routine for the benefit of the film crew

(3) ‘media events’ (Dayan and Katz): e.g. great state and olympic occasions, participants must concentrate on the task at hand, as they are aware of transcendence of event

(4) ‘fictionalized action’, e.g. docu-dramas

In all these cases, what’s interesting is how people partaking in mediated quasi-interactions act for distant others

Action at a distance (2): responsive action in distant contexts, 109-118

Reception practices are unique coz (a) reception and production space-time don’t overlap, (b) countless reception settings don’t overlap with one another.

110 Media messages are discursively elaborated in their contexts of reception and beyond

112-3 Receiving and appropriating media messages are ways of responding to distant others. We can distinguish concerted forms of responsive action (e.g. to news of hike in petrol prices) from coordinated forms of responsive action (when originators of messages intended such coordinations, e.g. millions of domestic responses to canned laughter in sitcoms). 114 A third type is when coordination and organisation arise in contexts of reception, e.g. TV coverage of Vietnam war and anti-War movement, or 1989 events in Eastern Europe, domino effect.

117 So media not just reporting on the social world, but actively constituting it. Although mediated quasi-interactions are largely one-way, the picture is much more complex once people appropriate those contents beyond immediate reception contexts.

118 With modern media we see emergence of new kinds of social fields with thick mixes of all 3 types of interaction. The ‘mediated field of interaction is a field in which relations of power can shift quickly, dramatically and in unpredictable ways’. Such fields can be global nowadays and can accelerate social change.

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