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Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University
Media Richness

The term, “media richness,” was first described in the context of media richness theory (MRT) by Richard Daft and Robert Lengel in 1986. Media richness describes the density of learning that can be conveyed through a specified communications medium. Face-to-face communication is the richest medium according to MRT because it allows for the simultaneous interpersonal exchange of cues from linguistic content, tone of voice, facial expressions, direction of gaze, gestures, and postures. MRT was developed prior to the rise of electronic communication media in order to help managers in business contexts decide which medium was most effective for communicating a message. Rich media like conversations and phone calls were deemed best for non-routine messages, while lean media like unaddressed memoranda were considered acceptable for routine messages. In the last two decades, media richness has been extended to describe the strengths and weaknesses of new media from email to websites, video conferencing, voicemail, and instant messaging. Media richness deserves to be more widely known because people make choices throughout a day about communications media often without considering the consequences of the choice of medium, and the goodness of fit between the content of a message and the medium through which it is being communicated.

Humans evolved in media-rich contexts. Living in stable, tightly knit social groups, face-to-face communication was the only mode of communication for hundreds of thousands of years. Until about 5,000 years ago, the concept of media choice didn’t exist because—apart from smoke signals—it was face-to-face or nothing. Articulate speech and language complemented the rich repertoire of vocalizations, facial expressions, glances, stares, gestures, and postures, and upon which our ancestors relied, thus creating a rich and potentially highly nuanced communications repertoire. Within small groups, people attended closely to what was said, who said it, and how it was said. Pleasantries were exchanged, advice was given, loving whispers traded, and admonitions delivered with a full sensory armada of verbal content, tone of voice, measured eye contact, gesture, and posture. People were mostly bathed in conversation, reassured by touch, verbally upbraided for unreasonableness, publicly shamed by calculated stares, and physically reprimanded for antisocial behavior. Although communication between people has probably never been without the potential for guile and social manipulation, deception was hard to pull off because information flowed through multiple visual, auditory, and even tactile and olfactory channels. Communication had immediate effects and consequences. One-to-many communication reached only as far as the human voice could carry.

The consequences of media richness and the concept of media choice became relevant for people only with the introduction of writing in early agricultural societies. Initially developed to facilitate clerical and payroll functions, writing was soon marshaled in support of military, political and religious causes, and much later for the exchange of personal information and the composition of poetry and philosophical treatises. Communication through writing was augmented early in the 20th century by modes of remote voice communication (telephone, microphone, and radio), and later by combined visual and auditory modes such as movies, television, and websites which provided unprecedented scope for unidirectional communication. Historians and scholars of communication theory talk about tradeoffs between the richest face-to-face channels and the leaner modalities of email, voicemail, and text messaging that provide fewer cues, slower feedback, and limited scope for retribution. Media richness has been criticized in recent years because it fails to predict why people choose lean over rich media, especially in situations where a richer medium clearly would be more effective. Many will have experienced the shock of an email informing about the death of a loved one or have been anguished by a misplaced comma or inappropriate emoticon in a text message rejecting an overture of friendship or love. This is exactly why media richness is important and interesting from an evolutionary perspective.

In a world of unconstrained media choice, people often choose leaner and functionally unidirectional modalities because they want to make a point, or at least think that they want to make a point. A need for incessant and immediate connection (or just the need to save money) can provoke the blurting of something through a cheap, low-grade channel rather than waiting for the chance to use a richer one. Leaner media also carry lower risk of rejection or immediate retribution. Regardless of the reason, we now live in a world where people are opting for leaner modes of communication because they have been socialized inadequately in richer ones and are functionally ignorant of the concept of media richness. The scope for misunderstanding has never been greater, while the opportunities for providing physical comfort and solace or for exacting meaningful and appropriate retribution have never been more limited. We still yearn to see one another, but contacts often consist more of broadcast performances of static faces and less of breathing exchanges of shared wonder, love, tribulation, and loss.

Like all primates, humans have nurtured harmonious relationships and maintained social cohesion by being intensely good, high-bandwidth communicators. Media richness is a concept worthy of wider propagation because it will help insure the future of individuals and societies in times of increasing individual social isolation, electronic bullying, touch aversion, personal anxiety, and social estrangement.