This semester I’m teaching a course on digital media literacy and as such, have been reading up on some of the foundational texts in the field. One book I’ve found particularly informative is W. James Potter’s Theory of Media Literacy, A Cognitive Approach. Here, Potter, author of a noted media literacy textbook, lays out the theoretical foundation for his views. Though he deals primarily with “old media” (TV, radio, etc.), I think his ideas are quite relevant to digital culture.
Potter’s approach is shaped by cognitive psychology. He starts from the assumption (reasonable in my opinion) that humans, by nature, seek to conserve mental energy. This means that most of our interactions with media are automatic, unconscious and habituated. In info-rich environments, he writes, “our minds stay on automatic pilot,” unconsciously screening out most stimuli (10). Integrally, though, Potter believes that unconscious exposure can still be influential. Even when we’re not actively paying attention, messages still get through. “Over time,” he writes, “images, sounds, and ideas build up patterns in our subconscious and profoundly shape the way we think” (10).
Basically, Potter sees the human mind as a porous entity. The discursive environment in which we move shapes us whether we like it or not. To me, this idea rings true. It explains, for example, the millions of dollars paid to get brand names on sports stadiums. Per Potter, it’s not about conscious messaging. PNC, for example, doesn’t want people actively thinking about financial services when they go to PNC park. Instead, they want mindless, habituated exposure to their trademark. They want to enter the world of consumers via the side door, so to speak, as not to deal with the trouble of actually proving their services are of value (which they would have to do if their claims were to be consciously considered).
So Potter’s cognitive approach explains the behavior of advertisers. How might it relate to new media? Potter writes that media businesses “do not want our attention as much as they want our exposure” (14). Again, active attention would open media messages up to unwanted scrutiny. Instead, media-producing businesses want consumers to engage with content mindlessly and habitually. Does the same dynamic apply in regard to media in which content is user-created? This is a difficult question. Certainly, social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter want to get consumers in a pattern of habitual use (and thus exposure to ads). Likewise, they don’t want consumers thinking too much about those ads, the interface itself or the possible (side)effects of their product. At the same time, it seems that social media requires a slightly more active consumer. If a user simply scrolls through her feed and doesn’t create content or engage with other users the platform is deprived of data, hence profit.
Despite the above, it seem that on a cognitive-level, consumer behavior in an old media vs. new media environment would be much the same. We browse our feeds in default mode, automatically filtering out most content. That excess content is still there, though, shaping how we understand the world.
Potter is mainly concerned with consumers mindlessly succumbing to the wishes of advertisers and media outlets. He argues that we are “being trained to tune down our powers of concentration” as to accept secondhand meanings rather than create our own (14). In regard to new media, we can assume a similar process, but perhaps a more diverse array of influencers. Certainly Facebook and its advertisers are trying to give you meanings, but so are content generators (your uncle and Russian bots, for example). How do we make sense of this jumble? Returning to the idea of mental conservation, we can assume that those meanings that require the least amount of energy to process might be the ones that get through. This idea would help explain the simplification of discourse common in online environments. If Potter is right, though, others disparate meanings would still be impacting us (to the extent that they exist in our discursive space).
It’s pure speculation on my part, but perhaps in a world of decentralized content creation, we should think in terms of form rather than meaning. In other words, rather than focusing on how the circulation of specific meanings may be impacting our lifeworld (Hillary good vs. Hillary bad), it may be more productive to consider the forms those meanings take. If Potter is right, advertisers, your uncle and the bots will be using similar strategies to get you to buy their messages (E.G., radically simplified discourse). “Media literacy” would thus become the process of recognizing these strategies and the ways in which– apart from the content pushed– they might shape how we think and act. It seems to me that Potter’s cognitive approach can help us perform this sort of analysis.