[Air-L] (no subject)

Daniel d.miller at ucl.ac.uk
Mon Sep 13 03:55:39 PDT 2010

First I wanted to introduce myself, having just joined this list. I have
been working on internet studies since a book I published with Don Slater,
The Internet: an Ethnographic Approach (Berg 2000). Most recently I
completed a book Tales from Facebook, which is coming out with Polity in
April 2011. More concretely I have included below a cross-posting which
comes from a blog I have been running for some years with Haidy Geismar of
NYU at www.materialworldblog.com <http://www.materialworldblog.com/>  a few
of whose postings may interest people on this list. 


In this particular case the posting may be unusual in that the primary
purpose for posting is to let people know that we have proposed this term
polymedia for general usage in the hope of creating some semantic
consistency. But in addition I must admit I would also be interested to know
if there are people on this list who a) see themselves as working
specifically on this topic of polymedia or b) currently carrying out
sustained ethnographic work (i.e. a year or more fieldwork) on social
networking sites?

Danny Miller 



Mirca Madianou (sociology, Cambridge) and Daniel Miller (anthropology,
University College London)


Academics should be very wary of neologisms that most often lead to esoteric
obfuscation and confusion. But occasionally there is an overwhelming
argument that something in the world has changed beyond recognition and
beyond the capacity and semantics of language, such that the only effective
way to clearly convey it is through this strategy. For this reason we make
no apology for inventing the word 'polymedia'. The basic argument is quite
simple. Until very recently most people wishing to communicate at a distance
had a limited choice of media, and as a result they had to pay considerable
attention to the cost and to the constraints imposed by the particular media
they that were available to them for that communication. When transnational
communication was mainly limited to letters and the sending of
voice-recorded cassette tapes, then our evidence is that users were very
conscious of the propensities of the media themselves in shaping their
communications, as is evident, for example, in the extensive time lag
between sending and receiving letters.


In recent times, and for many people around the world this means the last
year or two, (although we recognise for many other people this is still not
yet the case) have finally reached a state where there exists a genuine
proliferation of possibilities when it comes to communication between
separated persons. Furthermore once the costs of the equipment and payment
plan is spoken for, such as a computer, the ISP subscription or an annual
phone plan, then the costs of any individual act communication itself
becomes largely inconsequential. For almost any reader of this blog, but
also for a typical school aged individual of a middle class income in pretty
much any town anywhere, there may now exist a choice of mobile phone and
internet based platforms such as voice calls, texting, email, instant
messaging (IM), blogs, VOIP with or without webcam, photo and video sharing
and social networking sites all readily available. New forms such as video
messaging are on the horizon. We suggest that in such a situation the
primary concern shifts from an emphasis on the constraints and affordances
vis a vis a particular medium to an emphasis upon the social and emotional
consequences of choosing between a plurality of media. The mere situation of
polymedia changes the relationship between communication technology and


The word polymedia seems to us more appropriate than alternative terms.
Multimedia is now established as the term for situations, such as the use of
webcam in videocalling, where several different forms of media are being
used simultaneously and in direct relationship to each other. It would
therefore be confusing to use that word for this proliferation of media.
Polymedia might seem closer to terms such as multi-channel or
multi-platform. But all such terms are based on an idea of hierarchy within
media, that assume we can know what is properly a platform or a channel. One
of the other effects of these recent developments is that users do not
distinguish between such  layering, or hierarchies. Various different
devices are used in various combinations, so that Skype may be through a
smartphone, or IM embedded within Facebook. So such terms have become
themselves a source of confusion rather than clarity. We therefore need a
term that simply describes this new state of the world, and the prefix
`poly' from the Greek for many or much, seems entirely appropriate. So we do
not apologise for inventing the word polymedia which we hope will become


The basis for this development is fieldwork we have carried out in the
Philippines and Trinidad. The work in the Philippines has concentrated on
the relationships between mothers working in the UK and their left behind
children in the Philippines. This will culminate in a forthcoming book,
Madianou, M. and Miller, D. Technologies of love: migration and the
polymedia revolution, and associated journal papers. Much of this is
concerned with the way those at both ends of the communication utilise the
entire range of possibilities and the parameters of difference in order to
try and control the nature of that communication, for example to avoid
argument, allow time to consider a response, express love and feel a sense
of authenticity to content. Our work in Trinidad provides a comparative
dimension regarding communication between transnational families in the UK
and Trinidad and there is also a separate book just focusing on Facebook
(Miller, D. Tales from Facebook, forthcoming Polity).  


The revelation of polymedia is obviously not simply a response to our own
work. We can see parallel discussion in a wide range of recent publications.
One such trajectory comes from sustained work on mediation in media studies
associated with writings by Nick Couldry, Sonia Livingstone, Roger
Silverstone, Lilie Chouliaraki, Mirca Madianou, Bolter and Grusin and
others. Then within the more technical studies of media convergence in
functionality and studies by Broadbent and others on the implications of
this within family communication. The first proper and extremely helpful
textbook in this area was recently published as Personal Connections in the
Digital Age by Nancy Baym (2010) based on research in a number of
disciplines. She highlights seven key parameters of difference, properties
that may be shared or make for significant contrasts between each of these
media. These are: interactivity, temporal structure, social cues, storage,
replicabilty, reach and mobility. She then employs these parameters of
difference to consider a wide range of facets of human communication
including the degree to which we see media as more or less authentic in
comparison to face-to-face interaction, the sense of community, identity,
gender, veracity and the self.


In contrast to this wide-angle view is the tight focus of a recently
published book The Breakup 2.0 by the anthropologist Illana Gershon (2010).
By examining which media people employ when breaking up a relationship,
Gershon provides considerable and persuasive documentation of how people
mistakenly presume what their partners intend by such choices and the
various misunderstandings that follow. Chapter three of her book is a
particularly good example of this perspective on the multiplicity of
contemporary media. Gershon brings her own analytical terms to the table
such as `idioms of practice' based on `media ideologies'. Her informants can
be outraged almost as much by someone dumping them through an inappropriate,
what they see as inhuman media, as the fact that they are being dumped.


In our own research we are as impressed by the speed at which normativity
and standardisation of expectation can form around new media, as Gershon is
impressed by continued heterogeneity. Within a few months many people seem
to have clear ideas about the implications of some new iteration of
Facebook, or a combination of skype and webcam. In fact both these processes
are important aspects of polymedia. What we would argue all these research
has in common is this sense that the proliferation of new media and the
movement of costs from foreground to background, as they become less
prohibitive constitutes an unprecedented media ecology which also makes the
social and moral aspects of media choice increasingly significant at the
expense of the technological constraints and affordances. For these reasons
we propose the adoption of a new term - polymedia.


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