Banner About Issues Index

The Medium as Platform: An Emerging Sense of Medium

- Steven Maras (bio)
School of Humanities
University of Western Sydney, Australia


This paper argues for an approach to the study of new media that distinguishes between different "senses" of medium standing in a continuum. It identifies an emerging sense of medium, which has to do with an understanding of the medium as a platform.

One of the most exciting and also troublesome aspects of the study of new media is the emphasis on the "new". As problematic as the pre-fix "post" in postmodernism and post-structuralism, the pre-fix "new" demands a series of historico-temporal or qualitative thresholds be set up between either old and new media, established and emergent media, or present and past media (see Marshall, 1987). When proposed in a rigid way these thresholds become normative ways of constructing or policing the field, leading to a distinction between different models of media: analogue and digital, pull and push, broadcasting and broadcatching. Such a rigid approach can potentially block off interesting avenues of study (the process whereby an emergent medium becomes established, or an old-medium is born again, for example).

While an impulse of much new media theory is to establish the difference of a new kind of medium, or a transformation of the media beyond established definitions, it runs the risk of operating through a process that fails to differentiate between different concepts of medium—a massification of the media that ironically parallels the massification of the audience in mass media. In this piece, I want to argue in favor of an approach that distinguishes between different "senses" of medium standing in a continuum. This approach is not primarily interested in asserting the differences between one medium and another (the quest for medium specificity), but rather examines the rhetorical aspects or metaphorics of a particular concept of medium. This approach is epistemological in the sense that it opens up the issue of how we know what a medium is. Being attuned to different senses of medium means being aware of the way we talk about different media, and the way our understanding of medium is created through discourse.

A pre-cursor for this kind of approach exists in the work of James W. Carey and his discussion of the telegraph. He argues that one of the effects of the telegraph was a change in the very understanding of communication. Carey writes,
When the telegraph reached the West Coast eight years in advance of the transcontinental railroad, the identity of communication and transportation was ended in both fact and symbol. Before the telegraph, 'communication' was used to describe transportation as well as message transmittal for the simple reason that the movement of messages was dependent on their being carried on foot or horseback or rail. The telegraph, by ending the identity, allowed symbols to move independently of and faster than transportation. To put it in a slightly different way, the telegraph freed communication from the constraints of geography. The telegraph, then, not only altered the relationship between communication and transportation; it also changed the fundamental ways in which communication was thought about. (Carey, 1989, pp. 203-204)
In this passage, Carey traces an event that altered the sense of communication, its popular understanding, and identity with other terms such as transportation. The introduction of the telegraph changed the way that communication was thought about.

The study of the media has seen shifts of a similar nature. Michael Heim tracks a movement between two important senses of medium in the following passage. In the pre-modern period,
medium meant conceptual awareness in conjunction with the five senses through which we come to understand things present before us in the environment. This natural sense of media was gradually dissipated during the modern period by man-made extensions and enhancements of the human senses. ... Electronic media gave new meaning to the term. We not only perceive directly with five senses aided by concepts and enhanced by instrumentation, but also are surrounded by a panorama of man-made images and symbols far more complex than can be assimilated directly through the senses and thought processes. Media in the electronic sense of acoustic-optic technology ... appear to do more than augment innate human sensory capacities: the electronic media become themselves complex problems; they become facts of life we must take into account as we live; they become, in short, the media. (Heim, 1987, p. 47)
In this passage, Heim shows how through extension and instrumentation "the media" comes to occupy a different register of existence. "The media" in this account are distinct from any general artifact that can serve as a means of communication to us. Extending the idea of the electronic media, "the media" also develops into the idea of the mass media, usually associated with the print and broadcasting industries (see also Williams, 1976, p. 169).

Umberto Eco explores a further transition moment in our sense of medium when he asks the question "where is the mass medium?". By asking this question, Eco is reacting to a centralized conception of the mass media based on a particular relationship with authority. Some defining features of this conception are:
a centralized transmitter, with precise political and pedagogical plans, controlled by Authority (economic or political), the messages sent through recognizable technological channels (waves, wires, devices identifiable as a screen, whether movie or TV, radio, magazine, page) to the addressees, victims of ideological indoctrination. (Eco, 1986, p. 148)
In Eco's analysis, the mass media are no longer where he once assumed them to be. The messages have cascaded beyond the borders of traditional models of communication to produce a new kind of media event—the multiplication of the media—and with it a new relationship to culture. Clothing, vehicles, brands, all form channels alongside those of the newspaper advertisement and the TV Broadcast. With each change in the channel under consideration Eco notes that "in a certain sense the meaning of the message changes, and its own ideological weight" (Eco, 1986, p. 149).

In such moments of transition in the very sense of medium it is important not to privilege one order of medium across the realm of all media. The notion of "the media" as applied in broadcasting does not always apply to the sense of a "medium" in a séance, for example—although both areas share a link to the "ether" or ethereal. McLuhanesqe definitions of the medium as an extension of the human can stand at odds with political economy definitions of "the media". As evident in Eco's work, the notion of the medium as a "channel" for communication is widely used to describe various media. Distanced from a link to the channeling of spirits, this term relates to the technical problems of conveying messages or signals to a destination. However, the mathematical model of communication can lead to a dependence on a constricted understanding of content that excludes the communication medium. We can suggest that particular aspects of Marshall McLuhan's work—his discussion of the electric light as a medium without a message, for instance (McLuhan, 1967, p. 15)—show his interest in short-circuiting a restricted idea of content and a narrow understanding of medium as channel.

While we should be mindful not to privilege one sense of medium across the realm of all media, we should also be attuned to the way the meaning of "medium" can change across different realms. In computing, "media" is increasingly being used to refer to a volume or partition on a hard disk drive, or a writeable compact disk. In this usage, your "media" becomes a resource to be deployed or configured, and subject to digital manipulation or further composition, as much as a vehicle of communication. Here, a notion of processing material competes with a notion of transmission (although some processing of the signal was always required to achieve a low signal to noise ratio in the transmission model).

At this point, I wish to discuss an emerging sense of media, which has to do with referring to a medium as a platform; a usage that is becoming more common. For example, Stuart Cunningham states that "[television] is the main platform on which whatever passes as public debate and collective sense-making in today's society takes place" (Cunningham, 1997, p. 90). Malcolm Long describes Digital Television as a "multimedia home platform" (Long, 1999). John December sees a key function of the computer as the provision of "a platform for the operating system and software applications to support network data transmission and user applications" (December, 1996). Terry Borst sees the wireless camcorder as a new platform on which the screenwriter can craft stories (Borst, 2002). Elizabeth Jacka refers to "new platforms (the Internet and especially Digital TV)" as part of a transition to "a multi-channel, multi-platform communications universe" (Jacka, 2002, p. 337). The term has found its way into policy circles, with the Australian Department for Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts announcing that "around the world media businesses are being driven by the imperative of delivering readily adaptable content across multiple platforms" (DoCITA, 2002).

As explored here, the term "platform" resonates with a number of meanings. In computing, "platform" has a widely accepted meaning designating an operating system or other shared base via which the computer carries out commands and operations. Working "cross platform", between PC and Mac operating systems, is a common experience. Even in this area, however, the term is finding non-orthodox uses. Steve Jobs of Apple describes Quicktime as "the unifying format and platform for multi-source, multi-destination content creation and consumption in the digital age" (Jobs, 1998).

In manufacture, particularly the car industry, different models of vehicle are produced on the basis of a shared platform: usually a vehicle's suspension, drive-train, and structural components. This allows companies to produce economies of scale across a range (in the production and storage of parts for example). As Schuster notes, "the idea behind sharing platforms is to cut development costs, offer more new models and increase factory efficiency" (Schuster, 2001).

"Platform" also relates to a stepping-off point—often elevated, or supported by robust scaffolding—that differentiates the stage from common earth or ground. It can be used literally to refer to a position or stage from which to address an audience, or gain a vantage point, or metaphorically to refer the policy platform of a political party or candidate.

All of these senses of the word "platform" are finding currency in relation to contemporary discussion of media. Indeed, we can go so far as to suggest that media are increasingly interpolated as platforms in which they enter into both familiar and unfamiliar inter-connection with forms of branding, modes of buying and selling, new functionalities, and strategies of communication and interactivity.

Informing the idea of the platform is an idea of the "web portal". The importance of the portal derives from the difficulty of navigating vast domains of information in hyperspace. The shifting, hypertextual structure of the World Wide Web has often provoked a feeling of being lost in hyperspace. The notion of a portal helps provide a sense of orientation here. A frequently visited site such as Yahoo! (given the issues of navigation it is not coincidental that search engines are often well placed to serve as portals) can become a doorway or gateway into a range of Internet applications: electronic mail, user groups, the Web, and also e-commerce. What differentiates the portal from the platform is that from the perspective of the latter the Web is not the only form of technological delivery possible. The Internet is itself a potential and always expanding platform in liaison (and in competition) with others such as digital television, cable networks, and mobile phones.

The attraction of platform-talk in contemporary media culture can be understood through reference to convergence. In his classic explanation of the term Nicholas Negroponte uses three rings, arranged in a Venn diagram, to illustrate his point. Each ring represents an industry: broadcasting and motion pictures, computing, print and publishing (see Brand, 1987, p. 10). Negroponte also refers to these areas as the entertainment world, the interactive world, and the information world (Bass, 1995). For Negroponte, prior to convergence, the three rings or worlds overlap slightly. Under conditions of convergence, the rings move together until they almost completely overlap.[1]

The merging of the three rings induces an obvious instability into the industrial sector in question. The terrain or landscape is no longer as predictable as it once was. The original medium or technology that gave the area its identity (film and television, computer, the book) becomes open to re-deployment. In this environment, there is a need to hold ground, claim ground, or launch an offensive. The idea of a platform as a staging point becomes attractive under such conditions. More than a representing a "new delivery platform" (Jacka, 2002, p. 340), the platform becomes a point of stability in an otherwise unstable environment characterized by on-going organizational change, multiple technologies of delivery, and the re-purposing of content. This is evident when Fiona Martin suggests that the ABC Online, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's on-line arm, is a "platform for the development and dispersal of knowledge about interactive media production" throughout the organization (Martin, 1999, p. 110).

It is commonplace to see digitalization and convergence described in terms of new forms of technological delivery (e.g. CD-ROM, DVD). This practice privileges an understanding of the medium as a vehicle and misses an important facet of new technologies: namely, that the content is not sealed for delivery but open to modification by the interactant. Digitalization—both as a technology of compression, and a technology that enables interactivity or interaction with the screen—encourages media to be re-thought as platforms for interactivity. The PC combined with Internet becomes a platform for interaction. High Definition television becomes a platform for datacasting. The Mobile phone becomes a platform for the mobile Internet. Stand alone game formats can, once connected to the network, define a platform that can be re-thought in terms of remote game play and interaction across the network.

Television stations can become platforms, creating an extension or identity that projects the business into new interactive environments. Numerous media companies have re-packaged themselves as an information portal in this way, often through partnerships with Internet companies (in Australia the Nine Network is linked to the Microsoft Network to form ninemsn, and Channel 7 linked to America On-line to form Similarly, an individual television program (such as a lifestyle or gardening program) can lever itself into the position of an information platform where one can access facts or stories of interest. Here the conglomerate nature of modern corporations become important, where cross-promotion can lead to the program becoming an entity, brand, or franchise that exists in the form of a TV program, but also an information center that is diversified across a web site, a magazine, and merchandising (see Schatz, 1997).

While most extensions of this kind are currently Web-based, they can go beyond the Web (while still incorporating its functionality). On the Australian pay television network Foxtel, the music station Channel [V] uses a facility called Rover to send fans SMS text messages when a special on their favorite artist is being programmed (Veldre, 2001). This is deemed to enhance "stickiness" with customers (Bawden, 2001), and is deployed alongside a program of concert events, and bus tours. To cite another example, T-shirts have, as Eco noted, long been an interesting media platform. In an extension of this practice fashion has become a platform for cyberculture: resulting in "cybercouture". For Pia Myrvold, "cybercouture is a concept that combines fashion, art, philosophy and technology with the new opportunities represented by the Internet". It involves putting together "different ideas that merge within contemporary art and philosophy in this information-based world where traditional marketing and ideas of distribution are being challenged by new ways of receiving and processing information". Artists, writers, musicians, philosophers and others are invited to explore "Clothes as Publishing" (see Myrvold, n.d.). In such contexts, the notion of platform can become attractive because of the way it doesn't lock you into to a specific medium, and thus limit the multi-media possibilities of "information-based clothes". It can also signify an independence from traditional models of marketing and distribution.

A significant aspect of this becoming-platform of the media is the way it disrupts mechanistic understandings of convergence as meeting at the one point. While it was once commonplace to think of the PC as the singular site for convergence, this understanding no longer holds. While multimedia made an initial impact because of the way it combined the functionalities of various media forms onto the one screen (or the one CD-ROM disc), it is no longer considered the only site of convergence. Instead, today, we see a number of pockets in which convergence is happening in different ways and at different rates, under varying conditions. This kind of convergence is not restricted to the hardware of technological delivery.

Convergence is thus not some inevitable, uni-linear technological process. Indeed, convergence necessarily happens around particular media platforms that have become attractive because of the possibilities introduced by digitalization (PC, Internet, Cable, Mobile phone, Television). These platforms are often in competition with one another. However, the question of which platform becomes the more dominant, or the most stable, is reliant on whether or not the platform works in terms of established cultural practices and protocols; and conventions of interactant (user, viewer) behavior and media use; the flexibility and strength of the industrial formations that support it; and the quality and desirability of the content or services available on such platforms. Not all platforms—the wristwatch, for example—can successfully support the functions and features that could feasibly be loaded onto it.

There is a sense in which the platform understanding of medium constitutes an order of medium that is alien to other senses of media. That is, the understanding of the media as a platform is not always identical to notions of broadcasting or a craft-based understanding of the medium. Indeed, there is a sense that craft-oriented notions of technique can supplanted by new forms of strategy in this mode. In this post-media dimension, the brand itself (and not the medium) can function as the platform. A concept (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Nike) can thus become the platform upon which a number of media forms enter into combination in order to achieve the most significant audience penetration or reach, in a way that (as for the car manufacturers) achieves maximum economies of scale in the re-purposing of different components or contents.

Thanks to David J. Sutton for his discussion of some of the issues in this paper.


[1] The absence of telecommunications dates Negroponte's example today. More recently, Trevor Barr (2000, p. 25) draws on a Venn diagram to illustrate the convergence of industries, namely, Media, IT and Telecommunications.


Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DoCITA). (2002, March 21). Modernizing Australia's media ownership laws. Media Release. Retrieved August 8, 2002, from http:/ /,,0_1-2_15-3_365-4_103841,00.html

Barr, T. (2000). The changing face of Australia's media and communications. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Bass, T. A. (1995, November). Being Nicholas. Wired 3:11. Retrieved August 8, 2002, from

Bawden, H. (2001, October 22). Pay TV's interactive edge. B&T Weekly. Retrieved June 2, 2002 from

Borst, T. (2002, May). The shape of content: Things to come in hardware. Written By. Retrieved August 4, 2002 from

Brand, S. (1987). The media lab: Inventing the future at M.I.T. New York: Penguin.

Carey, J. W. (1989) Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. New York: Routledge.

Cunningham, S. (1997). Television. In S. Cunningham & G. Turner (Eds.), The media in Australia: Industries, texts, audiences (pp. 90-111) (2nd ed.). St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

December, J. (1996). Units of analysis for internet communication. Journal of Computer-Mediated-Communication 1(4). Retrieved June 2, 2002 from (Jointly published in Journal of Communication 46(1), 1996, 14-38.)

Eco, U. (1986). Travels in hyperreality (W. Weaver, Trans.) London: Pan.

Heim, M. (1987). Electric language: A philosophical study of word processing. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Jacka, E. (2002). The future of public broadcasting. In S. Cunningham & G. Turner (Eds.), The media and communications in Australia (pp. 330-343). St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Jobs, S. (1998). Getting to the future—Fast. Retrieved June 2, 2002 from

Long, M. (1999). Digital TV—The multimedia home platform. Paper presented at the Australian Broadcasting Association Planning Seminar 2001— A Digital Odyssey, Canberra, November 8-9. Retrieved June 2, 2002 from

Marshall, P. D. (1998). Thinking through new. M/C: A journal of media and culture 1(1). Retrieved June 2, 2002 from

Martin, F. (1999, November). Pulling together the ABC: The role of ABC online. Media International Australia, incorporating Culture and Policy, 93, 103-118.

McLuhan, M. (1967). Understanding media: The extensions of man. London: Sphere Books.

Myrvold, P. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2002 from

Schatz, T. (1997). The return of the Hollywood studio system. In P. Aufderheide, et al. (Ed.), Conglomerates and the media (pp. 73-106). New York: The New Press, 1997.

Schuster, J. (2001, April 1). Platform sharing offers consumer wider selection. Retrieved August 8, 2002 from

Veldre, D. (2001, September 4). Rover rounds up viewers. B&T Weekly. Retrieved June 2, 2002 from

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana.


About | Issues
© NMEDIAC & individual NMEDIAC authors, editors, and programmers.
Issues About