My Journal



What is New Media? – 3

A colleague of mine recently suggested that New Media is everything newer than the pencil. However, I cannot accept such a simple definition; all media is new at some point. To the chirographic era, the pencil was new media, as was the Gutenberg press. Being that so many new media forms have arisen over the last few decades, what constitutes New Media may differ between individuals. For example, few scholars would consider the pencil to currently be New Media (although some might argue for it). However, as we consider a somewhat more contemporary example, such as the CD player, the level of agreement begins to rise. Of course, newer and unique media forms, such as Skype, Viddler, Jott, etc., are invariably agreed upon as New Media.

One consideration in deciphering such changing opinions is that of regularity and familiarity. For example, the CD player is an established media form. Conversely, these newer examples are still emerging and struggling to find context and applicability. As we have seen, an inventor’s intended purpose may not be the final application of a given product. In speaking of the phonograph, Lisa Gitelman wrote, “Thomas Edison’s intention for the machine was largely confounded, while composers and musical publications left the phonograph virtually unnoticed until its immense popularity forced them into addressing its role as a musical instrument.” (Gitelman 62). In other words, his intention for the machine as a communication device not unlike textual mailing turned out to be overshadowed by its use to play music. The inventor cannot fully know how the product will be used and what effect it will have on culture. More so, the inventor has no authorial role in this effect; the media, based on public application, charts its own course.

Considering the term New Media, what does it mean to be “New” media? Is there a date or a specific event after which point we consider a medium to be “New?” Is there a specific point at which a New Media example is no longer new? In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich presents five principles of New Media:

Numerical Representation
New Media objects are all composed of digital code, which makes them able to be described mathematically, and also makes them subject to algorithmic manipulation.
New Media elements are separate, modular pieces that can be interchanged and combined into larger objects.
The first two principles allow for many New Media operations to be automated, thus removing a certain level of human creativity.
New Media objects are not fixed, but can exist in seemingly infinite versions.
While New Media objects are still identifiable by human senses, such elements also include structural features that make them identifiable by computer-based systems.

Based on Manovich’s identifying principles, New Media is digital, replacing the “old” analog media. This is a fitting and accurate differentiation to establish. For, while virtually all media can be deemed “new” in a given setting, the topic is not actually about being newer than anything. “New” refers not to something post or something recent, but rather something remediated. “What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media.” (Bolter and Grusin, 15). Again, while a given medium might not change fundamentally with its advancement into the “New,” it is our application of it that changes the medium.

As I apply the term, New Media, in 2010, is essentially about providing options and personalization to the user. Option-based media allows us to see new media as “ours” and not someone else’s. In this way, it is tied to Web 2.0. It is interactive in the Web 2.0 sense in that users of New Media have greater control over their experience and have far more power and ability to contribute to the distribution of information and content and the ability to communicate with other content creators. While there are elements that strive to improve (over old media) image, sound, and file quality, this goal is not always met. For example, image quality is often compromised for the sake of file size and distribution. However, what is successful is the aim of offering users options. An image can be uploaded/downloaded rapidly, albeit a bit fuzzy, at lower resolution. Alternatively, the quality can be supreme, but the user will suffer longer download times for the higher quality. It can be seen that a major quality compromise could inhibit content comprehension. However, of larger importance to this explanation is the fact that users have these options to determine quality in general, and to determine quality in regard to purpose, such as printing for a roadside billboard, publishing for the Web, or printing in a professional magazine.

Gitelman, Lisa. “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph.” Eds. David Thornburn and Henry Jenkins. Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 61-80.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press, 2002.

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