Dialogue: reflecting on Chapter 2 of Nick Couldry’s Media, Society, World

A few weeks ago, Nick Couldry shared a chapter from his new book, Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice, published by Polity Press. A number of Culture Digitally participants commented on his idea of approaching “media as practice,” and Nick had a chance to respond. Rather than losing this discussion in the comment thread, we thought we’d re-post them here.


Zizi Papacharissi

The term ‘practices’ possesses tremendous utility for allowing us to evolve beyond the theoretical banality of terms like ‘uses.’ Or, the entrapping dichotomy of agency/structure. Or, the instrumentality that drives so many researchers (guilty myself) to look for social capital in every iteration of social media platforms. Or, the emphasis on effects and the empirical obsession to linearly connect them to specific acts. Promisingly, the term also bubbles up in the political communication or political science literature, in seeking to outline civic engagement tendencies in the digital era – although unfortunately without much regularity. So the term speaks to the interplay between that open-endedness and convention that informs things we do related to media, as Nick says, or in media as Mark Deuze would argue.

The open-ended typology or variety of media-related practices (searching and search-enabling, showing and being shown, presencing, archiving, with other embedded practices in there) is really helpful to studying and understanding various projects of curating the self / curating sociality online (and offline). I find the concept of ‘presencing’ very useful, for instance, in explaining how online platforms enable a particular kind of performativity, aimed at rendering visible identities or viewpoints that depend on performativity for their survival (see Andre Brock’s work on Twitter and Black identity on this, for instance).

In addition, much of the affective play+labor performed by the Occupy movement on Twitter is aimed at presencing, showing and being shown, archiving. Similarly, the collaboratively filtered and prodused/curated Twitter feeds associated with various Arab Spring movements were characterized by practices of showing and being shown, presencing, and archiving. So there is a (new) political somewhere in there – I guess I’m really interested in reading the next few chapters and seeing what Nick might have to say about that 🙂


Hector Postigo

I found Nick’s use of practice theory particularly interesting, especially in his analysis of Twitter and “what it is for.” (p. 41-42) The use of practices to make clear how different meanings and contexts configure Twitter or platforms like it (as a PR tool, or as a tool for political organization and opinion shaping) is an important contribution to the idea of “indeterminacy.”

I wonder if another useful way of seeing the outcomes of practice as they configure technology would be not only to see “various Twitter uses,” which signal one underlying platform, but also think of there being many Twitters. In other words, it’s not only the plasticity of user contexts and lives that configures technology but also the plasticity of technology that intercalates with user practice to form various Twitters. This viewpoint might add some interesting dimensions to the practice model. For starters it recruits designers into the analysis and interrogation of media. What are the ways in which customization features and other implementations that afford users the ability to generate “feature collages” help user practice realize a situated platform? (I’m thinking here of the way Google+, Facebook, and other platforms afford interface and semantic restructuring through an “Ajax-y” web design.) I like the idea of looking at practice and indeterminacy; it doesn’t just elucidate a multiplicity of meanings but also a multiplicity of artifacts. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book!


Josh McVeigh-Schultz

Like Hector and Zizi, I’m finding Nick’s use of practice theory to be quite useful. I’m particularly interested in how media practice as a concept gets us to think beyond the typical constraints of platform and community. The notion of practice instead provides a framework for unpacking more complicated intersections of structure and agency (and, as Zizi points out, gets us past the usual dichotomy between the two).

Along these lines, I was interested in thinking through the implications of practices of what Nick calls the quasi-social, and in particular, quasi-social practices of “showing.” Unpacking an ecology of media practices seems to provide a way to account for the kind of ambiguous intentionality associated, for example, with automated updates in Facebook driven by social apps.

Consider, for example, the current batch of Facebook “social readers” that have recently proliferated (initially gaining a fair amount of negative attention). Tools like the Washington Post’s Social Reader are designed to keep navigators inside Facebook’s walled garden and also turn the default act of reading into a socially broadcast action. I still notice a number of people who seem to unwittingly add a social reader without realizing that the app will make all of their reading choices quasi-public. This kind of model suggests of mode of unintentional presencing which hinges on the restrictions placed on flows of navigation within Facebook.

But how do we account for such scenarios in which intentionality seems so fraught? How do we account for the management of norms in this kind of heterogeneous media ecology where acts that start out as unintentional may eventually accrue a “shrug your shoulders” sort of acceptance as marginally deliberate? Media as practice seems to provide a framework for working through this kind of intersection between technical agency and determination. This is perhaps the dark side of what Nick describes as “practices of adaptation which, as yet, are only embryonic” (57) – i.e. the design of a social reader encourages particular kinds of media practices to become adopted wholesale as a new mode of ‘presencing.’

I’m really excited about how the chapter points to these sorts of reframings in relation to Goffman’s notion of re-keying. I think this could be a really valuable way of thinking through how default (initially unintentional) practices of “showing” or “presencing” become gradually normalized (which is of course precisely what a social reader is designed to do). While Goffman’s analysis does less to address the role of technological frameworks in doing their own work of re-keying (as Meyrowitz and others have pointed out), Nick’s repositioning of these issues in relation to media practices seems to have a great deal to offer in addressing the multiplicity of competing processing of semiotic grounding. I’m also excited to think about how this framework could address the ways that media practices intersect with technological systems over a micro-historical time (and Facebook’s recent switch to Timeline feels like a particularly rich example for thinking through the ways that UI affordances create friction with particular modes of media practice).


Kevin Driscoll

I was also reminded of Occupy Wall Street as I read this (engaging!) chapter – specifically the passages dealing with showing and being shown. The past few months of Occupy protests provide several widely-circulated examples of showing and being shown: the UC/Davis pepper spray video(s), “livestreaming” encampments being raided, the personal testimonials posted on wearethe99percent.tumblr.com.

I frequently hear Occupy being discussed in terms of visibility and voice. Although these terms suggest a kind of constructive showing, Occupy is often a coercive site of “being shown.” For example, even though the pepper spray videos were productive for movement visibility, neither the UC/Davis students being pepper sprayed nor the officers spraying them nor the onlookers were directly engaged in acts of showing – they were “being shown.”

I’m looking forward to reading later chapters of the book to explore the normative dimensions of the practice approach. How do we trace the coercive aspect of “being shown” that begins with seemingly low-stakes cases like the “social readers” that Josh mentions above to the incidental videotaping of bystanders at an Occupy?


Tarleton Gillespie

If the title is any clue, this is an ambitious book. In Media, Society, World, Nick Couldry is aiming here to coalesce a new line of thinking in the study of media – one that has been germinating since the turn to the audience in the 1980s and inspired by Bourdieu’s thinking more than twenty years ago, but still only an eddy in the river of media effects literature that has dominated the study of Communication. Turning our attention to media as practice means, for him, starting “not with media texts or media institutions but from media-related practice in all its looseness and openness. It asks quite simply: what are people (individuals, groups, institutions) doing in relation to media across a whole range of situations and contexts? How is people’s media-related practice related, in turn, to their wider agency?” (37)

More importantly than the theoretical provocation, Nick offers us a zookeeper’s catalogue of media practices, many of which are as striking as they are completely mundane: searching and search-enabling, showing and being shown, presencing, archiving, keeping up with the news, commentary, keeping all channels open, and screening out. I found myself palpably feeling my attention to media shifting as I read these. Rather than once again proclaiming how we need to refuse new media hype, talking about “presencing” as a mundane practice simply does so, letting us show both how a new complex of practices has coalesced, and how it is mundanely connected to habits far older than the Internet – all without getting into the prerequisite tizzy about teens and Facebook.

For the most part, Nick’s discussion, in line with his previous work, focuses on consumption practices (“commentary” is the exception). I would not take issue with any of his contributions: but simply to add to them, I wonder what a practice-based attention to media production and distribution might look like. When he compliments but sets aside political economy, he notes

A practice approach starts not with media texts or media institutions but from media-related practice in all its looseness and openness. It asks quite simply: what are people (individuals, groups, institutions) doing in relation to media across a whole range of situations and contexts? How is people’s media-related practice related, in turn, to their wider agency? (36)

True, to a point. But perhaps a focus on media production and distribution would similarly benefit from the same calm attention to practice he proposes for the habits of consumers. (He notes, in fact, that the shift to the myriad forms of new media has helped traditional media scholars move away from the text. The growing permeability between the practices of makers, distributors, and consumer should warrant the same openness.

Moreover, thinking only about consumers makes it seem as if media production is important only in the service of what people do with that media at the end of the line. But, just as he notes that only the practices of the die-hard sports fan put the broadcast game in the center, unlike all the other practices that nevertheless interact with the same text (watching out of obligation, watching in a group, deliberately not watching), those production practices that aim directly at an audience are also not the only practices that are relevant. This would also help by not requiring us to juxtapose regular practices of people with the “intense corporate interests” that attempt to commodify or contort them – those ‘interests’ are practices too.

What would a similar menu of practices look like if our attention shifted to media production or technological design? Would it have the similar effect of escaping overstatement? Would it settle on practices that have already been highlighted (remix? aggregation? tethering?) Or would it help reveal unnoticed practices as well?


Nick Couldry

Thanks for all the kind comments so far. I am glad the ‘practice’ approach is starting to look useful. I see it as part of a broader attempt to shift the analytic language of media research, a shift in which many of us are involved in. So Tarleton’s suggestion of doing the same from a predominantly ‘production’ perspective is absolutely to the point. Although ‘production’ is folded into my categories via the concept of showing, for example, which I read as a form of production, he is right to suggest that it would also be useful to consider the production-focussed perpsectives that are not oriented to ‘audiences’ or ‘consumers’. I really hope that people wil find ways of building more onto my starting-points: as Hector says, it could certianly be complexified in many ways.

As to Zizi’s comment about politics, I try to give my take on the overall balance of democratising aspects of digital media in chapter 5 of the book. Hard to call!

I really like Josh’s and Kevin’s exploration of various unwitting types of being-shown, including those imposed by platforms settings whose consequences users don’t grasp. This is a rich area to explore further.

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