mass media

Mass Media: “With sing. or pl. concord (usu. with the): the main means of mass communication, such as television, radio, and newspapers, considered collectively.”1

The first recorded usages of mass media as a term was in 1923, in Advertising & Selling. Here, mass media is loosely defined as “represent[ing] the most economical way of getting the story over the new and wider market in the least time.”1 The etymology of the concept is crucial in understanding “mass media” as it is composed of two, highly nuanced words. Media generally defined, is, “the main means of mass communication, esp. newspapers, radio and television regarded collectively; the reporters, journalists, etc., working for organizations engaged in such communication.”1 Mass can be defined as, “a large number of human beings, collected closely together or viewed as forming an aggregate in which their individuality is lost.” 1 Important to note is the social honus on “the masses,” as a congregation, they are more than neutral “populace, the ordinary people, esp. as viewed in an economic or political context.”1

Yet Nickolas Luhmann elaborates on the concept, mass media are “those institutions which make use of copying technologies to disseminate communication.”2 Luhmann captures the “efficient” or “economical” aspect of mass media. Media are anything, “provided that they generate large quantities of products whose target groups are yet undetrermined.”2

Mass media itself, and the information it conveys, even in a mutlimedia setting, must be widely acessible. Peters identifies three key dimentions that transition a medium to a form of mass media, “address, avaibility and access.” 4 Futhermore, “mass media do not traffic only in mass address: they may destine messages to all, some, few or no one in particular.” 4

Mass media in enduring essence, throughout the evolution of mediums is, “openly addressed content, expanded delivery in terms of durability in time and/or transportability over space, and the suspention of interaction among authors and audiences.” 4 While McLuahn cites Gutenberg’s invention of the printing-press in 1456 as the “big bang” of sorts in communication and culture, theorists such as Peters cite “all communication” as “mass commication.” 5,4 In this conception mass media has been extent since the invention of writing circa 5000 B.C.E. and grew with the invention of the alphabet circa 2000 B.C.E. 6 As Luhmann implied in his more general definition of mass media, the ability to mechanically reproduce information is essential to creating a cultural mass media. 2Mass commincation, and thus the general trend of mass media has been one of increasing efficiency, accesability and reach.

Mass media is universally recognized as wielding great influence, but there has been great debate over its effects, source and control. For McLuhan, mass media is certainly a step closer to his ideal, “global village,” he writes, “might not the current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?” 7 Certainly, a network of streamlined and widely available information creates a broader social consciousness, especially where mass media is conducted through various channels, “the hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born,” it is a “moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them.” 7 Thus described, mass media brings the promise of awareness and unity—“media is the extension of man,” it is the “triumphant expansion of the self,” and thus McLuhan’s mass media must be the extensions of many men converging and communing. 7 His point is that “once we have surrendered our sense and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.” 7 Yet this is a positive, our fragmentation as individuals in the West has been, “voluntary and enthusiastic,” and brings man closer to total “translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information.” 7

Benjamin would view mass media as the manifestation of the “desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly.” 8 Like his opinion on the reproduction of art, mass media, achieved by reproduction, can, “ meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced,” and leads to “a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of contemporary crisis and the renewal of mankind.” 8 In a Bejaminian sense, mass media allows for personal experience of information, and a personal renewal. Benjamin writes that, “the adjustment of reality to the masses, and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope,” that content is determined not simply by nature but by historical circumstance. Content of mass media is by this definition a product of the contemporary culture and the indiviual.

Luhmann writes that the interruption of direct contact, which occurs with mass media, ensures “high levels of freedom in communication.” 2 Mass media is a filter, “whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through mass media.” 2 Additionally, he raises: “we know so much about the mass media that we are not able to trust their sources.” 2 But for the “mass daily flow of communications it is” actually “impossible” in Luhmannian terms to know the truth of a given broadcast, as he defines mass media as an observing system that is only capable of, “distinguish[ing] between self-reference and other reference,” and “cannot simply consider themselves to be the truth.” 2 Luhmann asserts that as the world is “incomprehensible” and “inaccessible,” and thus there is no other alternative than to create mass media that constructs a reality. By this logic, the shadows on wall of Plato’s Cave, then, are the only means of grasping the real forms, they are not mere illusions but tools for as actual an understanding that humans can achieve. 9 Luhmann determines that the fact that we, the individual, cannot control mass media is beneficial, “the organizations which produce mass media communication are dependent upon assumptions concerning acceptability,” leading to a standardization and variety of information untailored to the individual. This effect is precisely how the “individual participants have the chance to get what they want, or what they believe they need to know in their own milieu from the range of programs to offer.” Thus, the mass media is the only reality we have and the only reality we can conceive.

Adorno fervently asserts that mass media is an out-cropping of “mass culture,” or “the culture industry” and that “the world wants to be deceived.” 10 Despite “the social role,” he elaborates that the function of something is no guarantee of its particular quality.” Mass media has a “monopolistic character,” that seeks to “streamline” and “ in so far as the culture becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified relations, and human beings are once more debased,” replacing conformity with consciousness.” 10 The effect of mass media is industry is “one of anti-enlightenment” it is “mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering consciousness.” 10

Deep suspicion of the agent behind mass media resonates in Adorno, “typically mass media are the playthings of institutions,” thus Marx and Marxist theorists such as Adorno take it a step farther, determining that the “culture industry” creates products and information tailored for value, and consumption by the masses, and these products, “to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption.” The masses, here, are a secondary “object of calculation” and an appendage to the machinery. 10

The political and cultural impact of mass media is unmistakable from whatever prespective. Fashion, political campaigns, and war are migled with mass media spin. The rise of Nazism and Fascism, which Bejamin and Adorno experied first hand, certainly would not have been possible without propoganda in all mass media forms. Mass media and control have been extensively explored through literature in such Dystopian novels as Brave New World by Adolos Huxley, and 1984 by George Orwell. These novels bring up the concept of survelliance, and mind-control through various media. Both works contain a sort of “Big Brother” constantly watching and brainwashing the easily suscepticble and unquestioning masses.

The concept of mass media itself was not codified in writing until the early 20th century, the significance of the timing provides support for arguments that mass media helps to deinfe the modern period in the West. 10,11 As technology progressed, displacing, complementing and augmenting new forms, McLuahn and others cite the expansive quality of media advancements, such as moveable type, into other froms of larger-scale communication such as newspaper, the radio which rose to fame in the 1920’s, disemminating information through transmissions, and the Television which was commercially avalibe in 1930 and became ubiquitous by the 1950’s spreading information by broadcast. 6

Mass media is seen by and as a direct output of a capitalist democracy, and an essential component in the maintaing of a centralized government. 10,11 An era of “democritizarion” of a media itself is taking place on the new frontier of mass communication: the Internet. Anyone who has acess to the technology and the skills to operate a computer can provide content. There is an increasing “mass” use of the internet for information dissemination. It is an avenue not considered by many of the main media theorists simply beause the internet was not yet a reality in their time. Grassroots campaigns, blogs and YouTube appear to creating not only a national, but an international forum. An icon and great-thinker in the realm of Pop Culture, Andy Warhol has said, “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” and there is great validity to this concept when applied to the Internet today. Even amatures with an opinion can provide content, and many do: 44% of U.S. internet users have contributed information to the Internet.

Whether McLuhan predicted the coming of the Internet as part of some “global village,” or if technological advance is simply a vast manipulation, driven by the commercial as Adorno would attest, this much is clear: the Internet is changing everything—from methods of mass media, to Media theory, to our culture, and to the self. Foucault writes that history is a “wave like sucession of worlds.” This technological wave of the internet is opening up a brave new one and the character of mass media is changing daily.
Lila Newman


1. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2008 Oxford University Press. 23, Jan 2008.

2. Luhmann, Niklas. The Reality of the Mass Media, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

3.Peters, John Durham. “Mass Media,” in Critical Terms in Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, in preparation (2008).

4. McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: the Making of a Typographic Man. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1962

5.Briggs, Asa and Burke, Peter. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

6. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994.

7.Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

8. Plato, trans. Jowett, Benjamin, The Republic of Plato, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1947.

9. Adorno, Theodor W. “The Culture Industry Reconsidered,” Media Studies: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1982.

10.Harvey, D. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

11.Kaplan, E.A. Rocking Around the Clock: Music, Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture. New York: Methuen, 1986.