Who are the New Media Users?
Friedrich Krotz

Introduction How does a society become new-media literate? In this feature, Friedrich Krotz from the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research in Hamburg considers the different paths the diffusion of new media has taken across Europe. He argues that the manner in which children and young people acquaint themselves with new media technologies--whether it be through institutions or through the family, for work or for play--has important implications for the development of civil society.

Whenever media technologies begin to diffuse throughout society, they are referred to as new media. Accordingly, there has to be a concept of old media which might be displaced or at least change its former social function. Thinking in terms of old and new media is a familiar aspect of media-related discourse and as a rule this kind of discourse also includes the concept of new media users. Implicit in the concept of new media users, is the idea that new media are not used simply as another, more comfortable means of serving certain functions in everyday life, but that they are linked to new functions, to new patterns of social and cultural behavior, and finally, to new identities.

So, who are the new media users, how can we identify them and in what direction is the development of new media in society progressing? These questions are ultimately of great importance for the political and social strategies designed to deal with the development and impact of new media technologies throughout Europe.

For children, all media are new media

We know from empirical evidence that children do not make the distinction between old and new media. All media are new for them and they use all media to which they have access for their own purposes. Becoming a new media user is not a personal attribute--all children more or less use new media if they can. But whether they can do so and in what sense they use personal computers (PCs) and computer mediated communications (CMCs), depends on the different cultural and social processes a child is involved in and more particularly on his or her personal situation.

The diffusion of new media

Computer-based media have attained an important place in children's and young people's lives, so that computers are almost universally used by children and young people. Thus, in general and certainly in the long term it is unlikely that we can identify a specific group of users of digital media to be called "new media users", because more or less all children and young people would be included. In order to deal with the question of properly identifying these users, we have to reflect upon the process of diffusion of any new media. How do the new media diffuse into society and the everyday lives of children and young people? What conditions influence this diffusion process?

Traditional communications research has understood the rise of new media as the diffusion of an innovation. The argument goes as follows: personal computers and computer mediated communications can be understood as innovations. After the invention of such technical innovations, a process of diffusion takes place and they eventually become part of the fabric of culture and society. This process occurs in phases and depends on the technical features of the innovation and the needs of the particular society. Understood like this, differences between different countries are only differences in time and in speed. If, for example, in Sweden PCs and CMCs are much more common than in Germany, it is assumed that Germany will catch up some months or years later. But social and cultural development is not as simple as this.

Different paths of diffusion and development Media must be understood as phenomena that are part of a specific culture and society and that depend on this specific culture and society. This is even true if we speak about media that exist in all countries, such as books or television. Thus the diffusion of the new digital media must be seen in terms of a process of cultural and social change, which takes place through the integration of PCs and CMCs into people's everyday lives and relations. If people use a new medium to develop their expectations, wishes, dreams and habits, then what is merely a technical possibility may become a social and cultural reality, part of leisure and working life, of consuming and communicating and so forth. Seen like this, we may understand the results of this study as a snapshot of the media environments of European children. This snapshot shows different stages of new media evolution in different cultures. These stages are dependent on the different economic, social and cultural conditions of the respective countries.

Firstly, we can differentiate between societies that have chosen a more institutional path to introducing PCs and CMCs and those which have developed a more private path. Children may come into contact with PCs and CMCs in the context of institutions such as schools and public libraries, or through their parents at home or in other private arenas. Obviously, the private path makes children more dependent on the social and educational level of their parents.

Secondly, we can differentiate between a work and a play perspective on using PCs and CMCs: they may be used for leisure and entertainment or as a machine for writing, working and learning. From this we can conclude that different concepts of media literacy may exist, which are to be realised in school and education.

Thirdly, we can differentiate between the "intrinsically" and the "extrinsically" motivated users of PCs and CMCs in public arenas. Apart from those users with low to medium motivation, who often have no experience and no access to the digital media, the intrinsically motivated users of our study are interested to express and develop themselves personally with PCs and CMCs, whereas the extrinsically motivated are more interested in becoming successful by using PCs and CMCs, mainly on an economic level.

Civil society must define the goals, not the economy

Becoming a new media user is thus a complex process, which depends on culture and society, on school and parents and on the media. We have different cultural and personal paths into the future society, whose character will be determined by the media.. These different paths have the potential to divide society. So the decisions we make are extremely important. The path a society selects should not be defined purely by economic interest, it should be the result of a public debate in a civil society.

This feature has been adapted from chapter 11 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.