Of the couple dozen theories that aim to explain how mass media impact society, how many of them are still valid today, when mass media is slowly metamorphosizing into social media? Or, in other words, if there has been a shift from one-to-many, to many-to-many communication systems, have the theories that explained the former, such as media dependency, agenda setting, or knowledge gap, still applicable to the latter? The course from Mass Media to Social Media, which I teach at Purdue University scrutinizes this problem in great detail.
This article is part of a series of reading and discussion resources dedicated to this course. Please explore the links below and join our conversation by commenting below or by referencing the readings and the ideas in your future papers.
Uses and Gratification Theory Assumptions
Uses and gratification is often seen in counterpart to the more deterministic media theories, which assume that media have, qua media, certain effects. In other words, it qualifies or event overcomes the difficulties involved in the claims that mere media exposure leads to certain behaviors, sometimes without a user’s conscious control. Uses and gratifications theory proposes that users/media consumers are actively choosing specific media content according to their needs. If there are any effects, these are consciously or at least actionaly intended. However, uses and gratification theory can be seen to operate at two levels of abstraction and complexity. At one level U&G theory can be seen as a giant mosaic, made of pieces that the researcher can combine according to his or her needs and imagination. At the other, it can be seen as a puzzle, where the bewildering complexity of the pieces that make the media use tableau can only fit together in a given way. The first understanding is more prevalent, while the second is the more theortically grounded.
Blumler and Katz, who formulated some of the earliest conceptualizations of the U&G theory, take a non-prescriptive and non-predictive perspective on media effects. They postulate that individuals mix and match uses with goals, according to specific context, needs, social backgrounds and so on. Thus, individuals are seen as active participants in the media consumption process. According to Derek Lane “uses and gratification theory suggests that media users play an active role in choosing and using the media. Users take an active part in the communication process and are goal oriented in their media use. The theorist say that a media user seeks out a media source that best fulfills the needs of the user. Uses and gratifications assume that the user has alternate choices to satisfy their need.”
Yet, these statements reduce the theory to its bare essentials. The more important nuance introduced in the theoretical conversation by Katz in some of the later specifications of the theory, is that uses and gratifications are both connected to a set of human needs, which are by necessity limited in number. These are Lasswellian communication needs, having to do with orientation, understanding, or passing on the tradition or store of knowledge of a community. The explanatory power of the theory emerges only when accepting the postulate that given certain needs, only some media will be able to satisfy needs. Gratification can thus be predicted with some degree of certainty if we know what needs are served by what specific media characteristics. The connection between media characteristics and need satisfaction is also directive and to a certain extent necessary. Not all needs can be satisfied by just any medium. Furthermore, the chain of effects linkage need->media->gratification is moderated at times by context of use.
Uses and gratifications core concepts
Interest in the gratifications that media provide their audiences goes back to the beginning of empirical mass communication research. The last few years have witnessed something of a revival of direct empirical investigations of audience uses and gratifications, not only in the United States but also in Britain, Sweden, Finland, Japan and Israel. These more recent studies have a number of differing starting points, but each attempts to press toward a greater systematization of what is involved in conducting research in this field. Each major piece of uses and gratifications research has yielded its own classification scheme of audience functions. When placed side by side, they reveal a mixture of shared gratification categories and notions peculiar to individual research teams. The differences are due in part to the fact that investigators have focused on different levels of study (e.g., medium or content) and different materials (e.g., different programs or program types on, say, television) in different cultures. Instead of depicting the media as severely circumscribed by audience expectations, the uses and gratifications approach highlights the audience as a source of challenge to producers to cater more richly to the multiplicity of requirements and roles that it has disclosed.
Social and Psychological Origins of Media Use: A Lifestyle Analysis, Donohew, Lewis; Palmgreen, Philip; Rayburn II, J. D.; Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media; Summer87, Vol. 31 Issue 3, p255-278, 24p, 2 Charts
This study examined how social and psychological factors, including the need for activation, interact to produce different lifestyles and patterns of media use. The research identified four lifestyle types whose members differed significantly on a broad range of variables, including newspaper and newsmagazine readership, and gratifications sought from cable television. Persons with a high need for activation had lifestyles involving greater exposure to media sources of public affairs information than those with a lower need for activation and less cosmopolitan lifestyles. Results suggest that the roots of media use are far deeper than previously believed.
Some mass communications scholars have contended that uses and gratifications is not a rigorous social science theory. In this article, I argue just the opposite, and any attempt to speculate on the future direction of mass communication theory must seriously include the uses and gratifications approach. In this article, I assert that the emergence of computer-mediated communication has revived the significance of use and gratifications. In fact, uses and gratifications has always provided a cutting-edge theoretical approach in the initial stages of each new mass communications medium: newspapers, radio and television, and now the Internet. Although scientists are likely to continue using traditional tools and typologies to answer questions about media use, we must also be prepared to expand our current theoretical models of uses and gratifications. Contemporary and future models must include concepts such as interactivity, demassification, hypertextuality, and asynchroneity. Researchers must also be willing to explore interpersonal and qualitative aspects of mediated communication in a more holistic methodology.
Four conceptual problems require resolution if the uses and gratifications approach to mass communication studies is to be maximally productive: a vague conceptual framework; lack of precision in major concepts; a confused explanatory apparatus; and failure to view perception as an active process. Consideration of the current state of the uses and gratifications approach suggests the need for conceptual analysis if the approach is to unambiguously inform the research enterprise.
A Social Cognitive Theory of Internet Uses and Gratifications: Toward a New Model of Media Attendance
Authors: Robert LaRose; Matthew S. Eastin
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Volume 48, Issue 3 October 2004 , pages 358 – 377
Recent research explaining Internet usage has both extended and challenged the uses and gratifications approach to understanding media attendance by discovering “new” gratifications and introducing powerful new explanatory variables. The present research integrates these developments into a theory of media attendance within the framework of Bandura’s (1 986) Social Cognitive Theory. Respondents from 2 Midwestern states were recruited by mail to complete an online questionnaire. Structural equation modeling techniques were used to test a.new model of media attendance in which active consideration of Internet uses and gratifications, moderated by Internet self-efficacy, joins habitual behavior and deficient self-regulation as determinants of media behavior. The model explained 42% of the variance in Internet usage.
Key assumption: “Where uses and gratification researchers have explored gratifications, SCT proposes expected outcomes and where uses and gratifications researchers posit needs, SCT proposes behavioral incentives.”
This paper argues that individuals take with UGM in different ways for different purposes: they consume contents for fulfilling their information, entertainment, and mood management needs; they participate through interacting with the content as well as with other users for enhancing social connections and virtual communities; and they produce their own contents for self-expression and self-actualization. These three usages are separate analytically but interdependent in reality. This paper proposes a model to describe such interdependence. Furthermore, it argues that two usability attributes of UGM, “easy to use” and “let users control,” enable people to perform the aforementioned activities efficiently so that people can derive greater gratification from their UGM use.
Staying connected while on the move: Cell phone use and social connectedness
Ran Wei University of South Carolina, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ven-Hwei Lo National Chengchi University, Taiwan, email@example.com
doi: 10.1177/1461444806059870 New Media Society February 2006 vol. 8 no. 1 53-72
As people integrate use of the cell phone into their lives, do they view it as just an update of the fixed telephone or assign it special values? This study explores that question in the framework of gratifications sought and their relationship both to differential cell phone use and to social connectedness. Based on a survey of Taiwanese college students, we found that the cell phone supplements the fixed telephone as a means of strengthening users’ family bonds, expanding their psychological neighborhoods, and facilitating symbolic proximity to the people they call. Thus, the cell phone has evolved from a luxury for businesspeople into an important facilitator of many users’ social relationships. For the poorly connected socially, the cell phone offers a unique advantage: it confers instant membership in a community. Finally, gender was found to mediate how users exploit the cell phone to maintain social ties.