In our first week of class discussion class we were asked to define in a comprehensive manner what we actually perceived “emerging media” to be. In general society seems to automatically attach a sense of promise to the term that something is “emerging”. Currently, social media is often still considered an emerging media. But what about when social media has had a chance to mature, yet continues to evolve and yet something entirely new and different comes around? Is it reasonable to call all socially-oriented emerging media at a later date simply social media? Upon analysis, what is often referred to very generally as social media can be much more or much less than social. It truly can change in its meaning day-to-day or year to year. Bestowing enhanced meaning upon such a term was a challenging and revealing exercise. It was interesting to see that many of us in our thoughts had converged on like terms, but for sake of generating ideas and further discussion had to branch out an each pick unique terms. It was a wide range of terms that we generated that ranged from new acronyms to newly minted compound words.
One of the essential challenges that we all wrestled with: what makes something emerging? How does it emerge? Is it really an essential medium or is the buzz just a deafening roar that denies concrete definition of its usefulness? Perhaps history can provide an example.
The first telephone pager, a.k.a. the “beeper”, was invented in 1949 by Al Gross. New York’s Jewish Hospital began deploying pagers to its doctors the following year, but they only worked when inside of the hospital. Unfortunately, Gross did not get approval from the FCC to free up public frequencies for the device until 1958! Because of barriers to implementation such as this and apparent lack of public enthusiasm towards adoption, pagers did not hit widespread public use until the late 1980’s, aided by its use as a status symbol in the business and entertainment worlds. Just think, the pager had been a highly exclusive communication medium for almost 40 years! It was not for the masses. Would we have called it emerging media that whole time if we had studied media communications definitions to such depth back then? Doesn’t much of what we refer to as emerging media today also qualify as being available to hundreds of millions if not billions within a relatively short timeframe?
While pagers have not been known as a marketing communications tool for most of their existence, the biggest push for using pagers as a marketing medium was perhaps a 6-month long promotion by Mountain Dew in 1996. This was near the height of pager use in general, mainly for convenient person to person communication. Mountain Dew parent Pepsi’s plan was to distribute 500,000 Motorola pager units within 6 months, primarily to 18-24 year olds. The pagers were Mountain Dew branded and came with free service for that time frame. Also, each week the user received a special text promotion from the Mountain Dew network that encouraged a call in to a toll-free contest line that touted contests and other offers from companies such as MTV, Hummer, ESPN, Frito-Lay and Sony. All wishful subscribers had to do was send in $35 and 10 proofs of purchase. While I was unable to find definitive records, my research indicated that for all this effort perhaps only just over 200,000 of the pagers were ever distributed. Also in the process, Mountain Dew ticked off a lot of parents. Regardless, most of the pagers probably found their way to thee junk heap just a few years later as cell phones began their push to greater public adoption.
On the positive side, the pagers definitely were good for people’s social experiences. To flesh out my research, I posted a status update to see if anyone remembered these things. One Facebook friend said she’s pretty sure it gave her EX-boyfriend at the time/future husband an excuse to beep her to call him, presumably to reconcile – two days before her service would have been shut off for good! Another didn’t actually have one, but to this day still remembers being jealous of his friend that did!
While pagers displayed some characteristics of an early Twitter-like medium (limited character count, abbreviated wordings, references to other actions like picking up a phone) pagers are now a marginalized media, arguably not social media, and definitely no longer emerging. The only time we typically only see pagers now is when we are waiting for a table at a restaurant and even that is being supplanted by apps and SMS (text notices). Though, pagers still are very useful for emergency workers. My brother still uses one for his rounds in med school and he even gets to take it home, thanks to the FCC.
Do we automatically attach a sense of promise to the term “emerging media”? Should we jump to that conclusion for everything that is new and shiny in light of such examples? From my perspective, the pager was a flash in the pan in most people’s consciousness.
One interesting difference between the emerging media before the PC/internet revolution and post-PC revolution style of emerging media, is that to be in step with emerging media before the revolution, it was very expensive. Think about the status symbol that was the satellite phone in the 1980’s. It was expensive emerging media. Now, anyone with an email address can get a Twitter account and so on. The only exclusivity to being a user of a hot new emerging medium now seems to be if you’re a beta developer or part of the initial rollout group.
For example, Facebook was only originally available to students and faculty at certain universities. I had already graduated but luckily I was able to use my alumni email to sneak in. Google+ was originally an “invite-only” network, but pretty much anyone that wanted one could get an invite, as Google was fairly generous with its invite quota – I had made it in and posted on Facebook that I had invites to Google + and got a couple of takers, but not more than my number of available invites. These are small prices to pay compared to in the past to be an early adopter of an emerging medium.
The cost of entry into today’s emerging media is often lowered to next to zero rather quickly. I believe this has huge implications for the enhancement of communication in our world moving forward. There is always some new and exciting change around the corner and it rarely takes $35 and 10 proof of purchases to get in on the action these days.