Medium parameters

In my undergraduate thesis I gave a list of properties of mediums—variables which differ from medium to medium. My initial list of properties was based completely on my own observations of different mediums, i.e. “made up”. As such there may be better and worse ways (in an explanatory sense) to parameterize mediums.

(By “parametarize mediums” I mean “create a set of parameters that can be used to describe different mediums in a common way”. One simplistic way to parametarize fruits, for instance, would be to consider any fruit to be a combination of a shape, a color, and a taste. Under this parameterization, a banana would be understood simply as a yellow, curved, mild fruit while an orange would be an orange, round, tart fruit. A different way to parameterize fruits would be to consider them each a combination of a size, an origin plant type (tree vs. shrub, etc.), and a number of seeds. Any parameterization misses some information and emphasizes other information, just like how a map of a city might highlight the location of subway entrances without showing where there are hills, or conversely could highlight the area’s topology while ignoring subway entrances.)

The idea I have right now is to make this post a living document where I can record and iterate upon my parameterization of mediums, adding new parameters, splitting apart or combining others, and so on, towards an explanatorily helpful framework for defining different mediums. I don’t have a particularly well-defined system for doing this yet, but I anticipate that too will be part of what I iterate on over time. For now I’m just feeling out what makes sense based on the interactions I have with different people via different mediums.

Here’s my current parameterization of mediums (already modified somewhat from the latest version in my thesis). The idea is that any medium could be (incompletely, but usefully) described as some particular configuration of the following variables:

  • Accessibility (along various dimensions): More of an entire category of dimensions, accessibility refers to the ways in which, for each possible configuration of physical and mental functions and structures, a medium is usable by people with that configuration. For example, oral speech is not accessible to someone who is deaf, although signed conversation is, as are writing and Twitter. Often the word “accessibility” is focused on the ways in which a medium is usable by people whose physical and mental apparatuses differ from “the norm”, however, I see accessibility as including the ways in which a medium is usable by people whose physical and mental apparatuses are similar to dominant society’s “norms”. Taking this approach avoids constructing broad categories of “normal” and “abnormal” (which I suspect are more often harmful than they are helpful), turning “accessibility” from a set of “yes/no” dimensions (along the lines of “is this usable by people who are ‘abnormal’ with respect to x?”) to a more general “by whom is this usable?” question. (For instance, rather than considering a 28 inch countertop generally “accessible” and a 36 inch countertop generally“inaccessible” or “normal”, I would consider a 28 inch countertop “accessible to people around 4 feet tall”—a category which includes some adults identified as Little People as well as some children—and a 36 inch countertop as “accessible to people around 5 to 6 feet tall”.) This approach is in keeping with Nick Pentzell’s claim that “everyone’s life has restrictions and requires accommodations—it’s just that many of these have become accepted by society and go unnoticed as such”. Ultimately, then, the set of dimensions under the umbrella of “accessibility” are asking “for what configurations of physical and mental functions and structures”—or, more succinctly, “for whom”—is this medium useful?
  • Audience Valence: Are communications in this medium one-to-many people (e.g. a tweet), one-to-one (e.g. a text message), many-to-one (e.g. a widely-signed petition to a representative), or many-to-many (e.g. a chalk talk)?
  • Dimensionality: How many dimensions of an idea can be structurally represented by the medium? For example, a table with rows and columns can directly represent two dimensions of an object or idea simultaneously. Most media can gesture towards multidimensional ideas, but few can represent them directly.
  • Dynamicness (or “Adaptability”): Can the medium adapt to various contexts and inputs? Does the same communication always take the same form regardless of its recipient (making the medium static), or can the recipient influence how the idea is communicated (making the medium dynamic)?
  • Immediacy: How much time passes between a representation being generated in the medium by its originator and being consumed by its recipient? Does the originator of a communication revise their communication before it is received by its recipient(s)? Are the answers to these questions fairly consistent across uses of this medium, or do they vary between uses?
  • Persistence ↔︎ Ephemerality: Do representations created in the medium decay or disappear over time, or even immediately (as in oral speech)? Or do they stick around until they’re explicitly destroyed?
  • Privacy ↔︎ Publicity: Does the originator of a communication have control over who does and doesn’t receive it? Who can “discover” the communication, and how?
  • Reversibility: Can the originator revoke/delete/destroy a communication such that it is no longer discoverable?
  • Interconnectedness: Are different representations of the same idea within a communication structurally connected in any way (beyond the originators’ and recipients’ potential recognition that they are related)? (In other words, does the medium provide a structure to indicate that the “same” idea is being referred to in different places?)
  • Outerconnectedness: Are communications within the medium completely self-contained? Or do the “link” in some way to communications outside the medium? If so, to what extent, and how?
  • Transparency: Is the “theory” of the medium explicit and visible? Do originators and recipients of communications within the medium know why the medium is structured the way it is?
  • Summarizability/Overviewability: Can the same idea be viewed at different levels of detail within the medium? Can it be viewed at different levels of abstraction? Does the medium only support abstract overviews of an idea (e.g. the brevity of Twitter) or in-depth elaborations of an idea (e.g. the length of books)? Does the same medium represent the same idea in multiple ways?
  • Progressiveness of Disclosure: Do representations within the medium reveal an idea gradually, or all at once? Is it possible to “jump ahead” in the medium, or is the only way to get to a certain point in the idea to go “through” the ideas leading up to it?
  • Fidelity: How much information is transferred at once in the communication? Does this information include meta-communication, or information about the communicators’ emotional/psychological/physiological states while communicating?
  • Anonymity: Is the identity of the communicator(s)? known to the recipient(s)? Is the identity of the recipient(s) known to the communicator(s)? (Is there scoping of identities, where one side of the communication knows that the other side of the communication belongs to a particular subset of all people, but not who they are specifically?)

In my (non-meta) “Mediums” posts on this website, these (or earlier/later versions of these) will be the parameters I use to describe different mediums. Having a common parameterization of mediums (though I recognize making this a living document undermines some of that commonness) helps us compare different mediums. Comparing the combination of “red, round, and sweet” with the combination of “orange, round, and tart” lets us meaningfully compare (some aspects of) apples to (some aspects of) oranges.