How could digital public archaeologists think about communication?

New digital media, broadly defined as enabling forms of communications that are digital, interactive, hypertextual, networked, simulated, ubiquitous and de-located (see also Bonacchi 2012), have reshaped our everyday lives and the ways we interact with cultural content and institutions. Although we suggest there is a growing understanding and adoption of these media in the archaeological sector, it seems that some archaeologists have started to dedicate attention to digital engagement without considering what it means to communicate in the first place, whether online or offline, in digital or analogue form.

In the DPA literature it is not uncommon to find words like dissemination, engagement, participation and meaning-making used interchangeably or with little thought given to their deep and distinct theoretical and practical underpinnings. Here, it is worth briefly examining two distinct views of communication that have been codified in relation to mass communication (Steinberg 2007, 39–40), and whose applicability is still being variously reviewed in digitally connected contexts (e.g. Jensen and Neuman 2013).

The first is the media- or technology-centred view, which arose in North America immediately after the Second World War (McQuail 2005, 62–3; Oosthuizen 1995, 3–5; Steinberg 2007, 39). This approach developed from the assumption that communication works towards integration, continuity and the ordering of society. This view embraced a mathematical-engineering approach borrowed from information studies, mainly concerned with accurate and efficient communication as the result of technically well-operating channels, and exemplified in the writings of Lasswell (1948), and Shannon and Weaver (1949). Building on their work, the dominant paradigm began to take shape around the idea of the transmission of messages, of senders and receivers encoding and decoding such messages, and of media effects manifesting themselves in similar ways — regardless of the characteristics of the people involved in the communication process (Fiske 2002, 30–1). It is worryingly easy to find evidence of this kind of supposedly straightforward and more or less blind 'transmission' or 'dissemination' of archaeological messages within DPA.

An alternative paradigm originated from a critique of this earlier dominant one, and is grounded in the work of the Frankfurt School, although it was only clearly outlined from the 1960s and 70s onwards (McQuail 2005, 65–6). This view does not share the notion of fixed meanings embedded in media content. On the contrary, it conceives of meanings as constructed within the contexts of communication and varying according to the profile of the participants: their motivations, attitudes, prior knowledge, existing skills and socio-demographic characteristics.

Whether one chooses to embrace a media- or, alternatively, a meaning-centred view of communication has considerable influence on the kinds of engagement that can result. What we have seen to date in DPA is too much of the former, with limited attention to audiences and little or no interest in monitoring and evaluation, and not enough of the latter with clear objectives and assessment of the results achieved.