I recently overheard a conversation amongst a group of interns tasked with mapping the new media landscape: “Uber is clearly a medium, not a service!” argued one eager participant. “It’s a platform that mediates interactions between users; if Facebook and Google are media companies, then so is Uber!”
When I started in the advertising industry, there was no such debate over what constituted media. “TV, radio, print and outdoor” was the obvious answer. Digital technology upended that simple paradigm by blurring the line between producers, distributors and consumers of content.
Any company that “mediates” user access to information could be a media company, but there must be limits to this new definition. What then, qualifies as media today? To answer this question, it helps to take a step back and examine the history of media and its primary aspects.
Media then and now
Media are all around us. Sounds and images are some of the most basic; they act as vehicles for thoughts and ideas. Typically, though, we think of media like TV, radio or newspapers. Building on sounds, images and text, these media are also vehicles for content.
Historically, the consumption of media has been a largely passive experience. In the early days, oral storytellers, artisans and musicians used stories to record and share community values or important events, while audiences did little more than listen and admire.
Despite myriad means of production, access to content was restricted by the low income of the general population and limited distribution networks. Storytellers traveled by foot or horse, performing only a few times each day for audiences that could afford to be away from their fields and workshops.
Digital technology and the internet have dramatically reduced the distance between storytellers and audiences, profoundly impacting the production, distribution and consumption of media.
Despite this, the five fundamental layers between producer and consumer remain the same.
1. The art of storytelling
All media encodes an idea, essentially expressed as a story: an event (news), a sentiment (music or poetry) or a call to action (manifesto). This is the first of five media layers that stand between storytellers and their audience.
By encoding ideas in story form, we make them more relatable, easier to communicate and far more compelling. We need only look to Aesop’s cautionary fables to see how memorable — and impactful — a story can be. Who doesn’t know and understand the story of the tortoise and the hare?
Institutionalized storytelling has a long history, stretching back to oral storytellers, town criers and theater troupes. Performing for largely elite audiences, they used stories to express the ethos of a community and explore current events and social issues.
Today, the internet allows for the creation and distribution of these same types of stories, keeping the public informed and entertained. Despite vast advances in technology, the fundamental components of these stories have remained largely unchanged.
2. The best medium for the message
Once encoded in a story, the idea can be formulated through a variety of means, including speech, text, musical instruments and paint brushes. How a story is encoded is the second media layer and determines how it is approached and understood.
Music is a great way to express a feeling, and lyrics can be a powerful platform for dissecting current social concerns, but a song is the wrong form for news or complex philosophical ideas. We instinctively turn toward different codes to share a thought or experience.
News, entertainment and emotional communication were all objects of early storytelling. The distinctions between forms yielded media diversity even in the earliest societies, with artisans, scribes, musicians and playwrights all telling the stories best suited to their form.
Though digital tools have multiplied the “instruments” available to storytellers, primary forms like sound (phone calls, music), images (photos, movies) and text (blogs, social media) still represent most of the storytelling forms in the internet age.
3. Connecting consumers and content
After being encoded, stories are distributed in a manner appropriate to the medium, be it a radio, a theatrical production or a magazine. This is the third layer of media and, like the means of encoding, the means of distribution is often fairly obvious — though no less impactful.
The difference between hearing music live at a club and playing a recording has a fundamental role in shaping consumers’ experience. Though individual preference for one means of distribution over another is subjective, their role in effective storytelling is not.
The invention of the printing press precipitated the rapid democratization of textual and visual media, with news, stories and images becoming accessible to an increasingly literate lay public. Accordingly, the entertainment value of media quickly became evident.
Internet connectivity allows media to be distributed like never before, sending dozens of newspapers into consumers’ pockets and streaming movies directly into the home. This allows for unprecedented connectivity between producers and consumers in both directions.
4. The democratization of access
Each form of distribution permits interaction with content on a different scale: between two individuals, an individual and a group or different groups. Most media fall into one of the first two categories, if we understand “individuals” to include large media groups.
The emergence of radio, film and television diversified the means of encoding and delivering content, but access to media remained constricted. Audience size grew rapidly, but production became even more centralized as massive media conglomerates emerged.
Movie theaters, concert halls and newsstands all allow individuals or groups to consume content, but the source remains singular. Audiences watch a movie produced by a studio, or music performed by a band. Selection continued to be limited and consumption-focused.
Unlike a physical venue, the internet doesn’t need to specialize; media of all forms are distributed through a single channel. Consumers now can choose between content produced by companies large and small, and communication transcends geographic and cultural differences.
5. The producer is dead — long live the producers
Though it is obvious that media facilitates communication, we rarely think about who is doing the talking. Most media are directed toward a passive audience. Letters to the editor — or a round of applause — allow for some audience participation, but they are limited modes of feedback.
Many media distribution networks similarly restrict production. Radio, television and magazines give consumers access to content produced largely by established entities. Individuals are limited in their ability to produce and distribute content on these networks.
Despite vast technological strides, media remained largely unidirectional until recent years. Ham radios and camcorders allowed individuals to produce some content, but their ability to reach audiences was constricted until the internet made mass distribution cost effective.
Personal computing democratized not only the access but also the production of content. These advances allow individually produced text, images, music and shows to be shared with all other users, fundamentally changing how we think of media.
Adapting to the new media era
The internet is the ultimate means of connecting storytellers and audiences. Storytelling in its many forms has always been central to education and entertainment, but exponential changes in distribution infrastructure radically altered the scope and depth of popular access to content.
Powering, and then responding to, the popular production and distribution of media, the internet has engendered content platforms that act as media for third-party content. Accordingly, the media industry is shifting its focus from production to include aggregated distribution.
Telcos and media platforms like Spotify and Amazon sell access to content, more so than the content itself, while social media like Facebook and Twitter allow users to share ideas and services in a virtual forum or marketplace.
In the digital age, the boundaries between producers, distributors and consumers are breaking down. Media’s five facets nonetheless continue to be a useful way of understanding the media industry and the ways different media companies and consumers interact.
As an agent of popular storytelling, the media industry is fundamentally shaped by changes in the means and scope of our ability to produce, distribute and consume content independently.
Its role in bringing people and ideas together, however, remains unchanged.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.