“PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”.
—Groucho Marx. Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills as recounted in Groucho and Me (1959, ISBN 0-306-80666-5), p. 321
Back in another lifetime when I taught such things as Mass Media and Society I used to give the class a thought exercise. This would usually happen on the day I covered the classic source-message-receiver-channel-feedback “transmission” model of communication. I’d ask for examples of mass media and get the usual ‘Radio,’ ‘Television,’ ‘Newspaper’ and the like. Then I’d ask for examples of interpersonal communication and I’d be given a number of examples that all boiled down to conversations among one or more people. Then I’d ask the question I’d been heading for: when does interpersonal communication turn into mass communication? What makes them different? Is it the number of people involved? If so, what’s the magic number? If it’s not numbers, then what is it?
The Internet was past its infancy by then — it was the early 1990s, after all — but web browsers were still in the future so it was nothing like it is today. Most of the students couldn’t relate to stuff like USENET and the like the way that Twitter and Facebook would be understood now. As I recall, we’d usually start talking about class lectures as soon as I was done with the setup. I might be talking to 10-15 students and they’d generally agree this was more interpersonal than mass communication (though there were unspoken rules that were different from other interpersonal situations). And they’d agree that a theater performance or speech was closer to mass than interpersonal, though breaking the fourth wall was always a possibility. There wouldn’t be any real conclusion, which is a great way to piss off an undergrad by the way. Spend a whole class period exploring an idea and then don’t come to a conclusion that can be packaged to be on a test later. Does wonders for your teaching evaluations. There’s a reason I’m an ex-college professor. Anyway, I’d generally say that I didn’t know what the answer was, but I suspected it was someone in the feedback part of the cycle. When the source wasn’t able to receive immediate feedback from the receiver, you’d probably crossed the line from interpersonal to mass communication.
Nowadays it’s pretty hard not to argue that social media are what lie between interpersonal and mass media. “Social Media” gives a snappy name to the gray area, but it still doesn’t answer the question. When does interpersonal turn into mass communication? I think I have a better answer now because of what I see on social media. It’s not in the numbers of people involved. It’s not about the medium or the message, even. What it’s about is how the person doing the communicating understands who they’re communicating with.
Let me give you a concrete example. I’m writing this. You’re reading this. I don’t have the slightest idea who you are. I know my wife reads these posts every day. There are a few other people I have reason to think read these now and again. I don’t want the next thing I say to be misunderstood because I am very, very happy if you find what I write interesting or entertaining or in any other way worth the time you spend reading the words. But I don’t care who you are. I don’t write this stuff for anyone in particular. This is all an elaborate exercise on my part to practice writing things clearly. There’s a guy who used to live near us who liked to practice his bagpipes in the park next door. He was good, so I enjoyed hearing him. But the fact that I enjoyed it was just a happy accident. This is the essence of mass communication.
Now if I get a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter about what I write, interpersonal communication is likely to occur. My stats tell me about 20 people read this a day, so there’s a good chance I know you. Even with the asynchrony of leave a comment/respond to a comment, it’ll still be a conversation. Many people can join in and you can do the math from there. Even if I don’t know you personally, there are going to be social cues that will allow us to set up interpersonal interaction. But what’s happening right now as you read these words is not a conversation, no matter how conversational I’m being.
What I’m trying to say here is that interpersonal communication turns into mass communication the minute the communicator is unaware of who he or she is communicating with. We see this on social media all the time with “targeted” ads. Somebody tells you about a funny product on Amazon and you go look at it and suddenly you see the product pop up in ad blocks on websites you frequent. It gets a little more sinister when marketers selling politicians, instead of soap, construct messages designed to appeal to demographics and psychographics. They’re not talking to you. They’re not talking to anyone. They’re talking to a hypothetical idea they’ve constructed for themselves that may or may not correspond to any given person.
The first requirement of joining a group is to say “I’m a member of this group.” I know I’m in the audience for a comic because I’m sitting in the same room with other people. The only thing we all have in common for sure is that we’re all in the same room. The comic doesn’t know any of us personally, but a pro knows how to read a room. Adjustments will be made in the message when possible. A joke may get trashed. Another may be inserted. Sometimes there’s nowhere to go and the set bombs. If I’m laughing and getting into it, it’s interpersonal communication with a lot of other people there.
Marketers are really bad at mistaking the demographic and psychographic categories they use as analogs for audiences. I don’t think of myself in those terms. I may or may not identify with people who are comparable to me on those characteristics. There’s no “us.” I might as well not be there. Effectively I’m not.
What bugs me is that when all that people see and hear are commercial messages aimed at people who don’t actually exist, they start to identify themselves only with those things that randomly happen to appeal to them. I’ll be the first to admit that I live inside my head way too much. It’s not a good thing. It’s often dark and the echo is terrible. Someone should really tidy up around here. But what scares me about a world filled with nothing but commercial messages is that only certain parts of people’s self-identity are being appealed to. Things that get used a lot grow. Things that don’t get used a lot wither.
In a world where lots of people are talking to no one in particular, what are the people who are listening turning into?