Mass media is any of the many forms of media that enable communication to the masses. Examples include television, radio, newspaper, and podcasts.
It was widely used in the 19th and 20th Centuries for governments and media moguls to communicate the same information to a broad population. According to cultural theorists like Benedict Anderson, it has also been an important enabler of nationalism and shared cultural identities.
New forms of mass media have emerged in recent decades. The internet, social media, and blogging have enabled individuals (rather than just media elites) to communicate to the masses. This has given rise to social media celebrities like Mr Beast and Pew Die Pie, but has also enabled the unregulated spread of fake news.
Mass Media Examples
In 15th Century Europe, the printing press emerged as a force for the growth of the newspaper industry.
According to scholar Benedict Anderson, the newspaper was the first mass media that was powerful enough to create a shared culture – called an ‘imagined community‘ – across an entire population.
For the first time, people were able to access the exact same information, daily or weekly, and develop a sense of connection to people they’ve never met (and live a long way away from).
This led to nationalism and the solidification of the concept of the nation-state.
Related Article: What Is Media Richness Theory?
Radio was invented in the late 1800s by a group of scientists who were exploring the new field of electricity. At first, radio was used primarily for military and nautical communications, such as sending Morse code messages.
However, it wasn’t long before people began to realize that radio could be used for entertainment as well.
But by the 1920s, radio was a fixture in most homes, providing people with news, music, and even comedy shows.
Radio changed the world by giving people instant access to audio information and entertainment for the first time. It also brought people together, creating a shared experience that transcended time and place.
Radio’s primary limitation, at the time, was lack of visual communication. Before long, television came along to resolve this problem.
Television became the dominant form of mass media in the second half of the 20th Century. This enabled the media elites and government to spread their standardized messages to the masses with ease.
The 6pm news slot because the most powerful medium for spreading ideological messages to the masses. With the emergence of Fox News in the 1990s, television was further weaponized, wherein a dominant channel started exhibiting an explicit populist ideological position in its programming.
But television has its setbacks. Shows can’t receive instant feedback from their intended audience, it is highly controlled by gatekeepers, and it can’t be personalized for individual viewers.
The magazine, like the newspaper, is an example of print media that can be distributed to a very wide audience. Magazines are distributed via stores such as gas stations, stationery stores, and department stores.
Magazines differ from newspapers in that they are typically focused on a single topic, such as business, fashion, or sports. This allows them to go into more depth than a newspaper article.
Magazines also tend to be more visual than newspapers, with more colored pictures and graphics.
With the rise of the internet, a lot of the old print media was transformed into digital media. All major newspapers, for example, now publish their information both via print and online formats.
But the greater revolution of websites was that, for the first time, everyday people could create their own platform for distributing information to the masses. From here on out, consumers could also become producers (Jenkins, 2006).
A website plus hosting fees starts at about $50 per year.
Popular bloggers – individuals who gathered large audiences to their website articles – emerged in the early 2000s. Popular blogs James Clear, Mr Money Moustace, and My Wife Quit her Job, emerged as internet personalities.
Another great revolution that websites provided was the ability for readers to provide comments at the end of articles. Through the comments, there emerged the ability for mass media platforms to communicate back-and-forth with their audience immediately. This gave producers instant feedback on their work.
Books are considered mass media because, once written, the book can be produced en masse and distributed around the world. For example, Benjamin Spock’s 1946 book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, has sold over 50 million copies worldwide.
Types of books include novels, biographies, textbooks, and encyclopedias (there are many more than this!). Each format provides different types of information, including fictional stories, non-fiction stories, educational content, and archival data.
Billboards are advertisements that are placed in prominent public thoroughfares such as busy strip malls or along the sides of highways.
They are strategically placed to be seen by as many people as possible; thus, they are a quintessential example of one-to-many mass media.
The billboard is often seen as a sign of modern capitalism. It demonstrates the importance of advertising and brand management for companies seeking to position themselves for success int he context of a free market economy.
However, traveling through communist nations like Cuba, you will also see a significant number of state-owned billboards promoting government propaganda.
Cinema can be considered mass media because it is an entertainment format produced to be distributed to the masses.
The movie is recorded and produced just once and then distributed to be re-watched ad infinitum. As a contrast, live theater is designed as a customized high culture experience where each performance is unique for the audience who is present.
Like other forms of mass media, ideologies and cultural knowledge are spread and perpetuated through movies. Traditionally, Disney would propagate conservative ideals about gender roles and social class. Today, however, many conservatives complain that Disney is too liberal.
9. Social Media Platforms
Social media platforms allow users to interact and share content online. Common examples of social media include websites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as apps like Snapchat and Instagram.
They can act as mass media because social media posts can ‘go viral’. This means that the posts spread throughout the internet, getting millions of views from other social media users.
In recent years, social media has also become a powerful marketing tool, with businesses using it to reach out to a wide net of potential customers.
10. Video Games
Video games, especially MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games), become mass media due to the significant numbers of people who play them.
Games like World of Warcraft, Fortnite, and Minecraft have the ability to reach a wide audience quickly. For example, the popular video game Fortnite peaked at over 350 million registered players in 2021.
As a result, video games can have a significant impact on popular culture. They can spur spin-off movies (such as Tomb Raider) and generate new cultural memes and sayings.
11. Flyers and Junk Mail
I would consider flyers and junk mail to be in the same category of mass media. They are unsolicited forms of print media, distributed by hand or mail, which promote products, services, or events.
They are typically distributed in public places, such as on sidewalks or in front of businesses, or placed into mail boxes as ‘junk mail’. The idea is to spread the message as far and wide as possible within the target market with the goal of getting a small percentage of readers to heed the message.
Flyers are generally designed to give one quick and easy message such as ‘vote for this candidate because they will lower taxes’ or ‘our happy hour is 6pm to 8pm’.
12. Text Message Alerts
Text message alerts are generally only used by government authorities and reserved for emergencies. They are designed to be sent en masse to literally everyone with a phone within an area, warning them to take action immediately.
For example, where I live, I occasionally receive text message alerts if a child has gone missing. Everyone within a region receives the text message with the child’s name, age, and appearance, in order for the community to keep an eye out for the child. In this sense, an emergency text message alert is an example of a public good.
One famous example of a text message alert was the Hawaii false missile alert of 2018. Human error caused the government to send a text message out to the entire population of Hawaii warning them that a missile was on its way to Hawaii. The alert even said that this was ‘not a test’.
People sought shelter wherever they were and hid and waited. Slowly, news got around that this was a mistake and everyone was safe!
13. Web Advertising
Once, advertising was restricted to impersonal formats like billboards and television advertisements. But today, with the tools of the internet, we now receive personalized advertisements on web pages we visit.
Websites do this by using cookies. Web cookies are text files that store information about our internet usage. When we visit a website, the cookies are sent to the server of that website. The specific information in these cookies is used to target ads that are more likely to be relevant to us. For example, if we visit a lot of car websites, we may see more ads for cars on other websites.
For companies, web advertising is highly profitable because they don’t waste their ad spend on consumers who are not in their target demographic.
14. Video-Sharing Platforms
Video-sharing platforms are websites that allow people to place their own videos online for others to view and consume. Unlike traditional mass media, these platforms give the everyday individual the opportunity to share a video that can be consumed by anyone in the world.
The two most popular video-sharing platforms are YouTube and Vimeo.
As a result of video-sharing platforms, savvy content creators have become online personalities who receive millions of views for each video. Famous YouTube personalities such as Mr. Beast and Graham Stephan have millions of subscribers and make many millions of dollars.
15. Email Lists
Email list are lists of people who have provided their email to a company or agency as well as consent to receive emails. These lists enable companies or individuals to share their ideas, news, and new products to their audience list.
Big e-commerce brands like Wayfair, Chewy, Shopify, Etsy, and Groupon develop email lists that can have multiple millions of subscribers.
Through just one email blast, these brands can get their messages out to millions of people. As a result, email lists are considered some of the most valuable assets in business.
16. Streaming Platforms
Video streaming platforms such as Netflix, Crave, and Disney Plus have revolutionized mass media. For many people, they have superseded television as a means for relaxing of an evening after work.
The large streaming platforms serve a very similar mass media purpose to television. They offer a one-to-many multimedia experience and allow individual media producers to spread their content far and wide.
The benefit of streaming platforms over television is that people can start, pause, and re-watch content at will. By contrast, television is broadcast in real-time and must be watched concurrently with the broadcast (unless you record it!).
Nevertheless, news content is one area of multimedia production where television maintains its dominance.
A podcast is an audio file that is downloaded and watched via the internet. They emerged in 2005 when RSS feeds were utilized to send audio files directly to computers and smartphones. In subsequent years, podcasts have enabled ‘amateur radio hosts’ to create their own pseudo-radio shows.
Podcasts have, for many people, superseded radio. Podcasts did for radio what streaming services did for television: they enabled people to consume content at their own pace rather than relying upon a concurrent broadcast.
Another upside of podcasting is that anyone can create and distribute a podcast using a podcast distribution service. This has given rise to indie media personalities such as Joe Rogan who have, subsequently, become some of the most famous people in the world.
18. Town Crier
The last example of mass media is, perhaps, the most fun. Before the printing press, the best way to get information out to the masses was for the government to employ a person to literally yell news on the public square.
The person with this job was called the town crier.
Traditionally, the town crier would be delivered a message from a central government body (probably on horseback!). The town crier would then walk around the town square or down the busy main streets and read out his message at the top of his voice. Often, he would also carry a bell that he would ring to get people’s attention.
Mass media is any type of media that can be distributed to the masses. Because it’s consumed by the masses and not just the elites, some may argue that it’s a form of low culture.
While historically it was controlled and owned by gatekeepers, new mass media platforms have enabled anyone to become a mass media content producer. The traditional mass media of the 20th Century, such as television and radio, have been challenged by new media such as podcasts and social media platforms. This has opened up new means of communication but also issues about potential added media bias due to lack of regulation.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.