There are two competing factors that need to be considered when attempting to address the increasingly difficult task of defining online media. The first is the presence of a fragmented audience and the second is the function of online media content producers.

A series of reports on NPR this week will explore a “fractured culture,” the result of audience fragmentation that has resulted from the proliferation of the internet over the last two decades.  Elizabeth Blair’s report, the first in the series, suggests that the “seemingly infinite” number of entertainment choices available online has created “a culture of multiple cultures” where the traditional categorization by ethnicity, religion or age is not longer viable.

For groups whose categorization traditionally marginalized them in American society, fragmentation is a powerful and positive force.  These groups (ethnic and youth demographics, in particular) have found their way into the cultural mainstream – to the extent that one still exists – by integrating various cultural forces into a homogeneous online culture that is more accessible and inclusive than cultural forces requiring interpersonal communication which exposed discriminatory biases of cultural gatekeepers.

Audience fragmentation has also led to a decline in water cooler conversation. Consumption of online media has created an environment where there are not enough people watching any one program on the same night and time to allow such conversations to take place.  Our most popular broadcast programs don’t reach nearly the number of people that the entertainment echo chamber would lead us to believe. The Cosby Show had 30 million weekly viewers in the 1980s as the most watched sit-com of the decade.  Today’s most popular sit-com, Two and a Half Men, draws only 15 million viewers.  Linda Homes, writing for NPR in 2008, noted that at its peak American Idol drew the same percentage of television households as Scarecrow and Mrs. King in 1986.  “The TV markets are so nichey that even a popular show isn’t watched by most people you’re going to run into,” notes television producer Dan Schneider (quoted in Blair).

If Americans are trading traditional media for online media we must ask the question, “What are they looking at?”  Some have suggested that much of the content that consumers engage online is simply a digital version of traditional media.  Tanja Oblak (2005) suggests that online content producers have abdicated their responsibility to exploit “specific potentials that the internet offers” (p. 103) by behaving like traditional mass media.  If online content producers, indeed, are behaving like traditional media this would have profound implications for the definitions we impart on these media.  Is the internet merely a digital bullhorn seized by the same big media conglomerates who own and operate traditional media? Or does it hold the promise of democratization and goodwill even as it facilitates the emergence of a fractured culture?

Blair, E. (24 January 2011). Cultural Common Ground Getting Harder to Come By. NPR online: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/24/133182903/cultural-common-ground-getting-harder-to-come-by

Holmes, L. (24 January 2011). Open Question: In Search of Something That Is Culturally Ubiquitous. NPR online: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2011/01/24/133191280/open-questions-in-search-of-something-that-is-culturally-ubiquitous

Holmes, L. (25 August 2008). ‘American Idol’: the ‘Scarecrow and Mrs. King of Our Time? NPR online: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2008/08/american_idol_the_scarecrow_mr.html

Oblak, T. (2005). The Lack of Interactivity and Hypertextuality in Online Media.  International Journal for Communication Studies, 67(1): 87–106.

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