What is media? What do we mean when we talk about media? The question sounds pretty simple, but the real answer is actually pretty hard to nail down. To explore this question, I interviewed a bunch of different people for off-the-cuff opinions on what media means to them. I interviewed people from every demographic I knew: foreigners, the elderly, the young, and just about anybody willing to let me harass them. I’m not sure if it’s just because of the company I keep, but an interesting thing happened: almost every one of the responses fell into one of three categories: Media as Communication, Media as Distribution, and Media as Consumption. Let’s take a look at each of these categories individually.
MEDIA AS COMMUNICATION
By this, I mean that a good portion of those interviewed asserted that media was the summation of ALL communication – that all communication is media, essentially. Someone said this of media: “Media is the generalized summation of communication and all of its forms.” This was definitely the broadest definition I got in the interview, but similar views were held by several others. In this definition, all human(?) communication is media – including nonverbal and face-to-face communication.
MEDIA AS DISTRIBUTION
Approximately a third of those interviewed argued that media was something that was meant to be distributed. One very concisely worded it this way: “media is informational content that can be distributed.” Others spoke of media as a means to distribute a message, a point of view, or information in general. From this viewpoint, media was defined more by the creators or distributers. By this definition, something is only media if it’s created to convey a message, idea, or information to an audience.
MEDIA AS CONSUMPTION
The third popular category of media definition takes the opposite side as the “distribution” definition. Here, it’s the receiving end that defines media. To these people, media was media when it was consumed by somebody. Two of those interviewed had the same verbatim definition, “media is content we consume.” This definition puts the criteria for what constitutes media into the hands of the consumers, rather than the creators. In this definition, something isn’t media unless it’s consumed by somebody.
Across these three definitions, there were some interesting common threads. Despite falling into different general categories, almost everybody that I interviewed agreed that media had some sort of inherent message, opinion, or persuasive intent. This common thread might help us come closer to a complete definition of media. Another common thread was the potential for abuse. Many agreed that media can be abused, or used in a dishonestly manipulative way. I would say that this aspect of message or intent is an important aspect of the overall definition of media.
In coming to a complete definition of media, I would generally reject definitions that tend towards media including ALL communication, as I would assert that media needs to be willfully created or distributed, or mediate communication that is not otherwise distributable (such as face-to-face communication which would need an intermediary agent to reach a wider audience). And I would further argue that media needn’t necessarily be consumed in order to be considered media. Overall, I’d say that media doesn’t need to be manipulative, and it doesn’t need to be consumed, but it needs to be consumable in the sense that it can be distributed.
With all this in mind, taking the best of all the worlds presented, I might say that media is any form of communication that conveys a message or meaning in a distributable way.