Media to Culture: The Rise of Phatic Communication

The technological affordances of modern society have led to a drastic shift from narrative forms of communication to a database structure. The transition in website formats from blogging, to social networking, and finally to microblogging (i.e. Twitter) is given by Vincent Miller as a clear illustration of the move towards phatic communication. ‘Phatic culture’, as discussed by Miller, entails the flattening of social networks. This flattening leads to non-dialogic and non-informational communication. Phatic communication is therefore a purely social function, as it is not focused on conveying a specific message. Instead, phatic communication concentrates on the act of communication itself. These communicative acts are intended to express sociability and maintain interpersonal connections.

Twitter is the ultimate vehicle for phatic communication. Its 140-character limit prevents users from conveying deeply profound thoughts. The format allows ‘tweets’ to be easily organized into a database for analysis.  So even though these messages are not intended to convey meaning, they are inherently meaningful. Miller asserts that these connections “imply the recognition, intimacy and sociability in which a strong sense of community is founded” (Miller 395). Conversely to narrative communication, phatic communication derives meaning from the process of a message rather than the content. Despite the time difference in publication (40 years), Miller’s discourse parallels Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message”.

Marshal McLuhan at Cambridge University

McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message was released prior to the digital age, but his treatise on the importance of media is incredibly relevant. McLuhan explains, “Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change” (McLuhan 41). The widespread shift from blogging to microblogging is not a result of phatic culture, phatic culture is a result of the transformation of the medium. To truly understand the transformation of communication over time, the type of media present in the era must be acknowledged.

In Lev Manovich’s discussion of ‘transcoding’, he explains that media consists of a “computer layer” and a “cultural layer”. He concludes that, “since new media is created on computers, distributed via computers, stored and archived on computers, the logic of a computer can be expected to have significant influence on the traditional cultural logic of media. That is, we may expect that the computer layer will affect the cultural layer” (Manovich 64). He sites the database as an example. He asserts, much like Miller, that the “database, originally a computer technology to organize and access data, is becoming a new cultural form of its own” (Manovich 64).  The increased prevalence of phatic communication in society is the database taking ‘cultural form’. Phatic culture is undeniably on the rise; however, as media evolves, this too will change.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam,1967.
Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking, and Phatic Culture.” Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference Annual March 26-30, San Antonio, Texas, USA. By Roger Carlsen and Dee Anna. Willis. Chesapeake, Va: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, 2007.

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