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Report “Media Generations” workshop Bremen

Report “Media Generations” workshop Bremen

By Tom Slootweg

To explore the notion of “user generation”, our research project was kindly offered a platform to share our thoughts with scholars working with the concept of “media generation”. Within the context of the DFG-funded research program Mediatisierte Welten / Mediatized Worlds, University of Bremen’s ZeMKI (Centre for Media, Communication and Informational Research) organized a workshop on October 24th in the heart of Bremen’s historic inner city. Bringing together communication scholars, sociologists and historians of media, the workshop aimed to explore the conceptual, methodological and heuristic usefulness of “generation” in historical and synchronous research on media appropriation.

At the beautiful Haus der Wissenschaft, prof. dr. Andreas Hepp (University of Bremen) welcomed the workshop’s participants coming from all the quarters of the compass in Germany and the Benelux. The morning session was devoted predominantly to the possibilities and constraints of thinking about “generation” for addressing change in media historical research. Our project member, prof. dr. Andreas Fickers, presented a comprehensive overview of its “Begriffsgeschichte”: ranging from Gottfried Herder to Friederich Schiller’s intellectual influence on the concept in German historiography, to its appropriation by canonical early social scientists and anthropologists such as Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mills, Margaret Mead, and Marcus Lee Hansen.

To underline what is at stake in the contemporary debate on “generation” in historical research, Fickers accounted for the persisting influence of Karl Mannheim on the one hand, and the deflation of the term by memory studies on the other. Therefore, he proposed several questions that need to be answered in relation to media’s importance in the construction of the generation unit: “What is representative? Who are the spokespersons? How to identify the boundaries?” In order to answer these questions, Fickers invited us to think about “a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between media technologies, memory practices and the process of generationality”.

Historian and project coordinator Jo Wachelder further elaborated on the paradoxical nature of “generation”. Although it seems to posses a natural explanatory power, much contemporary historical and sociological research “tends to essentialize cohorts and pass over the continuous accommodation of both existing and new age groups to challenging circumstances, technologies and/or media”. Wachelder specifically sees a problem when it comes to historical research and its efforts to account for continuity and change.

It is often unclear whether something that changes in the appropriation and use of a media technology is a “generational effect”, or just related to an age cohort. Jo Wachelder therefore proposed to take inspiration from the “biography of artifacts”, as it is developed in the study of material culture. By taking a biographical stance towards user and object, the historian will be able to go beyond prescriptive sources through a specific interest in ordinary user practices and the history of appropriation and re-appropriation in the media object’s “life cycle”.

In order to analyze contemporary archival practices related to personal digital media use, historian Susan Aasman reflected on what the notion of “user generations” might elucidate. To do so, she first proposed a working definition of user generation as: “a set of relations that connects a specific (group of) technologies with specific user groups which allows us to think about the emergence of a specific cultural practice, and how this set of relations transforms into a new user generation, whenever new user groups and/or new technologies interact and establish new or changing practices”.

She then applied her definition on the autobiographies of archiving practices made by her students. She shows that her students, aged between 20 and 25 years, seem to  embrace and yet problematize a tendency in their personal archival efforts; a user generational attitude that might be described as “everything I produce will be saved automatically” on the cloud.

Contrary to the exploration of a user generation definition for contemporary topics, Tom Slootweg investigated whether the concept can help heuristically in discourse analysis of historical written sources. He shortly sketches a moment of transition in the practice of amateur filmmaking with the arrival of video technologies. By analyzing a Dutch amateur cine-film/video magazine of the early 1980s, he interprets the discursive struggle of its contributors to come to terms with a cluster of new media technologies. Many authors in the magazine conceived video part of an alternative media landscape, with a supposedly new and uninformed user generation.

In addition to this single moment of transition, Tim van der Heijden conceptualizes user generation as part of an overarching scheme to theorize the dynamics of change and continuity in the history of the amateur filmmaking practice. He proposes that with the arrival of new technologies, the changing dispostif of amateur filmmaking influences a shift in user generations. His scheme furthermore shows an interesting heightened density in moments of transition starting around the 1960s, postulating the idea there might be an increase of smaller and overlapping user generations.

The panel in the afternoon showcased two impressive examples of empirical social research on media generations. Dr. Steffen Lepa and Anne-Kathrin Hoklas (TU Berlin) presented a paper on the results of their research project “Reconstructing the Mediatization of Everday Music Listening in Germany”. Their main objective is to ascertain how Germans listen to music nowadays, and why and how they combine different audio technologies. What is of specific interest to the research group is whether their data will help them to ascertain if there is a significant relationship between technology-use and socio-demographics; and, perhaps more ambitiously, if digitization has led to long-term changes.

Inspired by Mannheim’s notions of potentiality and actualization, they argued that a media generation should be conceived as-actuality: a unit with a shared generational location, discursive bonds, and media repertoires. Hoklas nevertheless underlined that a quantitative analysis does not suffice to account for different classes of media- generations-as-actuality among the same age cohorts; something their data strongly attests to. She argued that the qualitative documentary method will allow for an ontogenic explanation of why people from the same age cohort might be in different classes of media-generation-as-actuality.

Andreas Hepp closed the afternoon panel with a paper on “Media Generation, Mediatization and Communitizations. Comparing Younger and Elderly People”. Together with Cindy Roitsch (co-organizer of the workshop) and Matthias Berg, he departed from Lepa and Hoklas’s definition of media-generations-as-actuality, by the means of a process understanding of media generation. He proposed to see it “as a thickening of an age group of people who share a specific experience of mediatization according to a certain life-course, as well as a certain self-conception as a media generation being in their own media biography”.

What is specifically interesting about Hepp’s project is the way in which they invite their informants to give shape to their self-description and media biography. Through a form of mind mapping, they are encouraged to reflect on their media focus within a networked configuration centered on the self. By studying these maps, the research group is able to discern different modes of self-description according to age differentiation and media focus in everyday life. Another interesting result of their study of self-description in relation to digitization of media is what Hepp describes as Verdichting; or “the rising pace when it comes to the relationship between phases of live and technological innovation”. This is something Tim van der Heijden also signaled from a historical perspective and certainly warrants further investigation.

Wrapping up the workshop, Andreas Fickers highlighted several interesting topics that emerged from the interaction between historians and sociologists of media and communication during the workshop. He summarized five of the most important ones: the ambiguity of the synchronicity of generation as actuality and potentiality; the question of historicity in relation to the synchronic or diachronic; the conceptual difference of generation in a singular or plural sense; the tension between self-construction/description and prescription; and the question of hybridity and the in-between, or as Mannheim has it, Zwischengeneration.

These topics are, in and of themselves, certainly worthy of several workshops. As the ensuing discussion showed, the dialogue between historical and synchronous researchers needs to be continued. Prof. em. Inge Marszolek (University of Bremen) and media historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Wagner (University of Hamburg) already voiced their concerns of whether a notion of media or user generation will either elucidate or obscure the complexity of an historical transition that might be similarly about change and continuity. And this might be the main reason to continue our dialogue in future. To keep challenging and enriching each other’s perspectives and work towards a community of scholars invested in the study of everyday media practices, both historical and contemporary.

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