Pictures and Pixels - Photographic Art and Beyond
National Salon 2016

Zsolt Szijártó

Transformation of the Communication/Media Space : the Importance of Images

In recent decades the appearance and growing penetration of new and even newer media, the permanent transformation of the communication environment in everyday life has become common place in Hungarian society. In specialist literature – but also in common language –communication revolutions refers to the major scale processes (Barbier et al. 2004) that bring about not only the appearance and wide-scale penetration of new technologies but also major changes in numerous areas of society, culture and the economy. Since the early 1990’s – in respect to the rapid penetration of the Internet - communication and media science have used the term mediatization to describe and capture the changing communication environment. In its broadest sense mediatization marks a fundamental (meta)process of human history, which, considering its scope and penetration is best compared to civilization: it fundamentally transforms the framework (economy, politics, religion, education, etc.) of socialization and social life with an impact that lasts for centuries (Hepp 2010). In a more restricted sense, focusing on the sphere of everyday life and using actual examples, mediatization illustrates what changes the proliferation of new media has brought about in the various areas of culture and social life (Krotz 2007).

In this mediatization process embracing long time periods and simultaneously representing an increasingly rapid pace the last 10-15 years have brought about a difference in degree. English media-researcher David Morley maintained as early as around the turn of the millennium that people are able to experience an actual invasion of a huge variety of information and communication devices in their homes, at institutions and in public communication (Morley 2001, 20). This observation can be supported by numerous empirical data and it has become especially apparent for the younger generations and in various youth communities that the locations of everyday life (primarily because of their relative cheapness) have been flooded by the various media. English media researcher Sonja Livingstone talks about “media rich homes” in this respect, in which young people can explore the world around them from their own highly mediaequipped bedroom whilst remaining invisible to the outside world (Livingstone 2002).

The appearance of digital media, then shortly afterwards the emergence of social media have brought about further changes in the system of media relations in everyday life. A special communication environment was established, in which the framework of medial actions is no longer characterized by the consumption of mass media but rather by the active use of digital social media. This is an environment where the protected atmosphere of home was connected to the virtual spaces of the online community. Because social media also operate as public social spaces the walls of the homes and bedrooms of young people have become more transparent, the borderlines between private and public have become more diffuse, and the norms valid for physical, actual spaces had to be reconsidered. As a result of comprehensive mediatization processes the space serving as the framework for our everyday lives is actually established as a product of the individual actions taken using these media.

The most fundamental characteristics of the new media technologies have long transcended the more limited IT/ technical areas and have become the key categories of the media transformation of the last 10-15 years. Primarily digitalization already means far more than digital data replacing analogue data in the communication process, since as a result of digitalization digital data (like images) have become easier to manage while the manner of media acts has been fundamentally transformed. Even “lay participants” of communication situations – without any special skills or expertise – have become capable of transforming digital data, moving them to another media environment, archiving them or using them for commenting.

The pluralization and diversification of media are not limited to its proliferation; the quantitative growth of the media offer also includes the extension of media acts, since by the multiplication of various media platforms applicable for the conveyance of the same messages the participants of communication have many more choices. The term convergence refers to the merging trend of the once separated world of media: most media have become multimedia tools, i.e. they contain various user options and media platforms.

Another important, qualitative feature of the new media system shaping the digital world is that – as opposed to mostly fixed traditional media (located within the walls of homes or workplaces) – it creates the opportunity for mobile use.

The IT generation

According to research focusing on the relationship between society and media technologies within the overall trend of mediatization significant differences can be observed between the individual groups of society in regard to their attitude to media. It is especially the world of younger people – the “Y-generation” born between 1981 and 2001 (sometimes also labelled “millennial”) and the “Z-generation” comprising the youngest – that can be described with the overall presence of various digital technologies and the creative use of new media that is different from their use by earlier generations. This change has not only attracted the interest of sociologists (Livingstone, Sonja & Bober, M. 2005), but also represents a widely discussed subject of various social discourses.

Around the turn of the millennium numerous books in the US forecast the birth of a new generation; the appearance of a “new tribe” consisting of “digital natives”, for whom computers and the Internet provide the natural background of socialization. Studies and books of the last decade have described the characteristic cultural pattern of the media acts, the set schedule of the everyday life of this age group. The authors that typically work at various consultancy firms, on the borderland between the economy and science (Marc Prensky, Don Tapscott, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser or the German Horst Opaschowski) were successful in spreading their theory. They offered an attractive, optimistic – and easily understandable/interpretable – image about the new generation to a curious and perceptive audience consisting mostly of experts affected in multiple ways (teachers, business players).

The heroes of the book titled The Rise of the Net Generation published by one of the creators of the term “net generation”, Don Tapscott in 1997 grow up in households well-equipped with digital media that they are capable of using more creatively and widely than their parents (Tapscott 1999). Tapscott paints a fundamentally positive picture of the psychical characteristics, social relationships and political patterns of this generation. Besides other things he emphasizes their special form of curiosity, their independence, their experimentation with their own personalities and their tolerance of ethnic minorities.

“It’s shocking that in discussions about the decay of the quality of education we disregard the most obvious reason. Our current students have changed radically. Today’s pupils are not the same as those that the current educational system was planned for.” (Prensky 2001a, 3) This is what The Digital Natives, the much referred book of one of the main advocates of the ITgeneration, Marc Prensky begins with. According to his main thesis the fundamental changes taking place within the world of media cannot be interpreted along the traditional, evolutionary approached concepts of social and technical development, since their scope and penetration transcends these. The description of the new, digital (media) world requires a new dictionary; and thus he tries to create the starting points using strong metaphors and sometimes over-simplified dichotomies.

The categories defined by Prensky are not based on systematic data and empirical research but much rather on impressions and individual observations, yet they became widely adopted, and can be encountered at every turn in various descriptions of the “new IT generation” (Prensky 2001b, 2006).

Prensky contrasts two social groups, “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, differentiated by age. According to the author the young generation of digital natives has a command of the language of computers, video games and the Internet in an obvious, “innate” way. However, the majority of older people are unable to completely master this new language; their speech, idioms and way of thinking will always reflect some “accent”; the proof that they haven’t mastered this idiom in an obvious fashion.

Prensky and his followers differentiate the two groups along a system of binary pairs of opposition; and during this classification they mainly rely on one dimension: the attitude towards digital technology. While generally they don’t waste too much attention on “immigrants”, they describe the groups of young people representing the focus of their writings using expressive images, mostly ideal-typical categories. The young people that organize themselves in networks absorb information quickly, often processing information in parallel. Instead of texts they rather put images and sounds into the focus of their everyday communication relationships and often use the tools available to them in a very playful and creative manner.

There have been some passionate debates in recent years concerning the interpretation of various (mainly youth) digital cultures. According to many critics the use of labels such as “digital natives”, “Z- or IT-generation” paints a far too homogenous picture of this age group and conceals actual, relevant differences within the group, for example the difference in their access to the digital world as part of their actual use of media. This essentialist opinion is further supported by methodological arguments underlying research that conceals rather than emphasize differences within the group.

As a result of this criticism research examining the media consumption of young people have started taking two directions in the last decade. On one hand there is greater focus on the various (actual) ways of mastering digital technologies and their highly diverse contexts of use, since what the social web provides is used by young people for various purposes. Facebook, for example, often only represents the general starting point of everyday web use, the finding place of more generic pieces of information. To satisfy their more specific interests, users need to turn to other networks or platforms. On the other hand, with respect to media use and communication habits empirical research is increasingly focusing on more and more upon fault lines within an age group/ generation. This is the shift from the ideal-typical construction of “digital natives” to researching the various practices and strategies of an age group that still show common characteristics as well. 

Image Acts

Among the media acts determined by the new, digital media the radical transformation of the use of images (photo and video) around the turn of the millennium plays an especially important role. Although photography, the creation and (re)use of pictures, the various combinations of images and text played an important role in the situations of everyday communication before the digital era - especially in the world of various youth cultures - this role has changed radically in the last ten years. According to American media theorist Lev Manovich the year 2005 is of key importance in this respect since that was when web-based video content started to grow exponentially for various technological and economic reasons (Manovich 2011). The price drop of professional image recording equipment, the option of shooting photos and videos appearing in mobile phones, the spread of software enabling the quick sharing of media content together led to a situation where digital images and image processing created new opportunities even for masses of non-professional users that hadn’t existed before, in the era of analogue photographs.

As a result of this technological change the role and importance of images, the entire system of rules for the use of images was transformed fundamentally in the digital based environment of the new media. They have become widely accessible, easyto- use tools of expression that accompany and illustrate the situations of everyday communication in almost every case, they serve as starting points of various acts. Images have become the most important mediation tools of the digital world, they circulate permanently between the offline and online world, they report programs, cover events, tell news. (This isn’t without precedent, though; scholars of culture in the 90’s have already pointed out how news and events of faraway countries appear in personal, private space and start changing the horizon of everyday life. After the turn of the millennium, with the production of images becoming general the players themselves created their own media channels.)

Images make the fundamental medial principle governing the digital world visible: they create a medial environment that covers the entire area of everyday life, the process of community building, the network-like acts. The production of images and videos becomes a cultural tool that represents the most important crystallization point of the self-representation and structuralization of the various communities. (Of course we can find the precedents here, too: the various subcultures always liked using new media formats/genres and experimenting with these.)

Media researcher Danah Boyd describes the process of how collectively created, received and distributed images connect the individual users and individual public spheres creating a “translocal network space” with the term “networked publics” (Boyd 2011).

These worlds of images built up along similar principles and using the same media technology background, however, differ from each other significantly – according to the activities, social networks of the players – with all the users establishing their own patterns. The various research work attempts to identify different image acts in these situations of communication interaction within the translocal network space and the extended world of images.

Even within the digital world images have preserved their traditional illustrative, documentation function. The creation of different profile images are excellent indicators of this, their role is to represent people during their communication in the digital world. Here we are already experiencing the dichotomy characteristic of the digital world of images, representing the source of numerous discussions. On one hand there is a valid demand by many users to connect the online and offline world by images that serve as illustrations of an actual, real “body”. But it’s also exactly profile images that serve as great examples for creative transformations, the objective of which is not illustration and identification but rather some playful recreation. In these cases users conceal the real, actual “body” behind some symbol, fantasy character or narrative. This is how one’s own profile offers a playground for the players to try various ideas, plans or fantasies, or to discuss these with others.

Images have become important as tools creating, structuring and mediating communication situations. Their posting, sharing and commenting keeps extensive circles of friends/acquaintances active, while images often provoke reactions illustrated by images or some video content. In this communication context images and videos can be interpreted as integration spaces, i.e. as intersection points where references originating in different social spaces, and contexts of experience can meet.

All this leads us to another field of image acts where images appear as news reports. In the everyday communication environment there are practically infinite opportunities to display one’s own value preferences, to formulate judgements of taste, i.e. for the inscenation of the self. The clear boundary line between private and (mass) media image worlds characteristic of the earlier medial era disappears. The reputed self-portraits called “selfies” represent a special type of image, creating a new, very widespread visual genre with its very own patterns and narrative structure.

The new communication environment marks up the importance of the special organized forms of images and of image archives. In the digital world – similarly to the analogue world – images never exist in an isolated fashion, they are always organized into various groups of images. Digital media offer readymade tools for users to help them in documenting individual events and in preserving the volatile traces of the past that include options for organizing the images created. The timeline function makes a chronological order possible, but the available interfaces also offer other options to create various thematically organized image folders almost automatically. The archives principle has a strong prevalence in the digital world, representing one of its main forms of organization.

The high numbers of interfaces (blogs, forums) that deal with the evaluation of images created by various “amateur” players or with the extension of everyday knowledge about images indicate the increased importance of the role that images play in our everyday lives. (Mester 2007). As a result of the growing demand for (good) images respect towards image creators is also growing while players specialized in creating images can acquire significant cultural and social acknowledgement. It is not just their technical expertise that is highly appreciated by other players of the network space (who are also trying to master these skills in various ways), image creators sparing neither time nor energy to make pictures of improving perfection are permanently “awarded” by these communities through positive feedback.

The change of value and importance of images represents one of the most exciting research areas in the field of communication and media science. Recent research has already accumulated a lot of new information, especially about the relationship between young people and the media, primarily in connection with the penetration of the Internet and digital media. However, this research work had several theoretical and methodological presuppositions that were not always helpful in getting a really thorough and detailed picture about the relationship of this generation and the world of media nor about the various contexts of image use. In this present study I have tried to argue for the observation of the special image acts of the individual groups and youth cultures on the basis of their differences. This is how the special role that images play in the everyday communication situations of the individual user groups may really become perceivable. 


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