There has been a flurry of attention in recent years to the question of whether the changing digital media environment will require communication researchers to recalibrate their theories and methods. Cass Sunstein, for example, ominously warns of a new form of online political polarization. Markus Prior is concerned about political disengagement in a high-choice media environment. Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar ask if we need to reassess the phenomenon of selective attention.
I am going to make the argument that we need more than a minor recalibration. It may turn out to be better characterized as an evolving paradigm rather than a paradigm shift. But at this point in the history of the field such questions need to be addressed. I start with a brief excursion into the origins of the traditional effects research paradigm derived from the study of propaganda following the Second World War. I contend that the phony debate over big versus minimal effects has been a major theoretical distraction. I put forward the case that the critically important issues of informational abundance and also the intrinsically polysemic character of media messages have not yet been fully integrated into communication theory and research methods. I propose that new analytics addressing “big data” and over-time measurement strategies offer special promise to reenergize and modestly redirect the research enterprise in the digital era.