What makes up a media ecosystem?


Media and the way it is consumed is changing so rapidly that it can be overwhelming. It is a challenge both as a consumer and a professional to keep up not only with the rush of information, but the constantly changing platforms, channels and technology associated with media today.


One way to make some sense of the media landscape is to think in terms of ecosystems.

The term is borrowed from physical science, such as the way rivers, lakes, forests and fields do not exist independently of each other, but are connected and have mutual influence.

So, with media, you can miss the forest for the trees, as they say, if you obsess specifically about Twitter or the latest news about online television. It can be easier to comprehend if you consider the media “environment."

This notion has spawned a new area of academic study called media ecology, complete with its own journal and association, the Media Ecology Association. Coincidentally, two of my colleagues at the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University are hosting the MEA’s annual conference here in Grand Rapids from June 20-23.

There are two general ways that an ecosystem view of media is practical.

For one, it helps individuals personally navigate and comprehend the media they use. Secondly, professionals — particularly in communications fields like public relations, advertising and marketing — can use an ecosystem model to conceive of where there audience is and how they use media. This will in turn affect how they craft messages and what type of media plan or campaign they construct.

Sustaining ecosystems

Media ecosystems emerge, paradoxically, not organically, but intentionally.

That’s because there is a business incentive to keeping people (i.e., media consumers) in one system to maximize attention and ultimately profit.

That’s why social media platforms have worked to change their interfaces and peripheral products to keep users from jumping to other environments.

Google, for example, nicely integrates Google+ with all other Google products under its “one password, all of Google” slogan.

Facebook’s graph search and many of its own apps are ways to encourage users to stay there.

Online portal Yahoo! recently purchased blog site Tumblr to add more younger users, who are fond of Tumblr, to the Yahoo! ecosystem.

Overlapping ecosystems

Of course, everyone must consider that even with media companies trying to own and control many parts of an ecosystem, in the form of what economists call vertical integration, there is still a lot of flow between ecosystem.

This usually happens in the form of sharing content and the social nature of modern media.

Much online content offers users the option to share an article or video or other content on multiple social platforms. This could be in the form of sharing a blog post or website article to a social platform, an Instagram or Pinterest photo to Twitter and Facebook updates or any content to a social bookmarking site, such as Delicious or Reddit.

Professional communicators need to encourage social sharing by their audiences and participate in this concept themselves to engage people in multiple media environments.

Mass audiences are rarely built in one channel, they need to be aggregated across ecosystem borders.

Hardware- and web-specific ecosystems

Ecosystems also happen with hardware and devices.

Apple has had phenomenal success by creating products and software that are well integrated, so users can synchronize content on multiple devices, such as laptop, tablet and phone.

The latest wave of ecosystem change is happening in television, with conventional TV series viewership on network and cable declining in double digits.

Now “channels” are appearing on everything from YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and Xbox. These alternative outlets are not just re-broadcasting old shows, but offering original content. 

Some of this content will be device specific, as in the case of Xbox.

It reminds me of the days of the National Television Systems Committee that ensured people could watch any program no matter what brand of television they bought when television was new.

Content is not only becoming more specific for devices, but for the online environment.

A colleague of mine in the Film and Video Production major is studying and working on “webisodes,” which are 7-minute drama episodes created exclusively for the web.

Conventional channels are moving to the web, or having web-only alternatives, such as Discovery launching an online network TestTube with 15 original series.

People can now watch TV on a television or online on a computer or phone. They can watch live or record for viewing on their own time. They can subscribe to channels, or, as with music on iTunes, they can subscribe to specific programs or even just watch specific episodes.

There is legislation pending that will allow consumers to buy “a la carte” television, meaning consumers can pay for only what they are sure they want to watch. Meanwhile, they are discussing all of the above on a proliferating number of social media sites.

All of this media upheaval can be baffling for consumers and professionals alike.

This will likely mean that people will make choices — no one can be everywhere.

Media professionals trying to reach audiences will increasingly have to think not just of demographics, channels and programs, but ecosystems.

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