The Internet and online
It is common to hear the claim that the Internet is the most significant new communications medium of our times or that ‘the Internet changes all’. This chapter examines the validity of such claims and related questions. Has the Internet fostered widespread changes? For whom, and how? Is it a new mode of communication in terms of changing the way we communicate and, if so, in what ways? Such assertions also raise major questions about where the Internet ‘fits’ in the theory and practice of communications. Can it be regarded as a mass medium or an alternative medium? What is its relationship to broadcasting? Who has access to the Internet? What motivates people to use the Internet?
Much has been written about how misleading the term ‘mass communication’ can be. The term suggests that information, messages and visuals are widely available to large audiences in some forms of communication. In practice, however, most examples of audiences are temporary, small and specialised with regard to their interests. The term also implies a passive consumption of media messages by ‘couch potatoes’, whereas most human interaction with major media involves many levels of engagement. Rather than talk about ‘the masses’, it is better to regard our major media forms of press, radio and television as being institutionalised, with control of content and delivery in the hands of the owners or producers—a situation where recipients have little capacity to create the content themselves. Traditional broadcasting, whether it is by commercial radio and television networks, or public broadcasters, is highly institutionalised.
The Internet is not simply a new distribution channel or a new mode of communication. The Internet is a beast of a different kind. It is a communication hybrid: partly an information system where people can go searching for information they seek through the many search engines; but is also a medium where people can create their own content and distribute it widely using the platform