The Abundant Media That Raised Us

Pablo J. BoczkowskiNovember 15, 2021The Media That Raised UsPerSpectives
The Abundant Media That Raised Us

Artwork by Fatima García, age 17

If there are two characteristics that mark today’s media, it is that there are massive amounts of options and content at our disposal, and they are available everywhere and all the time.

From TikTok to Netflix, from Twitch to CNN, and from Instagram to ESPN, it is difficult to find a situation in which we would not have lots of media to choose from when it comes to expressing ourselves, communicating with others, learning what they have been up to, and watching shows, movies, news, and sports. If we add the fact that many types of activities that we used to do without media are now increasingly technologically mediated — from schooling to dating, and from shopping to exercising — our daily lives take place in a world of information plenty.

In addition to having lots of media to choose from, the different media carry incredible amounts of information. There are over 100,000 titles of streaming available worldwide, and many of them are shows that have many episodes and many seasons. Of course, the number of titles available in a specific country is much lower than that, but it is still high enough — and mightily growing — that any of us could spend the rest of our lives just sleeping and watching our favorite streaming services and chatting about them on social media.

The abundance of media and content at our disposal is compounded by the fact that they are with us anywhere we go and 24/7. A few decades ago, in an era of much greater media scarcity, there were many situations in which one had to either be in a particular place — in front of the television set, within the movie theatre, accessing a telephone landline — or at a particular time — when the television show started, when the movie was being shown, when a telephone was nearby at home or work—to get media content. Nowadays, we watch shows on our smartphones while we ride the public transit system . . . or even during a boring class at school!

How do these abundant media raise us?

They raise us by challenging the separation between spaces and times that in previous eras were outside of the influence of media, such as home and school. Before, it was much easier for parents and teachers to control the flow of mediated information into the household and the classroom. Today it is very difficult to do that, and even impossible at times. We have all seen the scenes of family members staring at their phones at the dinner table — or the restaurant table during family outings — and of students texting, taking pictures, shooting videos, and posting, interacting, and commenting on social media while at school. This not only diverts attention, but also makes it difficult for parents and teachers to manage exposure to certain content and not others.

Abundant media also raise us with the expectation that the lives of those surrounding us are going to be visible to us on the screen — not just in-person — and that ours will be visible to them in that way, too. In the before times, we learned about others by either talking to them or hearing about them from a common acquaintance. If we wanted to know something about someone, we had to ask to find out. Nowadays, either the algorithms of our favorite social media platforms already show us posts of the people we care about, or a simple search will yield a lot of information about them in a fraction of a second. The other side of the coin is the expectation that many details about our everyday lives will be available on the screen. This is both exhilarating and exhausting, fascinating and depressing, and sadly it is difficult to have one without the other.

In addition, abundant media raise us to become savvy producers of content and not just educated consumers of it. In the past, having access to the means of mediated content production was something for the chosen few who worked in newspapers, television and radio stations, and movie studies. In contrast, today everybody who owns a smartphone — and even someone who can visit a public library with computer terminals connected to the internet — has the means to produce mediated content potentially available worldwide. The growing list of media personalities who started their careers as social media influencers and became television, film, and music stars is a clear indication of the potential power that each of us has as a producer of media content. And while most of us will not achieve global stardom, the accumulation of our micro-publics of hundreds and thousands of followers —and the content we post to engage them — are a major contributor to the abundance of information in today’s media environment.

Finally, abundant media raise us by exposing us to greater diversity of people and ideas than ever before while also presenting us with an incredible depth of sameness in all these dimensions. While in the 20th century the media used to include a fairly narrow range of characters and viewpoints — both in news and in entertainment — today we can access a really wide spectrum of positionalities who share their opinions and experiences on social media. In parallel, the algorithms of the different platforms tend to offer us content that resonates with what we supposedly want. That has two main effects. On the one hand, it contributes to polarizing society by making us less knowledgeable about alternative viewpoints. On the other hand, it provides members of marginalized communities — whose realities had long been ignored by the traditional media system — an opportunity to communicate among themselves, develop community, and share strategies to deal with everyday challenges.

Today’s abundant media raise us by challenging the separation between home, school and work; blurring the boundaries between our private and public lives; inviting us to become not only educated consumers but also savvy producers of content; and exposing us to greater diversity as well as to greater depth of sameness. The intersection of these four trends creates tremendous opportunities for expression, creativity, and change but also significant potential burdens for attention, intimacy, and civility. It is at this very intersection that a major part of our future lies.

Pablo J. Boczkowski (he / él) is Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor at Northwestern University. He is Founder and Director of the Center for Latinx Digital Media, and Faculty Director of the Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, both at Northwestern; Co-Founder and Co- Director of the Center for the Study of Media and Society in Argentina, a joint initiative between Northwestern and Universidad de San Andrés, in Buenos Aires; and Senior Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society in Germany. In 2020 he was named Fellow of the International Communication Association. He is the author or coauthor of six books, co-editor of four volumes, and has written over fifty journal articles. His current book projects include Social Media Studies: Comparative Perspectives (with Mora Matassi, under contract with MIT Press) and The Patina of Distrust: Misinformation in a Context of Generalized Skepticism (with Eugenia Mitchelstein, María Celeste Wagner, and Facundo Suenzo).