(Relationship Equals Sum Media Use)


Examining Relationships as Media Ecologies

Davis Foulger
Oswego State University of New York

Presented at International Communication Association
San Diego: May 24, 2003

(more papers by Davis Foulger)


The traditional entry points to the study of relationships (individuals, discourse, language, relational characteristics, and systematic combinations thereof) might be usefully supplemented by another: media. This paper describes the potential value of this entry point with an illustration of how different media contribute to a relationship development trajectory. The theoretical essence of the perspective is described, along with its methodological advantages and a set of initial hypotheses.


Relationships and communication are inseparably intertwined (Montgomery, 1992). Most of our communication occurs within the context of our relationships. There would certainly be no relationships without communication. The study of communication is marked by a wide range of disciplinary traditions, including (loosely following the outline of primary theoretical traditions in Littlejohn, 2002) system theories, theories of language, theories of discourse, theories of message production and reception, and theories of social structure and cultural reality. It should not be surprising, then, that the study of relationships within the field of communication reflects this diversity with a similar range of starting points. The most common entry point to the study of relationships before Duck (1986) is the individual and their feelings about their relationships. At some risk of oversimplification, other important traditions that have since entered the mainstream of relationship research include language (Liska, 1998; Ellis, 1999; Sigman, 1998), discourse (Conville, 1998; Rawlins, 1998), and relationship characteristics (Sigman, 1998; Rogers, 1999). When these entry points are considered in combination, the result is sometimes referred to as a systems perspective (McPhee, 1998; Metts, 1998). None of these starting points for examining relationships should be particularly surprising given the inseparability of communication and relationships. Indeed, three of these starting points are suggested by Shannon's (1948) model of the communication process (Figure 1), which itself is generally regarded as a systems theory (Littlejohn, 2002, chapter 3). Individuals are represented in this model as information sources and destinations, discourse as messages, and language as signals. All operate together as a system. Only relationship characteristics have no obvious place in Shannon's model.


Figure 1: Shannon's (1949) Model of the Communication Process.

The primary value associated with the Shannon model these days is pedagogical. We continue to use it (often calling it an action model) and others (generally the interactive and transactive models, and occasionally a two step flow or gatekeeper model) in the early chapters of introductory communication textbooks (for example, Adler, 1991; Adler, Rosenfeld, and Towne, 1996; Barker and Barker, 1993; Becker and Roberts, 1992; Beebe, Beebe, and Redmond, 2001; Berko, Wolvin, and Wolvin, 1985; Bittner, 1996; Burgoon, Hunsaker, and Dawson, 1994; DeFleur, Kearney, and Temothy, 1993; DeVito, 1994; Gamble and Gamble, 1986; Gibson and Hanna, 1992; Taylor, Rosegrant, Meyer, and Samples, 1986; Wood, 2002). Our theory and research traditions have generally moved forward from such "linear" conceptions of the communication process. There may, however, still be theoretical value in exploring and improving our communication models. A model offered by Foulger (2002), for instance, offers a useful summary view of our communication structures, systems, and processes that elaborates earlier models while avoiding linear data flows and suggesting an additional entry point for research on relationships. A variation of this model is shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2: A model of communication as a process of co-orientation to messages that are created with language and enabled by media. Adapted from Foulger (2002).


In the model of Figure 2, individuals (represented as both creators and consumers who form relationships with each other) communicate via a mutual orientation to messages that are constructed with language and enabled by media. Several attributes of this model are interesting in the context of relational communication. First, messages are not something to flow through the aether. They are imagined, created, observed, and decoded by people who attend to them. Messages in this model do not passively arrive. They are actively consumed by people who learn and interpret the messages they receive, the languages in which messages are encoded and the media in which those messages are enacted and observed. This model is somewhat more explicit than the classic model of our introductory communication texts in identifying the principle starting points associated with current relationship research. Individuals are represented in this model as creators and consumers of messages, discourse as messages encoded within flexibly interchangeable roles, language and relationships are identified directly, and all operate within a system.

The model also identifies a fifth element that is structurally relevant to the communication process: media. Others (Cappella, 1991; Foulger, 2002) have suggested that the concept of medium has been substantially overlooked as a possible unifying construct within the field. Media, they suggest, provide a substrate against which communication processes can be organized across a variety of communication contexts, including the interpersonal, organizational, and mass audience contexts. A medium, following Foulger, is "a system that enables the creation and consumption (sending and receiving) of messages." The characteristics of media can be used to describe and discriminate media such that it is possible to identify a large number of distinct systems that enable human communication. Foulger lists about 100 distinct human communication media, including dozens of media that can be regarded as interpersonal.

This paper attempts to explore the ways in which the use of media as an entry point might usefully extend the study of interpersonal relationships. Relationships are enacted in media, including interpersonal media, much as they are also enacted in language and messages. We meet people within the context of media, expand our knowledge of them through shared media experiences, collect shared media as our relationships grow, shed media as our relationships decline, and negotiate which media we use for which relational purposes. Indeed, it may be possible to characterize different kinds of relationships (friend, lover, dating partner, spouse, parent, coworker, colleague, long distance) by the set of media the relational partners use when interacting with one another and the ways in which they use those media, including a range of interpersonal media. It is hoped that this paper demonstrates the utility of exploring relationships as media ecologies in which relational behavior is enacted.

Collecting media as our relationships evolve

Every relationship starts with an initial interaction. That interaction could be as minimal as a shared glance across a crowded room that isn't expanded on for weeks or months ("Haven't I seen you before?" is a common enough line in a first conversation, and often a statement of shared remembrance). In general, however, we wouldn't consider that a true relationship exists unless and until there is some level of ongoing interaction. Relationships are enacted over time in a large number of interactions, and that the resulting relationship is a product of an emergent text of feelings, remembrance, relational rules, and relationship practice.

The presumption, in much of the existing relationship literature, is that this interaction is prototypically face-to-face. None of the collected essays in Conville and Rogers' (1998) The Meaning of "Relationship" in Interpersonal Communication discusses any variant of interaction but face-to-face interaction, even when (as is the case in Rawlins essay) the participants in a sample dialog make specific mention of the use of letters, telephones, and postcards. This prototypic treatment may be reasonable if one remains focused on the participants in relationships and the characteristics of relationships. It becomes strained if one assumes that the messages and language of face-to-face interaction will be invariant in other media. This is important, as this presumption ignores a substantial reality of relationships that has been made particularly obvious by Internet users: many strong and enduring relationships rarely if ever entail face-to-face communication.

If, as McLuhan (1964) observed, the medium is the message (or that there is, at the very least, a message associated with the medium), it seems likely that relationships that entail little or no face-to-face interaction will have a character that differs, in at least some regards, from those paradigmatically correct relationships that use only face-to-face interaction. Indeed, on today's Internet, it is hardly uncommon for relationships to unfold across a series of media following a pattern that closely resembles the following:

It is entirely possible to achieve stabilized long-term relationships with people one has never met face to face. Informal surveys of undergraduate students invariably reveal students who have friends in other parts of the country and the world with whom they have communicated regularly for months or years, but whom they have never met (and in some cases never expect to meet). This should not be seen as denying the centrality of face-to-face interaction in most relationships, but rather to state that it is not necessary to the formation and maintenance of strong and enduring long-term relationships. At least some level of face-to-face interaction is necessary, however, if we are to move a relationship from friendship to the intimacy of dating and marriage. Such intensification of a relationship will be accompanied by additional adoptions of shared media, as illustrated below:

The order in which relational partners share and collect media is not terribly important. The above is a plausible sequence that has undoubtedly been followed more than once, but it hardly matters if bulletin board interaction leads to telephone interaction before e-mail, or a couple segues directly from e-mail to intimacy. What matters is that, in the course of most relationships, we use a series of media, each of which offers us new ways to explore and expand our connections with one another. Our relationships are expressed, in a very real sense, within an ecology of media. While it seems likely that some kinds of media are likely to be collected before others, a relationship can start, at least in theory, in any medium.

There is nothing new in this. Internet media are hardly necessary to the escalation of relationships through shared media use. Propinquitous interactive environments, including classes, games, parties, teams, the workplace, bars, club meetings, and neighborly conversation, have always provided opportunities to advance from role-limited interaction, through friendly relations, to moving towards friendship. Sharing a phone number or an address to which mail can be sent in the course of a face-to-face interaction provides opportunities to escalate a relationship through the collection of new shared media, starting with a letter or a telephone call. There is no requirement that a "Bill Gates Date" be negotiated and/or completed via a telephone call or that the shared experience be a movie. Indeed, the long-standing prototype for this kind of relational discussion of a shared media experience is sending our relational partner a book we've just read and then discussing it in a series of letters.

Relational Media Ecologies

This notion of building relationships by collecting media is central to the concept of relational media ecologies that is expressed in the title of this paper and in Figure 3. The equation, as it stands, is a purposeful overstatement. A relationship is many things, including the shared perceptions of its participants, a set of relationship characteristics, and a text composed of language and messages. One might, with equal hubris, state that a relationship is the sum of its messages, the sum of its shared language conventions, the sum of its negotiated scripts, or the sum of its characteristics. Just as a relationship is more than the sum of its participants, it is also more than the sum of its messages, its language, its relationship characteristics, or its media. There is value in viewing a relationship through the perceptions of its participants, as a transcript of its messages, or as an enumeration of its rules. There is also value in viewing a relationship as an ecology of collected media.


Figure 3: A Relationship can be described as the sum of its media, where R is a relationship, M is a medium, and U (use) is the extent to which the medium is used.


As stated, however, the equation of Figure 3 is a little more complicated than simply aggregating the list of media that is used over the course of a relationship. A relationship (R) is the sum of the media used (M) and the way that each media is used (U). A simple treatment of U might sum the number of times a medium is used or the amount of time for which a medium is used. A more elaborate treatment assumes that we use different media in relationships for different purposes, that those purposes vary in their importance to a relationship at a particular point in time, and that those purposes are at least as important to understanding the value of a medium to a relationship as issues of repetition or aggregate usage time might be. Consider:

This is just a sampling of conditions that, at the very least, might be expected to introduce some level of error into simple measurements of a an individual medium's use, or of a relationships overall media ecology. Such errors should not be considered problematic, especially where a study is able to examine the sources of error. Even where it is not, measurements of our shared media use offers advantages relative to the measurement systems normally associated with existing entry points to the study of relationships:

The point, in this discussion, is not to criticize these approaches to the study of relationships or the methods that are generally associated with their use. All have demonstrated value in elucidating the nature of relationships. Still, each approach has limitations. The same will be true for the measurement of relational media ecologies, which almost inevitably entail a grosser level of analysis than would typically be associated with any of these existing approaches. The study of relational media use is limited to showing, in effect, the contexts within which a relationship is enacted rather than the messages and other behavior that are the enactment or the individual perspectives on the relationship that result from and influence those messages. There will certainly be no direct indication of what behavior within a medium, or use of the medium itself, means to a relationship. The best we will be able to say is that some media are more useful for some purposes than are others, and what those purposes are. The reader should note, in this, the applicability of Uses and Gratifications (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch, 1974) and related mass media research traditions (Littlejohn, 2002, Chapter 15) to an Interpersonal Communication problem. A relational media ecology describes, as a side effect of the collected media, a set of relationship needs that are satisfied through the use of those media.

Methodological Advantages

The methodological advantages offered by the study of relational media ecologies include:

No approach to the study of relationships is a panacea. Still, these methodological advantages complement those associated with other entry points to the study of relationships in ways that these descriptions and the model of Figure 2 only partially suggest. Measurement of relationships from the perspective of participants inevitably focuses on feelings and perspectives. While those perspectives are inevitably a product of communication, they are ultimately a matter of cognition and social psychology rather than communication. Measurement of the characteristics of relationships most often draw on the cognitive intersection of multiple participants, and it is hardly surprising that measurement remains focused of the individual as we explore the interaction effects between their feelings and perspectives. Observation of messages and discourse takes us down into the details of the behavior from which perspectives are drawn and in which feelings and perspectives are enacted. It gives us access to the raw, unfiltered nutrient on which relationships feed, and it should not be surprising that its digestion entails considerably greater effort than the creators of those messages used to create them or the consumers of messages used to process them. A focus on language gives us a usefully abstracted communication view of a relationship in which we can remain focused on the behavior of relational actors but do practical theoretical comparisons of how different kinds of language are used in different kinds of relationships in different cultures. A focus on media adds another layer of abstraction. ...

A generalized view of media as an entry point to the study of relationships suggests ways in which other entry points m might be usefully extended: by using media other than the face-to-face medium to study language and discourse. The language associated with such media as e-mail, instant messenger, chat rooms, and computer conferences is already distinctive in obvious ways (the use emoticons, for instance). The media are already widely used by friends and other relational partners in both long distance and propinquitous interaction (students are readily observed instant messaging each other in computer labs even as they chat out loud. Instant messaging should be particularly interesting to those looking for transcripts of relational interaction, as it is trivial for participants to capture and save a time-stamped transcript of their instant messenger sessions.

Conclusion and Hypotheses

It may be interesting to suggest (Cappella, 1992) or propose in abstract terms (Foulger, 2002) a theoretical perspective that might provide continuity between such diverse traditions as interpersonal communication, organizational communication, and mass media. It is probably more useful, however, to show how application of the theoretical perspective can help to clarify issues within one or more of those perspectives. It is hoped that, in showing how relationships may be characterized and shaped by the media in which they are enacted, that this paper has made a practical contribution to future research. This exploration of how media might elucidate the nature of relationships is, at best, a starting point. Real research will be required before it can be known if the perspective will bear its promised fruit. Towards that end, we close by posing, without additional discussion, a set of testable hypotheses that have been suggested here: