The media equation is a theory developed by two professors of communication, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, at Stanford University. The theory is simple. They state that people treat the media as if they were real, hence the equation: media = real life.
Basically Reeves and Nass are saying that people on an unconscious level perceive the media as real. People view objects of the media are talking to them personally. Reeves and Nass view things such as computers, televisions, radios, and other media’s as inanimate objects. They don’t believe that these objects are about to get up and move as if they were alive, but that the objects that relay the media are reacted to as though they were alive.
“Reeves and Nass credit the slow pace of evolution as the reason that the human race responds socially and naturally to the media: “The Human brain evolved in a world in which only humans exhibited rich social behaviors, and a world in which all perceived objects were real physical objects. Anything that seemed to be a real person or place was real.” So we haven’t yet adapted to the twentieth century media that only depict images, but which themselves personify the characteristics of human actors.” (Griffin, pages 375-376)
To prove their theory Reeves and Nass held experiments. One is an experiment that they did with television. They gathered a group of students to participate. “The goal of the study was to show that responses to television content could be changed when the television sets were assigned particular roles.” (Reeves and Nass, page 122). They took two groups of students and gave them specific tasks. The first group was to watch two separate televisions, called specialist TVs. One TV was identified as “News” and the other one was identified as “Entertainment”. For each TV the participants wee in different chairs. The other group was to watch one TV with both news and entertainment, called generalist TVs. The TV was labeled “News and Entertainment”. The students who
watched the specialist TV said the news was more important and the entertainment was more interesting than the ones who watched the generalists TVs. “Consistent with the hypothesis that specialist TVs provide more representative content than do generalist TVs.” (Reeves and Nass, page 135)
The other experiment was done with computers. The hypothesis for this was “individuals use the same social rules to assess and respond to the performance of computers that they use when assessing or responding to other individuals, even when they are fully aware that they are interacting with machines.” (Nass and Sundar, page 114) They were either parasocial or social interactions with the computers. “Parasocial interaction occurs when individuals interact with a mediated representation of a person as if the person were actually present. Parasocial interaction is unmediated and directly social.” (Nass and Sundar, page 114-115) The experiment took two groups of students and set them up with either a computer labeled “computer” or “programmer”. The ones that had a “programmer” computer were told to think of the programmer when working with it. They went through a series of exercises where in round one they were praised. In round two they were told what they did was wrong.
In the first round they found that the computer was friendlier in the computer condition than people in the programmer condition. In the second round they came to the same result. The computer group found the computer to be more productive than the programmer group. “The results provide highly consistent evidence for the social model as compared to the parasocial model, given that nine of the ten indices are significantly different between the two conditions.” (Nass and Sundar, page 125)
These two studies show that people do perceive media as human. They don’t do it consciously but in an unconscious level. This theory is scientific. To be scientific the theory has to have a singular and observable truth, either you have it or you don’t. The goal of the theory is to discover and prove. The research methods are more quantitative than qualitative. Finally the objective is to put no personal opinion in to the theory. Media equation has all these characteristics. It says that when people either watch television or use a computer, they put human characteristics to them, without even knowing that they are doing it. Whenever someone sits in front of a TV they have an automatic reaction to perceive the characters are real. It’s the same with computers. Whenever someone sits in front of a monitor, they involuntarily give that computer a personality. It could either be a positive or a negative computer, depending on how helpful it is to the user.
I believe that this theory is a valid one. It fits into all the parts of a good theory. Reeves and Nass explain the data well. They can predict the future with it. They can tell someone how they will perceive media in a given situation. It is also fairly simple. The equation says it all, media = real life. Meaning people perceive media as human. It can also be tested. They proved that with the experiments they held with the TV and the computer. It does have practical utility. Computer programmers can use this information to create computers to make them user friendly, and they have. Therefore, with all the qualifications met for a good theory I would say it is safe to say that this is a very good theory.
1.Geiger, Seth; Reeves, Byron. “The Effects of Scene Changes and Semantic Relatedness.” Communication Research Vol. 20 April 1993: pages 155-171.
2.Griffin, Em. Communication, A First Look At Communication Theory. San Diego: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
3.Leshner, Glenn; Reeves, Byron; et al. “Switching Channels: The Effects of Television Channels on the Mental Representation of Television.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media Vol. 42 Winter 1998: pages 21-33.
4.Moon, Youngme; Nass, Clifford. “How Real” Are Computer Personalities?” Communication Research Vol. 23 December 1996: pages 651-670.
5.Nass, Clifford; Reeves, Byron; Leshner, Glen. “Technology and Roles: A Tale of Two TVs.” Journal of Communication Vol. 24: pages 122-136.
6.Nass, Clifford; Sundar, Shyam S. “Is Human-Computer Interaction Social or Parasocial?” Human Communication Research August 17, 1994: 114-126.