The "new media age" now may sound like a hackneyed expression, but there is still a great deal of doubt about its legitimacy as an idiom at all. In a recent debate on the Association of Internet Researchers (Internet driven) mailing list, there was a discussion over whether "new media" adequately described the range of tools by which we now communicate and receive programming content.
Initially, a direct question was posed about whether Internet protocol communications dating back 30 years can really be called "new", and that debate was followed by a question of whether we are in fact living in an age where there is a growing digital divide between those that "live" in virtual world of Internet communications, and those that are limited to the "old media" technologies of print and broadcasting.
The trouble with all of these discussions is that they involve a few key assumptions: that "new media" is somehow more engaging, more active and somehow better than "old media"; that it's a bad thing for people to be "digitally homeless" (to borrow an expression from new media evangelist, Nicholas Negroponte); and that the range of media tools possible today actually produces an active and participatory audience.
The legitimacy of these assumptions is questionable to say the very least. The idea of a "new media age" is frankly, a convenience, which describes only a natural adjustment of content-based industries to include more easily accessible content, ranging in quality from the amateur to the professional, and which reflects the range of communications technologies that provide more of an opportunity for participation than proof of it.
We are probably living in more of a "communications age" than a "new media age". Audience participation and influence over media content development is still exceedingly limited. Indeed, with the rise in intellectual property and defamation litigation, we are actually seeing a contraction of the opportunities for information sharing and content embellishment.
There may be strong communities of fan fiction authors online, and long discussions on current affairs issues, but these are generally driven by traditional media content (drama, fantasy and sci-fi series for fan fiction, and broadcast and print media commentary on current affairs). And much of what could be regarded as original content tends to look a lot like print or broadcast press anyway.
Even the rise of the most interesting examples of emergent technologies like podcasting and the social software of blogs and wiki are still being driven by content received from traditional media or other bloggers. So rather than being a "new media" age, there's just more of us talking about old media and what someone else said about a topic, than any revolutionary age of new content creation.
But to really understand the impact of a "new media-communications age", we probably should look back on what has happened, to establish just how participatory this communications age has become, and just how much audiences are directing both the development of content, and their opportunities for participation.
In the 20th century, mainstream print and electronic media was generally regarded as the primary source of news, entertainment and community information for audiences with access to those media technologies. The reception of such information was generally a passive process, with only limited opportunities for audience contribution to programming or column content - talkback radio and letters to the editor making up the majority of that contribution.
Otherwise, the influence of audiences was limited to the rather inelegant science of ratings and newspaper sales, and the corporate development of media enterprises meant that the drive for higher profits and market share reduced the number of media companies and the diversity of media voices to just a few key players by the end of the century.
From its unsteady beginnings, broadcast radio moved from an amateur-driven frontier of two-way and narrowcast communication, to a glorious explosion of FM quality sound, barking out station after station of virtually the same style of music (and the occasional public broadcasting classical music and ethnic station). Television too, rose from the ashes of radio plays, to rig quiz shows and present variety, comedy and drama programs with regular monotony; the seasons of programs lasting longer and longer until the actors playing high school kids were nearly old enough to start claiming superannuation by the time the series ended.
As the 20th century drew to a close, oligopolisation of media channels and corporatisation even of public media bodies meant that there was simply a need for new voices, new channels for content, and new mechanisms to detect the interests of audiences. When you only have a few newspapers in town and a few broadcast players, it becomes rather difficult for media producers to determine what audiences actually want. Indeed it became common for late-20th century producers to claim they directed audiences’ wants and needs, rather than those audiences determining their own interests.