Chatting in the Neighbourhood

Does It Have a Place in the World of Globalised Media?

How to Cite

Frankland, M. (2000). Chatting in the Neighbourhood: Does It Have a Place in the World of Globalised Media?. M/C Journal, 3(4).
Vol. 3 No. 4 (2000): Chat
Published 2000-08-01

This paper seeks to situate 'chat' in the context of an evolving media-scape. I will argue that for at least a century and half new media have been expanding the spatial scale of communications, and in so doing altering the local contexts in which individuals communicate. This development is closely aligned with the genesis and evolution of an urban form that is itself significantly reliant on these new types of mediated communication. Individuals pursuing their everyday life in this environment must, as a matter of course, negotiate a complex array of media and communications. In doing so, they must also move through a range of media spaces on a continuum from the local to the global.

Chat -- defined here as informal face-to-face conversation conducted in the familiarity of a shared context1 -- is a form of communication that seems to have persisted despite the changes noted above. Chat, then, provides a point of comparison from which to assess the effect of mediated communication. It also provides a link to a local communications space. I will argue that this local communications space is where individuals 'make sense' of a communications environment that operates primarily on a scale well beyond the local and well beyond that which most of us can hope to affect.

The Rise of the Global, the Decline of the Local

Carey (1981) argues that in the United States during the 19th century, as local communications were supplanted by a centralised national communications grid, local cultures and local politics were also supplanted. For Carey, the example of the telegraph is particularly relevant. He notes that the telegraph enabled communication to move faster than transportation for the first time (Communications as Culture 204-5). Giving the example of the trading of commodities, Carey argues that this property made the telegraph a powerful agent of decentralisation. The speed with which the telegraph could deliver business information allowed it to eliminate spatial differences by connecting all places within its network on an equal basis. In his words, "the telegraph puts everyone in the same place for the purposes of trade; it made geography irrelevant" (Communications as Culture 217).

Yet despite this property of the medium of telegraphy, the establishment of a telegraph system in the United States only served to reinforce the dominance of New York as the central hub in the national network of transport and communications. The predominance of New York was established as early as the 1840s with the development of significant canal and railroad systems and although:

this pattern of information movement has been importantly altered since the 1840s, its persistence, at least in outline, is even more striking ... despite the enormous size of the United States, a particular pattern of geographic concentration developed that gave inordinate power to certain urban centres. This development undercut local and regional culture. (Carey, "Culture, Geography, and Communications" 82)2

Thus the new medium of telegraphy expanded the scale of communication, bringing with it both the capacity to extend the individual beyond his or her own locality and the ability to make a particular locality and the individuals in it irrelevant. Carey concludes that the way electronic communications were initially deployed in the United States intensified the strength of the central communications hub. This increased the spatial extension and power of some at the hub, but with powerful and negative consequences for many local communities.

McLuhan similarly emphasised the transformative power particularly of electronic communications, as illustrated in his now famous statement:

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium -- that is, of any extension of ourselves -- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. (McLuhan 15)

The Rise of the Urban and a More Mediated Local Context

Baldastry's study The Commercialisation of News in the Nineteenth Century shows a similar triumph of a medium able to command an expanded spatial reach over a more localised medium. It also demonstrates the changing role of media in the social relations of an increasingly urbanised population. Baldastry contrasts an earlier and more local partisan press with what was, then, an emergent large scale, fully commercial press (Baldastry 139). While the partisan newspapers of the earlier part of the 19th century needed to raise money to publish, their primary motivation was politics. The partisan press expressed strong views and assumed an already existing stock of knowledge embedded in the small community which formed its readership:

The prototypical partisan newspaper of the Jacksonian era had a small circulation (a few hundred), appeared weekly, and circulated within its own region. Its readers were the inhabitants of small villages and towns, and local farmers. Word of mouth supplied the everyday news. (Baldastry 49)

Increased urbanisation during the 19th century created a large, more easily accessible and more literate mass market for newspapers and their advertisers. By the 1850s, virtually every family in New York City was buying a newspaper. By 1880, six cities consumed 50% of the country's daily sheets (Baldastry 49). At the same time urban dwellers had a greater need for the news of events in their cities because the greater complexity of social organisation and weakened face-to-face ties meant it could not be provided in the traditional way. It could be said that urbanisation created new roles for the newspaper as the surveyor and synthesiser of large and dispersed urban populations (Baldastry 142).

Following Berland, it can also be argued that the mass circulation commercial newspaper was also a constituent element in this urban form.3 The new media space provided by the mass circulation newspaper can be seen as an enabling element in the new form of social and spatial organisation present in the city. From this perspective, the evolution of the mass circulation press was both a response to and an agent in the rapid expansion of large metropolitan centres.

Local News Mediating the Global in Local Terms

There is little doubt that the complexity, scale and amount of mediation has increased significantly since these times. It is, then, interesting to reflect on the role that chat, particularly face-to-face chat, continues to play in a more intensely mediated society. In a world where so much social interaction occurs through communications media, chat may be a subversive element to a certain extent. Its happenstance form is 'other' to mediated communications. It produces its own communicative space in a random and ad-hoc manner. It lies outside the market and the state. However, mediated communications form an important context for chat. In particular, I believe that the role that chat may play in empowering individuals as they traverse this increasingly complex media scape will be reinforced by the availability of local media, with news media being a critical example of local media.

The local news, weather, sport and advertising carried by local newspapers and the local windows of radio and television are all important contexts for chat. One of the reasons for this is that we can assume some level of shared knowledge or interest about these topics. At one level, a globalised media may bring us all together; for example, United States produced film and television programming might provide something to chat about for people of many nations and across most localities within Australia. However, for most of us, the realm of our personal effectivity -- what we can hope to influence and what affects us -- is highly local in character.

As the preceding discussion points out, and as supported by analysis of Australian media4, the economics of media mean that continued viability of local news can not be guaranteed. In contemplating the absence of local news media it is instructive to think of the gap this creates between the places where the big decisions are made -- the State, national and global metropoles -- and the reporting of the effects of these decisions in our various locales. While it is easy enough to criticise local media for being parochial (what media isn't?) such a gap is profoundly dis-empowering. Also absent is any active construction of the local; that is, the binding together which comes from near universal access to media with a local context.

One example of how local news media can work to both construct a local identity and to act as an intermediary between the local and the global is provided by Richardson in her analysis of Tamworth's local newspaper. She argues that by constructing a local 'world view' the local newspaper exerts a strong influence on how people make sense of global phenomena. While not necessarily cohering with the reality of life in Tamworth, this local 'world view' significantly influences the way local people deal with a world beyond the town which is in many ways threatening. Thus, through the pages of the local news "the country has actually appropriated even assimilated many of the notions that are most often associated with change [globalisation] in today's society, it also seems that this assimilation is on the country's terms" (Richardson 4).

Unmediated chat may then be viewed as a sort of micro-local communication5. It operates on a much smaller scale than even local news media. However, local media may well be a significant resource used by people chatting about, trying to make sense of and seeking to act in a world in which communications media are becoming increasingly global. Chat is then one aspect of a complex communications environment where individuals routinely navigate through a range of media spaces -- from the most local through to the most global -- in the course of a day. It can also be seen as a potential site for subversion, appropriation and assimilation of communications and media operating on larger scales. The notion of 'transition discourse', introduced by Wills, may be a productive way of beginning to think about this issue.

Transition discourses are the processes of temporary cultures that are essential to explain change. Thus, transition discourses are also temporary mannerisms and body techniques of 'habitus'. "Habitus refers to specialised techniques and ingrained knowledges which enable people to negotiate the different departments of existence" (Wills 3, qtd. in Craik).

Both chat and local media may then serve as transition discourses, helping us to assimilate a constantly changing media-scape.

Author Biography

Mark Frankland