Development logic of digital media

By Bu Yanfang / 02-20-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A woman is turning on the smart TV. Photo: TUCHONG

As digital technology becomes more deeply integrated into the media industry, digital media is exhibiting distinct development logic and characteristics.

Technological logic

Media development is closely related to the improvement of social productivity. In agricultural societies, oral communication and handwriting were the predominant forms of media. Long-distance communication was only possible by means of horses, carriages, or boats, which considerably constrained the spatial development of media.

In the first industrial revolution, steam-powered printing presses and steam locomotives enhanced the production and communication capabilities of media, and newspapers became a medium with an apparent spatial orientation. During the second industrial revolution, the emergence of technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television upgraded the spatial orientation of media.

Information technology arising from the third industrial revolution made computers and the internet the dominant means of communication, once again reshaping people’s understanding of media at both the spatial and the temporal level. Artificial intelligence, viewed as the fourth industrial revolution, is enabling the interconnection of information as well as the interaction between physical and virtual spaces through impressive computing power and connectivity.

Spatiotemporal logic

Different media have different temporal and spatial orientations. Online communication has largely reduced geographical constraints and endowed digital media with a strong yet relatively balanced spatiotemporal orientation. Online-offline integration has opened up a vast market for digital media. 

Unlike traditional media, digital media is characterized by non-stop, non-linear production and updating, which allows it a production space unconstrained by channel, frequency, and layout. User-generated content (UGC), professional user-generated content (PUGC), and AI-generated content (AIGC) have become important modes of content production in addition to professionally generated content (PGC), and such distributed production structures have contributed to a steady decrease in production costs. In the future, with the enhancement of AI computing power, the efficiency of content production will be further increased.

Social logic

As media evolve, they become more capable of meeting human needs and facilitating human communication, as reflected in their enhanced social attributes. Various forms of digital media, such as microblogs, WeChat Moments, short videos, and live streams have stimulated user connection and interaction, creating a strong network effect. It can be said that digital media has evolved into platforms for creation and sharing. Its role is no longer limited to providing content for consumption.

Digital media platforms, leveraging big data and powerful algorithms, have the capacity to connect users with strong ties and unite individuals who may not have otherwise encountered each other through private social interactions, thereby forming groups bound by shared interests. Users’ consumption, sharing, and creation within digital spaces further reinforce these interest-based connections, forming social networks that gradually solidify into social capital.

Once content shared in social networks achieves a certain level of popularity, platform algorithms expedite the recommendation of similar content. Within the dissemination model of “prioritizing social interaction and following up with algorithms,” the value of content is derived not only from its intrinsic merit but also from its potential to be shared as social capital.

Institutional logic

In the evolution of media, a dynamic interplay and equilibrium exist between technology and institutions, as well as between markets and institutions. The advancement and integrated development of digital media towards digitization, networking, and intelligence have significantly optimized the amalgamation of technological capabilities, resource capabilities, and market forces, continually expanding the boundaries of content production. In this process, institutional arrangements regulate aspects such as production space, content, and value delivery in order to optimize the ecosystem and production orientation of digital media.

In summary, the nature of media in the digital age is undergoing profound changes. The “content + advertisements” production model of traditional media has integrated social elements to form a new model of “content + advertisements + relationships.” Algorithms serve to efficiently match information and people, and the “social” economy has become a fundamental revenue model. The closed, institutionalized model of traditional media is gradually transitioning to an open platform model, with the platform economy becoming the core of digital media.

Bu Yanfang is a professor in the School of Economics and Management at Communication University of China.