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What is Digital Media

The word “media” applies to many things in the 21st century, from mass media to news media, and traditional media to the many emerging forms of digital media. While you can likely come up with several different examples –– and almost certainly you take in some form of media in your everyday life –– it can be difficult to succinctly define the word.  It comes from the Latin medius or medium, which means “the middle layer.” Media is an expression that brings some type of information or entertainment from one body to another.

Before the advent of the digital age, the most popular forms of media were what we now call analog or traditional media: radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, journals, and the like. Since then, the technological revolution has brought with it many new types of media that now play a major role in disseminating information and entertainment to populations around the world. But what is digital media? What does it encompass, how did it evolve, and where is it headed? Read on to learn more about digital media, including different types, major companies in the field, and digital media job markets. We’ll also unpack what kind of educational background can position you to embark on a career in digital media.

Defining Digital Media

Unlike traditional media, digital media is transmitted as digital data, which at its simplest involves digital cables or satellites sending binary signals –– 0s and 1s –– to devices that translate them into audio, video, graphics, text, and more. Anytime you use your computer, tablet, or cellphone, opening web-based systems and apps, you’re consuming digital media. Digital media might come in the form of videos, articles, advertisements, music, podcasts, audiobooks, virtual reality, or digital art.

The digital age began to unfold in the second half of the 20th century, as computer technology slowly infiltrated different industries and then moved into the public sphere. Yet analog technology remained dominant even through the 1990s. In the years that followed, newspapers, magazines, radio, and broadcast television were still the primary means of communication, with fax machines and pagers becoming most people’s first casual forays into the digital world.

When the internet went from a niche hobby to something common in most American homes, the digital age was fully underway. Now, most people walk around with at least one digital media device in their pocket, purse, or backpack, using digital communication at work, on their commutes, and even while out to dinner or shopping. After that, they might come home and play a video game or stream a show, interacting with digital media yet again. Before they go to sleep, they might talk to their digital home assistant, finding out the weather forecast for the following day. What is digital media? The answer is not a simple one. Defining digital media is difficult because it is rapidly evolving alongside innovations in technology and how people interact with it. As we move into the future, our day-to-day use of digital media will likely only increase, particularly as holographic and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are developed and incorporated into our daily lives.

Exploring Types of Digital Media

Traditional (nondigital) media includes several types of communication technologies, some of which have existed for hundreds of years. Newspapers, magazines, books, and other printed materials were among the first types of traditional media. Those forms of media persist, joined in the 19th century by the telegraph and in the 20th century by radio and television, the first examples of mass media.

The digital era, however, meant a whole new set of media transmission methods and devices, with more developed every year. These days, most types of digital media fit into one of these main subgroups:

  • Audio: Audio forms of digital media include digital radio stations, podcasts, and audiobooks. Tens of millions of Americans subscribe to digital radio services such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, and Sirius, which provide a wide range of musical stations and allow users to listen to databases of millions of songs on demand.
  • Video: Many digital media outlets are visual, from streaming movie and television services such as Netflix to virtual reality surgical simulators used in medical institutions. One of the biggest players in visual digital media is YouTube, which hosts billions of videos. Launched in 2005, the website is one of the most popular destinations on the web.
  • Social media: Social media includes sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat, which enable their users to interact with one another through text posts, photographs, and videos, leaving “likes” and comments to create conversations around pop culture, sports, news, politics, and the daily events of users’ lives.
  • Advertising: Advertisers have made their way into the digital media landscape, taking advantage of marketing partnerships and advertising space wherever possible. The internet has moved away from the use of pop-up and autoplay ads, which flooded early websites and drove away visitors. Instead, advertisers look toward native content and other methods of keeping consumers invested without overselling their product.
  • News, literature, and more: Traditionally, people consumed text via books, print newspapers, magazines, and the like. Even though digital media has proliferated, the desire for those kinds of reading experiences has endured. Research from the Pew Research Center indicates that 38% of adults in the U.S. read news online. The proliferation of literary websites, the popularity of resources like Wikipedia, and the rise of e-readers like the Kindle all further underline the continued importance of written work in digital media.

Examples of Digital Media

Digital media encompasses a wide array of websites, tech devices, and platforms. You may be aware of some uses of digital media, but the fact is that digital media influences many industries and has opened a range of avenues for people to make a living and utilize their talents in different ways.

Prior to digital technology, surgeons and other medical professionals had to rely on clunky simulators, videos, or cadavers to practice new surgeries, which made it difficult to perfect certain operations and increased complications when they were performed on living patients. Digital technology has introduced all sorts of new tools into the surgical suite, allowing doctors to better practice and perform such procedures, thus increasing patient safety and reducing mistakes while lowering costs. Modern-day surgeons practice using advanced virtual reality (VR) systems, working through different scenarios with digital versions of the same miniature cameras and sensors they’ll rely on during an actual surgery.

Digital media has also led to entirely new careers. Websites such as Twitch allow people to stream their daily lives, and people can pay to subscribe to individual channels to watch what interests them. Twitch streamers include video gamers, musicians, social influencers, and even those who just stream their daily activities, such as going to the store, cooking dinner, or cleaning the house. Users from all different walks of life expose subscribers to different cultures and lifestyles. Digital media professionals can also take advantage of easily obtainable technology such as cellphones and open-source coding to film their own shows, movies, or podcasts and stream them at little or no cost, creating greater equity in media. These are just a few examples of digital media, though the market for such products is expanding, and there are more applications every year.

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