Can media system dependency account for social media? Or should communication infrastructure theory take care of it?

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This is a learning module for the class Contemporary Social / Mass Media Theory taught at Purdue University by Sorin Adam Matei

Media System Dependency Theory Core principles

MSD proposes that media and its audiences co-exist in a state of ecological dependency. They establish relationships with each other in which “the capacity of individuals to attain their goals is contingent upon the information resources of the media system.”
The Evolution of Media System Dependency Theory
Sandra Ball Rokeach, Joo Young Jung (use Purdue career account to access)
The SAGE handbook of media processes and effects, 2009, Sage

In this chapter, we first situate how media system dependency (MSD) theory grew out of the issues and debates surrounding prevailing theories of media effects. Following this contextual discussion, we proceed to examine the development of the theory over three decades-the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. We conclude the chapter by discussing the profound changes in the media system that prompted substantial expansion of MSD theory in the form of communication infrastructure theory.

MSD is defined by Ball Rokeach in this article as follows:

Questioning the persuasion frame led Ball-Rokeach to make a major shift away from regarding media as a persuasion system to regarding media as an information system… By conceiving of the media as an information system, (1) it directed attention to a relationship between producers and consumers where producers control scarce information resources, and consumers utilize those resources to make sense of, and act meaningfully in, their personal and social environs; (2) it was possible to examine all media products for their potential information value, crossing entertainment and news genres; (3) it encouraged viewing media consumers as active processors of media resources, not passive receptors, thus incorporating the active audience perspective that had developed in uses and gratifications without asserting anarchical audience interpretive freedoms; (4) it allowed the possibility that some media effects were intentional and others were not; and (5) it encouraged a multilevel analysis made possible by the ecological notion of a dependency relationship. Probably the most novel and difficult aspect of MSD theory to grasp is the ecological conception of a dependency relationship that crosses levels of analysis from media producers (macro) to media consumers (micro). This central concept derives from power-dependency theory (Emerson, 1962) in which power is conceived to reside in other actors’ having to access resources that you control, not in the resources per se. If you control resources that others do not have to access, then your resources create no power. The basic point of the first MSD paper (Ball-Rokeach, 1974) was that we can understand media effects as the outcome of dependency relations where consumers require access to information resources controlled by the media system to achieve their everyday goals, whereas the media system does not really require access to resources controlled by anyone consumer in order to achieve its economic and political goals. Most media effects theories focus on the attributes or characteristics of messages or audience members. The simplest way to distinguish between such attributional thinking and MSD ecological thinking is that the focus in ecological thinking is on the characteristics of relationships (e.g., intensity, scope), not on the attributes of the actors.

A Theory of Media Power and a Theory of Media Use: Different Stories, Questions, and Ways of Thinking
Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach
Mass Communication and Society, Volume 1, Issue 1 & 2 January 1998 , pages 5 – 40

In this article, I compare the assumptions, concepts, and propositions of media system dependency (MSD) theory and uses and gratifications (U&G) theory at the microlevel of analysis. The epistemological origins of these theories are situated within the differing social and personal contexts that affected their development. Those MSD assumptions that serve as background to this comparison are specified, and major hypotheses concerning the social ecology of microeffects processes are discussed, particularly as they pertain to public opinion concerns. Following this elaboration of MSD theory, basic differences between MSD and U&G conceptions of the audience, interpersonal networks, the media system, and the nature of media power are addressed. I conclude with a brief comment on the implications of the Internet for theorizing micro media effects.

The Role of Motivation and Media Involvement in Explaining Internet Dependency
Sun, Shaojing, Rubin, Alan M., Haridakis, Paul M.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media; Sep2008, Vol. 52 Issue 3, p408-431

Links among demographics, motivation for using the Internet, cognitive and affective involvement, and Internet dependency were investigated. By integrating uses and gratifications theory and media dependency research, motivation was found to play a more important antecedent role in explaining Internet dependency than demographics, and cognitive and affective involvement mediated the relationship between motivation and Internet dependency. This finding supported the uses and gratifications argument that certain factors intervene in the media uses and effects process between motivation to communicate and outcomes of communication behavior such as media use.

The Internet in the Communication Infrastructure of Urban Residential Communities: Macro- or Mesolinkage?
Sorin Matei and Sandra Ball-Rokeach
Volume 53 Issue 4, Pages 642 – 657

The article refines the view that the Internet is increasingly incorporated in everyday life, concluding that the new medium has been partially integrated in the “communication infrastructure” of English-speaking Los Angeles neighborhoods. Here, Internet connectedness is associated with civic participation and indirectly contributes to “belonging” to a residential community. However, in predominantly Asian and Latino areas, the Internet is disengaged from communication environments that lead to belonging, being associated with mainstream media. In these communities its contribution is contradictory; although it probably contributes to the process of ethnic assimilation, it might also lead to disengagement of most educated and technologically savvy residents from their neighborhoods. A possible “magnifying glass effect” is proposed as explanation for the differential integration of new media in community life.

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

19 thoughts on “Can media system dependency account for social media? Or should communication infrastructure theory take care of it?

  • October 3, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    I think that MSD is useful in assessing social media for the following reasons:

    For one, the theory directs attention to relationships in which producers of media have control of scarce resources that consumers of media need to make sense of and act meaningfully in their environment (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009). MSD encourages analysis of the relationships made possible by media consumers dependence on the informational resources possessed by media producers. The main point of the theory is that media effects are an outcome of the dependency relationships previously described (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009). MSD suggests that the more exclusive the media access to resources and the more essential the resources to people’s goals, the greater the media effects. Thus, such relationships can be more or less symmetrical depending on the exclusivity and importance of media resources. Additionally, the relationships can occur at four levels: “micro,” “meso,” “macro conditions” and “macro relationships,” which represent individuals, interpersonal networks, social environment and media system activity, and structural dependency relationships, respectively. According to MSD, the construction of social reality is the result of relationships among the various levels of relationships. Social environment becomes key to media effects, hearkening back to the two-step flow hypothesis’s suggestion that opinion leaders moderate the effects media has on individuals. MSD is useful for analyzing social media because it provides a framework for the many relationships through which information can flow in a social media environment. MSD’s emphasis on power and its portrayal of interpersonal relationships as “discourse creators” can direct researchers’ attention to power imbalances and the critical roles that interpersonal relationships play in media effects. After all, social realities do not form in a vacuum; they emerge from relationships with interpersonal network members and relationships with the media (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009).

    Because communication infrastructure theory builds on MSD, I think it is also useful in assessing social media:

    According to Matei and Ball-Rokeach (2010), in CIT, communication infrastructure is conceptualized as a storytelling system that maintains the integrity of space-based residential communities. CI has two components: 1) A multi-level storytelling system, and 2) Communicative action context. The system contains macroagents (institutions, newspapers, TV networks, PR agencies), mesoagents (specific city or residents) and microagents (individuals). Each agent is responsible for telling a variety of stories the reflect the level at which they operate. These stories are processes making up the communication infrastructure. They help people feel a “belonging,” an attachment to a geographic area that is evidenced in everyday exchange behavior.
    This perspective is very useful in examining social media. Social media is an ideal platform for storytelling. In fact, many individuals may use it simply for that purpose. CIT asserts that people who are enmeshed in one type of communication environment are more likely to be caught up in other types of communication, and this contributes to a strong sense of anchoring in their community. We can see playing out in social media. Consider one hypothetical example: A college student, also a user of a social networking site, is surfing the social networking site in the library. He visits his roommate’s page on the site. The page provides a link to the roommate’s blog. The user clicks through. The roommate’s blog talks about an issue he and many other students, he says, have been experiencing on the college campus and provides a link to a site on which visitors can send messages to their student government. The user, having also experienced the issue, sends a quick message to a student representative. He then receives a message on the site from a friend who wants to meet up. The student logs off the social networking site and leaves the library to meet up with the friend. While with him, he brings up the issue about which he sent a message to the student representative. This illustration clearly shows how being enmeshed in one type of communicative environment can lead to becoming enmeshed in other environments, all contributing to an anchoring in the community.

  • October 4, 2010 at 5:46 am

    My feelings are mixed on whether or not media system dependency (MSD) is useful in evaluating social media. According to Ball-Rockeach and Jung (2009) MSD theory consists of a dependency relationship where consumers who require access to information resources have to turn to a media system, which controls the resources. Within their paper Ball-Rockeach and Jung (2009) give the example of election processes, they state that there is power symmetry between the political system and media system because they are both dependent on each other for their existence; whereas the relationship between the individuals is asymmetrical because individuals do not have the resources the media system needs to exist.
    On one hand I believe that the system for of dependency is currently valuable in understanding social media. I believe this because of MDS’s relationship to the Power-Depencency theory, in which the power is in the relationship and not in people or positions (Ball-Rockeach, 1998). The power, in my opinion, seems to still be dependent on the relationship between the provider of information and the consumer of information. For example, in traditional media the power is held by the television station and not with the television viewer. An example in social media, which parallels this, is on twitter when a person posts a message they have the power whereas the reader is still the consumer of the information. The difference in the two examples lies in the fact that the television audience cannot communicate with the television station while the twitter reader can reply the post. However, the agenda is still being set by the party, which transmits the information.
    On the other hand I think there are very good arguments that MDS is obsolete in evaluating social media. This counter argument stems from the existence of symmetry and asymmetry between differing groups in the media system ecology. Ball-Rockeach and Jung (2009) gave the example of a political election as symmetry in MSD. I would argue that such symmetry does not currently exist. This argument is based on political campaigns are free to use social media as their primary method of communication. In Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election his website listed 16 different social media websites, and directly when to his voter base. Obama’s supporters used sites like Flickr and YouTube to create their own messages and distributed them. I believe that because of campaigns such as President Obama’s the audience is not simply the receiver of messages. The audience become vocal in which agenda they would like to further.
    In summary, my view is that some aspects of MSD theory are applicable to social media, while other aspects of MSD theory are not applicable. The MSD theory must be re-evaluated and revised to be completely applicable to social media.

  • October 7, 2010 at 10:57 am

    In my opinion, the answer to the question in the title might really end up depending on the specific research question. Because, in my view, both theories have a few key things in common. Both include an ecological context, and both attempt to incorporate multilevel influences. But when it comes to individual level, it appears that CIT is better in examining the communication processes and linkages whereas MSD is better in examining individual goals/motivations and the relationship with the resources. This is of course, just based on these readings.

  • October 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

    I found MSD theory to be very interesting, and it helped me to see connections between other theories that I hadn’t seen before. I appreciated the explicit use of network language and concepts, and especially the attempt to deal with the interaction between multiple levels of actors and influences. I like the idea of media as a system of information exchange, where information that is useful creates stronger ties between nodes (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009).

    At a larger level, I think that the idea of people and their media existing as a network is a very useful way to tie together many of the theories that we have been discussing. Two-step flow theory is an obvious application of this – it is a recognition that media is distributed and mediated through a network, specifically through “opinion leaders”, and that who you are connected to affects how you understand media (Katz,1957). Uses and gratifications also has a direct connection to networks. Many of the needs that Katz, Gurevitch and Haas (1973) identify are social in nature – one of our primary uses of media is to navigate and improve our position in the social networks that surround us. Our final theory of focus, agenda setting, can also be analyzed from a network perspective. Williams and Deli Carpini (2004), in their paper on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, don’t make explicit network claims or analysis. However, in effect, they are claiming that blogs and other new media are changing the network structure for old media. Specifically, by creating new bridges from consumers to political information, old media no longer have a position of centrality, specifically betweenness centrality (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). This makes it more difficult (impossible?) to control the news agenda.

    It is this broad concept of studying media in the context of a network that I think applies very nicely to new media. Network structure has become more explicit, and measurable, and it’s exciting to think that we are starting to be able to actually measure network effects.

    Wasserman, S., and Faust, K.. Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.
    Other texts are from class reading.

    • October 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Can you expand on this a little bit… It it interesting, yet rather unspecified as to how networking intersects with MSD…

  • October 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Ball-Rokeach and Jung (2009) explained that “media effects theories tended to address processes that operated at either a macro (societal or cultural) or a micro (individual) level of analysis” and that limitation led to the development of media system dependency (MSD) theory (p. 531). However, that claim of micro- and macro-level thinking also applies to theory-building in general. Theories can be applied to phenomenon at a micro level (for example, looking at individual aspects of a multi-part process) or can attempt to explain the whole phenomenon at a macro level (for example, trying to explain every reason why something occurs). Neither is better than the other and both hold advantages and disadvantages.

    For instance, a micro-level theory might do a fantastic job of examining the network connections among opinion leaders and followers in order to anticipate the flow of communication ideas (two-step flow) and explaining the processes associated with that one aspect of media consumption. Yet, limitations emerge in a micro-level theory because not every aspect of the phenomenon is explained. In the two-step flow example, limitations exist about why people actively choose specific media and media content, which gave rise to another micro-theory, uses and gratifications theory.

    On the other hand, macro-level theories attempt to situate the phenomenon within larger processes in an attempt to explain the phenomenon as a whole. In explaining how uses and gratifications differs from MSD, Ball-Rokeach and Jung (2009) noted, “U&G theory focused largely on individual (micro) and interpersonal (meso) levels of analysis, whereas MSD sought to bring together the micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis into an ecology of MSD relations” (p. 540). This ecology of MSD relations really explains just how “the relationships between goals and media information resources… are implicated in individuals’ and interpersonal networks’ attempts to gain understanding, orientation, and play goals” but also that these goals are situated largely within a social context (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009, p. 540). The explanatory power of MSD to clarify how the power differentials, personal/societal goals, and the media resources available interact together to produce media effects at a variety of levels is outstanding and I believe can be applied within a social media context.

    However, I think, as macro-level theories, both MSD and communication infrastructure theory (CIT) hold certain limitations. One issue is that the theories become so large in their efforts to explain the entire phenomenon that they lose some of their predictive ability—a key component of an empirical theory. Ball-Rokeach and Jung (2009) even mentioned the prediction component when they stated that that “the outcome of their [interpersonal networks] MSD relations is not fully predictable” (p. 539).

    The second issue with macro-level theories also comes from the sheer scope and is primarily methodological. If you are working with theories that attempt to place media use within larger multi-part systems, how do you measure or test it? Media effects theories tend to gravitate toward quantitative methodologies (or so it seems to me at this point), but with such a large explanatory mechanism at work with macro-level theories, using only one method or type of methodology does not seem like it would capture the whole of the theory. I question whether a person is able to test the entirety of MSD or CIT in one study—not that that is a true test of a good theory, but it is something to be aware of.

    According to Ball-Rokeach (1998), “for individuals, the most proximate condition for media power is intense and broad-scoped implication of media systems resources in individuals’ goal attainment” (p. 15). This goal-attainment aspect is something that can be measured through the use of experimental conditions or questionnaires (such as in Sun, Rubin, & Haridakis, 2008) and can apply to social media. Nevertheless, the theory also notes that “this condition [of individual’s goal obtainment], however, cannot be fully understood without reference to the ecology of macro dependency relations between the media and other organizations and systems” (Ball-Rokeach, 1998, p. 15). Ball-Rokeach and Jung (2009) argued that in-depth case studies were necessary to truly understand the ecology these interactions are situated within. Yet, few studies that I have seen have used in-depth case studies to situate the results of their studies. In their use of CIT, Matei and Ball-Rokeach (2003) used the geographical and societal context to define and explain their results, but it wasn’t an in-depth case study. Does this mean that multiple studies are necessary to grasp the whole picture that MSD or CIT can present? If so, is that truly “better” or different from than a multitude of micro-theories?

    These questions are interesting to think about. I don’t have answers to all of the questions, but I think it is important to think about and understand how theories can be applied in general before thinking about their applications to specific types of media.


    Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (1998). A theory of media power and a theory of media use: Different stories, questions, and ways of thinking. Mass Communication and Society, 1, 5-40.

    Ball-Rokeach, S. J., & Jung, J-Y. (2009). The evolution of media system dependency theory. In R. L. Nabi & M. B. Oliver (eds)., The SAGE handbook of media processes and effects (pp. 531-544). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Matei, S., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (2003). The internet in the communication infrastructure of urban residential communities: Macro- or mesolinkage? Journal of Communication, 53, p. 642-657.

    Sun, S., Rubin, A. M., & Haridakis, P. M. (2008). The role of motivation and media involvement in explaining internet dependency. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52, 408-431.

  • October 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Based on the readings from this unit, I am not very convinced that Media System Dependency Theory is useful for studying the Internet and social media. I hate to say that an established theory is obsolete, and I do not think I would say that about MSD Theory, because I do agree with some of its ideas. However, I do not think I have seen the theory in action enough in these readings to fully understand its value.

    Conceptually, I do find MSD Theory interesting, and I can certainly see where it is coming from. Ball-Rokeach & Jung (2009) explain that the theory came out of a situation in which most media effects theories focused too exclusively on either macrolevel (with powerful media and weak audience) or microlevel issues (with weak media and powerful audience). These ideas do seem unnecessarily binary, and I appreciate the attempt by MSD theorists to incorporate both macro and micro aspects, along with meso aspects in many cases. I also think the emphasis on power relationships, in which the media controls information resources that the audience needs, probably more accurately reflects the process of media effects.

    However, MSD Theory almost seems more useful as a conceptual theory than as a theory that drives research. First of all, especially at the macro level, the theory does not allow for much variability. Ball-Rokeach (1998) explains that micro MSD relations can vary in intensity (the exclusivity and utility of media information), goal scope (number of goals the audience achieves) and referent scope (number of media forms used), but they are invariant in structure (the media system always controls information resources that the audience needs, rather than the other way around) and resource scope (only the resources offered by the media system can be used). If we already know that these two aspects are always the same, it seems that we are a bit limited in the new information we can find.

    Furthermore, MSD Theory faces a significant struggle to differentiate itself from other theories, as clearly demonstrated in these readings. Ball-Rokeach & Jung (2009) spend a good amount of time trying to explain the differences between MSD Theory and Uses & Gratifications Theory, and Ball-Rokeach (1998) devotes an entire article to making this distinction. The biggest distinction seems to be that MSD Theory gives the audience less credit than U&G Theory for its ability to selectively consume media, instead focusing on the relationship and arguing that the audience can only use the resources that the media system chooses to provide. I think that MSD Theory makes a good case here, as the media system certainly seems to have more power over information than the individual, but U&G Theory at least seems to have led to a wider body of research than MSD Theory.

    Communication Infrastructure Theory only further complicates the value of MSD Theory. Ball-Rokeach & Jung (2009) admit that CIT might be more useful in the Internet environment, and Matei & Ball-Rokeach (2003) further show why this might be the case by examining the relationship between Internet use and community belonging. CIT posits a storytelling system set within a communication action context, which means that the information and stories that individuals share are affected by not only the mass media system, but also more local media systems, interpersonal networks, and individual interactions. The Internet contributes to this by allowing for more direct access to information and more participation. If the mass media system no longer has as much control over information resources, then MSD Theory might no longer be valuable.

    Overall, I would guess that MSD Theory has led to much productive research, and it has likely led to more nuanced theories like CIT that are still being explored and are still relevant to the media and Internet environment today. However, the major failing of MSD Theory seems to be its inability to successfully distinguish itself from other theories throughout its lifetime, and it certainly seems to be experiencing the negative effects of this challenge today.


    Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (1998). A theory of media power and a theory of media use: Different stories, questions, and ways of thinking. Mass Communication and Society, 1, 5-40.

    Ball-Rokeach, S. J., & Jung, J-Y. (2009). The evolution of media system dependency theory. In R. L. Nabi & M. B. Oliver (eds)., The SAGE handbook of media processes and effects (pp. 531-544). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Matei, S., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (2003). The internet in the communication infrastructure of urban residential communities: Macro- or mesolinkage? Journal of Communication, 53, p. 642-657.

    • October 14, 2013 at 11:01 am

      This is an excellent commentary with a lot of good questions for further discussion. The claim that media controls the resources no matter what, deserves more and closer attention, indeed….

  • October 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    This section begins with the question, “Can media system dependency account for social media? Or should communication infrastructure theory take care of it?”
    The basic premise of MSD is that if people rely on media to meet their needs, it will be important in their lives and thus have more effect on them. This certainly makes intuitive sense; however, the major problem I see with MSD accounting for social media is its many-to-many nature versus the one-to-many aspect of traditional mass media. This ultimately will affect its applicability for empirical verification on a macro-level.
    The reason I see using MSD to account for this as problematic is that “media” in this proposition is described (at least implicitly) as monolithic. It is one thing with one message. Social media is composed of an entire network of user-producers. In this dynamic and complicated network of voices, who or what is the thing that is affecting when we speak of ‘media’? I realize that we can still speak of the general effects of a mediated channel, but the discussion must become more nuanced to account for the increased number of produced messages in social media.
    While the Sun, Rubin, and Haridakis (2008) article was interesting, it focused primarily on computer-mediated communication through email and not social media; for that reason it is not entirely helpful for this proposed question.
    Ball-Rokeach (1998) acknowledges this complexity when she notes, “Society is an organism that can only be understood by knowing the relations between its parts. Interdependent relations between the parts produce both cooperation and conflict.” That being said, the actual work of accounting for all of these relations on a macro-level for research is a daunting task; it is much more amenable on the micro/individual level. These criticisms of the theory have shown up in other work; for example, Baran and Davis (2008) noted both that “Variability in microlevel and macrolevel measurement makes between-study comparability problematic, [and] the theory is often difficult to empirically verify.”
    The communication infrastructure theory accounts for the many voices in social media as a theory of storytelling communities, and on that level it is a helpful addition to this conversation. Ball-Rokeach and Jung (2009) end their discussion on MDS and CIT by noting, “This is not to say that we throw our established theories out the window, as parts of them are likely to survive the changing media world. It is to say that, just as MSD theory evolved into CIT, our theories need to reflect the changing phenomenological realities of media production and consumption” (p. 543).
    So to answer our initial question, MDS and CIT need not be in competition because one is an evolved expression of the other. They are of the same. Ball-Rokeach and Jung themselves might even argue that soon enough we’ll need something else to take care of things as the technology itself continues to evolve.

    Ball-Rokeach, S. (1998). A Theory of Media Power and a Theory of Media Use: Different Stories, Questions, and Ways of Thinking. Mass Communication and Society, 1(1&2), 5-40.

    Ball Rokeach, S. Jung, J. (2009) The Evolution of Media System Dependency Theory in The SAGE handbook of media processes and effects, Sage, 531-544.

    Baran, S.J., & Davis, D.K. (2008). Mass communication theory: Foundation, ferment, and the future. New York: Wadsworth. pp. 275–276.

    Sun, S., Rubin, A., & Haridakis, P. (2008). The Role of Motivation and Media Involvement in Explaining Internet Dependency. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52(3), 408-431.

  • October 11, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    This week’s readings bridged a few of the inevitably emergent theoretical gaps between some of the previous units (Two-Step Flow, Uses and Gratification) in terms of technological advancements in mass media and the refinement of our understanding of mass media processes. Drawing from many sources, Ball-Rokeach (1998) offers a nuanced description of how a media “ecology” approach can be operationalized to better understand the concepts of media dependency and media infrastructures. The Media System Dependency (MSD) theory is a refined analytic technique that very clearly establishes a rigorous method for building on our knowledge of other areas in mass media theory by approaching media as an “information system” (Ball-Rokeach, 1998). In this way, it successfully “fills in the gaps,” as it were, between more “micro” media theories, such as interpersonal theory, and more “macro” media theories, such as social environments (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009). The theory of in-between spaces or “mesolinkages” (Matei & Ball-Rokeach) offers a nice answer to the question of integrating previous media theory into a fully operationalized unit.
    MSD is founded on the notion of the “power-dependency” theory (Emerson, 1962, 1964). Although useful, there is one element to this theory that does not seem to fit well with contemporary mass media communications like social media. One of the tenants of power-dependency is that “resources accrue power only when […] one party to the relation must seek access to the other’s resources” (Ball-Rokeach, 1998). While this might be true of older media forms such as television and radio, it is not so true of social media. A better theory might attempt to account for the “symbiotic” development of relations in social media environs, where the users depend on the media as much as the media does on the content of the users. Ball-Rokeach seems to have developed a solution to this in some of her later work.
    The better technique to describe contemporary mass media processes such as social media seems to be Communication Infrastructure Theory (CIT). CIT sees the communication infrastructure as a “storytelling system” set in a “communication action context” (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009). In this way, it avoids the pitfalls of power-dependency while remaining more open. Lastly, the approach acknowledges the way that MSD can change according to demographics or different locations (Matei, Ball-Rokeach, 2003).

    • October 14, 2013 at 10:56 am

      When MSD was deeveloped, it was quite a breath of fresh air, since it proposed a more balanced understanding of the relationship between media and their audiences… I do not think it can be faulted for erring on the side of being too “traditional”. Your thoughts about Communication Infrastructure are intriguing but I think more can be said about it… Can you continue the conversation in that direction?

      • October 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm

        I think CIT is useful for understanding social media in ways that MSD might not be because it focuses instead on a type of “neutral” sphere where the idea is that everyone is inside of it and has the potential to be affected by one another in a symbiotic way. MSD on the other hand I feel relies too heavily on the notion that one player has all the cards, as it were, and that other players are then “duped” or at the mercy of the more powerful layer. CIT, by adopting a more Habermasian approach, is able to say that the communication infrastructure of media is more flexible in that it exists as a pregiven rational sphere where all can then tell their stories in a communication action context. This allows for more subtlety in that it shows how different players in the communication game can effect their own stories that will then be taken up in the infrastructure in ways that are not merely top town, but also bottom up, as well as horizontal.

  • October 11, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    I think Media System Dependency Theory (MSD) is still relevant for social media research. Though MSD needs to be nuanced and expanded to address the current media context where online media plays a big role, it is still a helpful theory for guiding research on social media. It is grounded in previous theoretical concepts and offers its own unique assumptions that are relevant to a social media context.

    A quick look at MSD’s assumptions, as explained by (Rokeach and Jung, 2009, p. 532-534), shows how MSD builds upon and expands existing theoretical concepts, like those in Uses and Gratifications Theory. MSD places its focus on media as an information system where media’s power is derived from the relationship between the consumer and the information the media provide. A producer gains power when it owns exclusive information that the consumer needs/wants and is able to access through the producer. Like Uses and Gratifications Theory, MSD sees the media consumer as an active processer of the information he or she consumes. MSD also builds off of Uses and Gratifications concepts in its assumption that individuals choose which media to use based on personal goals, and these goals mediate the effects media have on an individual. MSD assumes a two-way dependency between producer and consumer, which allows for a multi-level analysis of media effects, including the idea that these effects can be either intentional or unintentional .

    Unlike previous theories, MSD specifically allows for explorations of the role interpersonal networks play in media effects, providing a meso-level to connect macro and micro-levels of media effects research. This is important, because “social reality is not a macro-, meso- or microeffects phenomenon; rather, it is a product of ecological relationships among these levels of analysis” (Rokeach and Jung, 2009, p. 540). The meso-level of interpersonal networks that is opened up by MDS is a great starting point for understanding the new types of interpersonal networks that now are created by and live on through social networks. MSD research could help us understand how these social networks affect the whole media system and the relationships within it. MSD states that dependency relationships are asymmetrical between individuals and media, but media’s dependency on its audience increases when media systems combine individual users into audience segments. A better understanding of how online communities work as a unit to affect the media they utilize could, in turn, lead to a better understanding of what factors play into how and why messages across social media affect their audience. MSD could generate interesting research questions and an expansion of the theory could be helpful in understanding how social media work within the overarching system of individuals, interpersonal networks, producers and other media.

    • October 14, 2013 at 10:48 am

      Excellent emphasis on the two-way nature of the dependency relationship and on the ecological nature of the connections… That is the crux of the argument…

  • October 5, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Communication Infrastructure Theory (CIT) is better equipped to examine social media because it was designed to recognize and adapt to the new distribution of power and dependence among the various players in media brought on by social media.
    Most notable in the main differences between MSD and CIT, as delineated by Ball-Rokeach and Jung (2009) is the assignment of the main information system from which resources are drawn upon. In MSD, that system is considered to be mass media. CIT, on the other hand, views story tellers as central, with media as a facilitator that functions both on macro, meso, and micro levels (Ball-Rokeach & Jung 2009). CIT accounts for the shift in control over information resources, whereas MSD assumes mass media to be the primary locus of control. This distinction alone illuminates the applicability of CIT to social media because of the opportunities that are accounted for in differentiating between mainstream media and geo-ethnic media. The storytelling network acknowledges community organizations and residents as primary contributors to the narrative (Ball-Rokeach & Jung 2009). Social media inquiry demands this distinction, because by its very nature, social media comprises a spectrum of community engagement and interpersonal disclosure that blow traditional conceptions of producer/consumer out of the water (Kaplan 2010). Matei and Ball-Rokeach (2008) application of CIT to old immigrant communities in Los Angeles highlight this crucial nature of interpersonal frameworks on the storytelling ecology, an observation that would have been diluted through MSD.

    Can MSD be useful in accounting for social media? Absolutely—but only to an extent. Social media redistributes information resources and makes interpersonal and community networks more powerful than simple consumers. MSD, by mainly accounting for mass media and reducing interpersonal networks to effect gauges, thus becomes inadequate (Ball-Rokeach & Jung 2009). The overall question of MSD capacity to account for social media is answered by its evolution into CIT. Communication Infrastructure Theory was specifically conceptualized to bridge the gaps between Media System Dependency and its accountability for social media.

  • November 29, 2016 at 12:07 am

    can anyone can give me a copy of Ball-Rokeach books/journals? :( I just need it for my study about Politics on Internet. I need it asap, Thank you!!


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