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What is Media Convergence? Different Ideas About Technology and Media

Technologically rich societies have entered the digital age, and media industries are grappling with new opportunities - and threats - afforded by what is called "convergence". Media people tend to get very excited about convergence, because it holds so much promise. The melding together of different media, incorporating new personalized services is both impressive and overwhelming.

The adoption of high-performance computers, shift to digital platforms, and creation of high-speed computer networks have brought us new ways of doing things. Old barriers of time and space are practically eliminated. You can view, hear, or read virtually anything, anywhere, anytime. The old definitions that provided separation between Radio, TV, Cable, Newspapers, and Film have gone(or are going)forever. The 1990's brought ownership convergence, creating media conglomerates like Disney, Viacom, and Sony. From the consumer view, the Internet has recently changed our favorite delivery systems - Newspapers now provide video, TV offers interactive chat, and radio has web-cams.

With 3G telephony, mass media companies can include consumer technologies such as mobile phones and videogames. We've blurred the lines between info-tainment, promo-tainment, and edu-tainment, and now it's hard to separate intrapersonal, interpersonal, and mass communication. These changes represent a seismic shift in the way we view communication, and are typically referred to as “Convergence”("media" is implied).


Research Study

In Asia, Hong Kong is well-known for its innovation and adoption of new technologies; The network infrastructure is well developed, and the region is a leader in broadband adoption. Newspapers thrive amidst fierce competition, it's a hub for many of the largest advertising agencies, and in terms of content-production, Hong Kong is world-famous for its television, film, and popular music.

We studied what convergence means and how consumers perceive it to be happening, in a joint survey between Hong Kong and American residents. As the full study findings are being published elsewhere, this account focuses on results from Hong Kong respondents.

Since media and communication are changing so rapidly, there was difficulty compiling a definitive list of technologies to include in the survey. Typically, texts on new media and convergence look at industries(entertainment, news, advertising), alphabet-soup technologies(PDA, VOD, DVD, 3G, VR, etc), and companies(Microsoft, Sony, Disney). After pre-testing, we used a list of 31 technologies. These included well-known(and some not-so-well-known)mass media, computer, consumer electronics, Internet, satellite, and telephony. Because technologies must be associated with an application or function, the survey also asked about the perceived importance and usefulness of various types of content (such as news, games, advertising).

An on-line survey was conducted October-November, 2002. For convenience -- and because research confirms they pick up and use new technologies faster - we targeted university-age students. Locally, participants attended Hong Kong Baptist University(and in the U.S., at Florida State University). Questions were value-oriented and perception-oriented concerning convergent media, traditional media, content categories, and demographics. The survey questioning techniques used several HTML strategies including radio buttons, point and click check boxes, and an open text box for open-ended, qualitative data collection.

For the Hong Kong sample, a total of 208 completed surveys were collected(29% completion rate). Female respondents outnumbered male respondents(Male: 86, Female 122). As intended, 97% were between the ages of 18 and 25 and had received tertiary-level education or higher.

A preliminary analysis of the Hong Kong data identified seven clusters of technologies. The higher the mean, the more central to media convergence(TableⅠ).

The highest ranked cluster consisted of World Wide Web, Mobile Telephone, Multimedia Computer, and Communication Satellite, suggesting these technologies best represent media convergence. This does not mean the other clusters are less important, only that they are perhaps less central to the concept of convergence.

Respondents also rated content types regarding usefulness to media converged-technologies(TableⅡ). This usefulness was projected to society as a whole, not just to the respondent. A total of 16 different content areas were included, mirroring mostly traditional media content. The results were as expected, with News and Information(surveillance of one's environment)rated highest, closely followed by news about Friends and Family(social integration function of media).


Formula of Convergence

In the main study, both U.S. and Hong Kong respondents view convergence as the fusing together of the World Wide Web, the mobile telephone, and the multimedia personal computer. They diverged on the fourth technology in the cluster. The Hong Kong sample included Satellites, and the U.S. sample included Cable Television. This difference perhaps underscores the evolution of various industries in each society. In the U.S., cable television, pay-per-view, and video on-demand have become as widespread as regular broadcast television. In Hong Kong, there is comparatively less emphasis on video, and perhaps more preference toward telecommunications(of which satellites are an integral part).

In addition, the Hong Kong sample agreed that the most useful content areas are News and Information, and communication regarding(information about) Friends and Family. Taken together, a simple formula denotes that:

"Convergence = WWW + mobile phone + multimedia computer".

The World Wide Web gives users choice regarding external information. This reflects the traditional concept of Mass Communication. Although going to web sites is considered an active behavior, the consumer is still a receiver of information. Our respondents indicated that News and Information, Music, and Film content are especially popular. A second related technology is the mobile phone. This interpersonal communication technology empowers the user to be a sender/creator of thoughts, opinions, and ideas. Finally, the multimedia computer is vital to convergence. With the option of either connecting to the WWW or acting as a stand-alone device for leisure(gaming) or content creation, the computer is a device that enables the user to create, send, and receive content.

This study provides a definition for convergence based on user perceptions in Hong Kong. These findings have laid the groundwork for follow-up study, and hint that one day we may find the distinction between mass communication and interpersonal communication obsolete. In a converged environment, users will seamlessly and simultaneously do both.

■Jeff Wilkinson
Assistant Professor,
Communication Studies
School of Communication
Hong Kong Baptist University


Table I
Table II

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