Art Silverblatt - Media Literacy in an Interactive Age


Literacy -- defined as the ability to read and write -- is a traditional and fundamental part of school curricula to prepare students to make sense of their worlds. Media literacy builds on that definition of literacy and its place in the curriculum by recognizing the ways in which media shape students' understanding of their environment. Over the past 5 years, interactive media have emerged as an important area of study in the discipline of media literacy. This article suggests some ways in which media literacy can help students gain perspective on the impact of interactive media, and particularly the Internet, on individuals and culture, and provides strategies for deciphering content conveyed through this powerful medium.

In 1995, the first edition of my Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages was published. It included a definition of media literacy that encompassed the study of print, photography, film, radio, and television. Since 1995, the emergence of the Internet has transformed our media landscape. Extending the definition of media literacy to include the World Wide Web and online communication venues (e-mail, "chat rooms," and the like) can furnish valuable perspectives and make the content conveyed over the Internet more accessible and understandable. Below I identify some key principles from the discipline of media literacy and discuss their applications to the Internet.

Principle 1: Media literacy empowers individuals to make independent judgments about media consumption.

A primary goal of media literacy is to address the indiscriminate use of the media. Individuals who study media literacy learn to develop a critical distance from what they receive through the media, so that they can make independent choices about what to watch, read, or listen to. Rather than tuning to a specific program, audiences all too often simply watch the medium ("I'm gonna watch TV"). In order to become media literate, individuals must assume responsibility for the programming they consume.

Individuals can also learn to make independent judgments about the information they receive and communicate on the Internet. Before a user logs on, it is important that she or he recognizes the function of the interactive media activity. Initiating communication may serve a variety of functions, including commerce, information, expression, persuasion, entertainment, establishing or maintaining community, exploration, or "surfing." If an individual decides to surf for the next 2 hours -- fine. However, going online without a defined function -- and time frame -- can lead to a situation in which the user is up all night and suffers the consequences the next day. Consequently, defining function can prevent individuals from turning to interactive media out of boredom or habit and can help them use their time more productively.

Furthermore, Internet users are increasingly targets of unsolicited communications that fulfill functions not immediately apparent to their receivers. Questions to ask in the analysis of an unsolicited message received on the Internet include

  • What is the purpose behind this messages?
  • What is the manifest function behind this communication?
  • Are there any latent functions behind it?
  • Does the sender of this unsolicted message want individuals to act in a particular way as a result of receiving this information?

In addition, Web sites often fulfill latent functions. For instance, while the ostensible purpose of many children's sites is to provide entertainment or information, they frequently collect personal information from site visitors, which is then used for commercial purposes. Consequently, questions to pose in the analysis of a Web site include

  • What is the purpose of the site?
  • Is there a latent function?
  • Does the site make an individual take action that he or she may not normally have taken?
  • If the site asks an individual to provide personal information, is it clear who will use it and how?

Principle 2: Media literacy focuses attention on the elements involved in the media communication process.

Like no other mass medium, interactive online communications approach the dynamics of interpersonal communications. In interactive media, communication is two way; we both impart and retrieve information. Consequently, as with interpersonal communications, we move from media communicator (the person initiating the dialogue) to audience (the recipient of information, both solicited and unsolicited).

Successful media communicators

  • Understand the communication process
  • Recognize the purpose of the communication
  • Are self-aware
  • Understand the message and know what they want to say
  • Understand the characteristics of the channel used to communicate
  • Can identify their audience
  • Use feedback to ensure that the audience comprehends the message

The distinctive features of this new form of interactive, online, mass communication add to the complexity of the communication process. Because many of its messages are unsolicited and anonymous, identifying the media communicator has become an enormous challenge. At present, it is nearly impossible to determine the identity of a person who initiates communication on the Internet. Even if a name (or nickname) is provided, it is difficult to verify whether the individual is telling the truth about his or her identity. Related concerns involve determining the credentials of the author and the orientation of a Web site (i.e., who sponsors it, the sponsor's agenda, and the site's mission).

In addition, interactive online communicators can now identify their audiences at an unprecedented level -- including information on backgrounds, finances, lifestyles, and buying habits -- and tailor the message to them. For instance, a Web site for a retail business that has access to financial information about a certain user could only show that user items he or she could afford. A quick and automated credit check as the user enters the site is all that would be required.

Interactive online communicators can also adapt their communications strategies by identifying ways to attract the intended audience to the Web site. For instance, personalized e-mail messages and banner ads can be gauged to lure potential audience members to the site. The Internet communicator can also individualize the style of presentation to engage the audience once the Web site has been accessed. By using production elements such as color, graphics, music, and links, the interactive media communicator can create a "look and feel" that reflects the audience member's tastes and interests. For instance, a Web site might present a conservative appearance for one visitor and a trendy look for another.

Finally, the Internet communicator can adapt the content to suit the individual audience member, based on information about that individual that the communicator collects. For example, a fifth grader writing a report on the house fly would not need the comprehensive information required by a doctoral student. The Internet communicator can also provide different components of the topic to satisfy the interests and expectations of the audience member.

Consequently, a useful way to identify the intended audience is to examine the communications strategy, style, and content of the interactive media presentation. In the case of a message that has been tailored to an individual, examining the presentation can provide perspective into what the interactive media communicator knows (or thinks she knows) about that particular member of the audience.

Principle 3: Media literacy fosters an awareness of the impact of the media on the individual and society.

Interactive technology is having a profound influence on the ways we spend our time, process information, and think about our world. On many levels, interactive technology adds to the quality of our lives (at the same time, however, privacy and computer sabotage have emerged as serious concerns). Indeed, the interactive environment is redefining our very conception of being human. Already, silicon chips have been successfully implanted in human brains to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson's disease. And futurist Ray Kurtzweil predicts that within 30 years, direct links will be established between neurons in the human brain and computer circuitry. Reporter Rob Fixmer (1999) comments on Kurtzweil's predications:

"The implications are mind-boggling. Such links would mean that the entire contents of a brain could be...copied (and preserved) in an external database. Not only would the brain's biological capacity be supplemented with enormous amounts of digital memory, it would also be linked to vast information resources like the Internet at the speed of thought."

Media literacy focuses not just on the technological innovations of the medium, but on the impact of these advances on individuals and society. This can generate a number of issues for discussion. For example,

Privacy has emerged as an ethical issue in the age of interactive media. How have interactive media affected the privacy of individuals? In what ways does this affect our lives? What steps can be taken to ensure individual privacy in online environments? Interactive media communicators are now able to set up alternative realities using computer technology. What are some of the benefits of this mass-mediated reality? What ethical questions are raised by the construction of virtual realities?

Principle 4: Media literacy develops strategies with which to analyze and discuss media messages.

Media literacy involves critical thinking skills that enable individuals to decipher information conveyed through various media channels. The discipline offers a range of approaches for the systematic analysis of media messages contained in any media presentation, including those available through Internet technologies. Some of these avenues for inquiry include

  • Structure: What patterns of ownership are emerging on the Internet? What is the impact of these patterns on the content that appears on the Internet?
  • Content: How can an individual evaluate the information that is available on the Internet? (Criteria for evaluating content include verifiable documentation, currency of information, use of reliable sources, objectivity, and consistency.)
  • Historical context: Which historical events discussed on the Internet are of interest and concern to the public? Do patterns emerge in Internet discussion venues that reveal prevailing attitudes toward these historical events?
  • Homepages: What is the function of the homepage? Does the homepage succeed in establishing the identity, or "personality" of the host? How would you describe the "personality" of the site as reflected in the homepage? What information does the homepage provide? What information does it omit? What does the homepage reveal about the values of the host? What does the homepage reveal about the intended audience?
  • Production: Do the production values employed in interactive media serve a clear purpose appropriate for the intended audience? (Production elements to consider include Web page composition, inclusion and omission of information and the selection of links, the combination of media such as print, graphics, audio, and video to convey messages.)

Principle 5: Media literacy promotes awareness of interactive media content as a "text" that provides insight into our contemporary culture and ourselves.

Because of its interactive properties, the Internet (including Web sites, discussion venues, and e-mail) can provide unique insight into the attitudes, values, behaviors, preoccupations, patterns of thought, and myths that define a culture. And, conversely, an understanding of culture can furnish perspective into media messages.

Within this context, critical analyses of interactive presentations can focus on world view. Questions that further these analyses include

  • What kind of culture or cultures populate this virtual world? What kinds of people populate this world? What is the ideology of this culture?
  • What does it mean to be a success in this world? How does a person succeed in this world?
  • What kinds of behavior are rewarded in this world?
  • What embedded values can be found in productions on the Internet?

Principle 6: Media literacy cultivates enhanced enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of media content.

Media literacy should not be understood merely as an opportunity to bash the media; rather, it can enhance an individual's enjoyment and appreciation of media at its best -- for example, when the Internet offers insightful information, entertainment, discussion venues, and media arts (e.g., music and independent films and video). Media literacy also results in more efficient and productive research by offering tools to identify the most credible sources of information on the Internet.

Principle 7: Media literacy challenges interactive media communicators to produce effective and responsible media messages.

In order to be successful, professionals in the field of interactive media must demonstrate an awareness of the mass communication process, as well as a mastery of production techniques and strategies. But in order to truly improve the media industry, media communicators must also recognize the challenges and responsibilities involved in producing content that serves the public interest. Many students will pursue careers that involve either interactive media production or some application of these communications technologies. Students can conduct research to identify what they consider to be responsible and irresponsible use of these media.

One of the central goals of education is to help students understand the world they live in. Because so much of this world is shaped by the media, it is imperative that classroom teachers and literacy educators expand the traditional definition of literacy to include an understanding of channels of mass communication. Interactive media, in particular the Internet, have emerged as an important area of study in the discipline of media literacy, pursued so that we can learn to take full advantage of their wondrous possibilities.


Fixmer, R. (1999, November 6). The soul of the next new machine: Humans; how the wedding of brain and computer could change the universe. New York Times, Arts & Ideas; Cultural Desk.

About the Author:

Art Silverblatt is a professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood, St. Louis, Missouri 63119, USA; e-mail He is the author of Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages (Praeger, 1995), Dictionary of Media Literacy (with Ellen M. Enright Eliceiri, Praeger, 1997), and Approaches to Media Literacy (with Jane Ferry and Barbara Finan, M.E. Sharpe, 1999). The second edition of Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages will be available in 2001.

Silverblatt, A. (2000, September). Media literacy in the digital age. Reading Online, 4(3).