Friday, February 15, 2013

Books vs. Broadcast as Mass Media

In Daniel Bell's "The Theory of Mass Media: A Critique," he discusses the idea of a group of people sharing a common reality through media. He is talking mostly about film and broadcast before he changes direction and asks the question, "Would one say that several hundred or a thousand individuals home alone at night, but all reading the same book, constitute as "mass?"

To evaluate the answer, one only has to look at what the ability to record information on paper (or stone) did for civilization. Then watch what happens when the printing press made it possible to print multiple copies of a work. These two technological advances allowed societies to, 1. Pass down history, and 2. Share both non-fiction and fiction with large amounts of people in larger areas.

The differences in the collective experience (beyond the differing stimulation) is time and environment. The immediacy of one hundred people watching The Dark Knight  in a movie theater as opposed to one hundred people reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their various places of leisure is that the movie-goers experience the action together and finish at the same time in the exact same setting. The readers go at their own relative pace, in whatever location with any number of distractions and/or stops and starts.

Have you ever read a book and couldn't wait for a friend or relative to finish so you could discuss it? Have you ever been halfway through a book when someone who has finished it spoils the ending for you? This is where the distinction is made.

When a "mass" of people sees an event on TV, a show at a theater, a sporting event in a stadium or anything of the like, they immediately move on from that moment with some element of sameness which then goes with them to their social circles.

When a "mass" of people read a book or an article, when it is being read, where it is being read and what is going on around you while reading all play a part in the context and experience. Not every person moves on together, despite a similar experience.

One caveat to this is to point out that, as Bell mentions, each person brings their own experience to the media they consume. Experience will never be exactly the same, yet it is more similar for those viewing an event than for those reading a book.


  1. I agree with your post that seeing an event on TV or in the theater brings about a more similar experience due to the "live time" of it going on vs. reading a book. I often DVR the few tv shows that I like watching but one thing that I find very entertaining is watching an event live on TV and following the hashtags on twitter. I.e. People's comments on #missamerica or #bachelor or sporting events when the #blackout occurred during this year's Super Bowl. Following social media those 34 minutes was the highlight of the game for me because you could feel millions of people were on the same page (or channel!)

  2. The whole evolution of social media while watching TV is fascination to me. I rarely sit and actually watch a program. Usually, I'm on the internet at the same time. It's really changed the whole experience.