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Webcasting
Part 5. Webcasting as "Push" Media

The second definition of webcasting, which has been characterized by BusinessWeek and WIRED magazine, is webcasting as Push media -- a method of selected content delivery that applies traits of networking to broadcasting. Essentially, Push media allow a user to specify a set of configuration parameters most commonly in the form of a user profile. The underlying software then uses these parameters to selectively filter out unwanted material that is pushed to the user's computer system, often using the Web as a vehicle. One of the reasons this definition of webcasting has become so popular is that it offers some benefits over traditional broadcasting (e.g. selective filtering of content), but does so while remaining consistent with many of the advertising models of traditional broadcasting. Thus the title of the BusinessWeek article: "A Way Out of the Web Maze."

When analyzed with our set of assessment criteria, we find that Push media fall very close to the line with traditional broadcast practices. First, Push is by definition passive. In many cases, the user has the option of taking an active role to follow up on a particular bit of information (such as an advertisement or news headline), but for the most part is encouraged to just sit back and absorb what the system brings down. In fact, several of the most popular Push technologies take the form of screen savers that flash news headlines, stock quotes, and the like. One important difference between Push technologies and traditional broadcasting is that Push has a much greater level of personalization in that the user can configure the system to show only content that he or she is specifically interested in. However, that content is still created to be viewed by millions, as opposed to somehow being customized to that particular individual. Push technologies tend to retain much of the time dependency of traditional broadcasting in that if you did not happen to be looking at the screen when a specific headline was displayed, then you have essentially missed it. However, because Push technologies actually download the information and store it locally, they certainly have the capability to return the headline (or advertisement) to the screen again and again to ensure that you have a chance to notice it. Again, however, Push technologies rate fairly low with respect to feedback. While one is certainly encouraged to respond to pushed advertisements and such (following the Home Shopping model), the user still has relatively little impact on the content that is shown. As with television, the user can select different channels, but cannot, for the most part, change what is shown on those channels.

One of the central problems with Push media is that it takes away much of the user's control without providing many of the benefits that traditional broadcasting does in the form of solid linear narrative. In other words, Push technologies are designed to be in front of you but otherwise unobtrusive (placed on pagers or screen savers, etc.) -- in your face without being in your face. However, because of this, push media does not do a good job of telling stories. This sounds silly, but it is actually quite important. As Stuart Hall describes in "The Television Discourse -- Encoding and Decoding," "the event must become a 'story' before it can become a communicative event." Hall and many others will argue that the narrative is what makes passive media like television and radio work.

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Last modified 5/21/97.