Threads Futures

Five questions with communications scholar Tania Lim in Singapore


Jack Thomas Taylor, curator of the exhibition Breaking News? how the smartphone changed journalism (fall 2019–spring 2020) spoke with Tania Lim, a communications and media scholar at Murdoch University, Singapore.


__Jack Thomas Taylor (JTT): Can you please explain the similarities between the 'fourth screen' and the 'fourth estate’?

__Tania Lim (TL): The mobile phone has obviously changed the way that we interact with people through the introduction of the fourth screen. The first screen is the cinema. The second screen is the television. The third screen is the personal computer. And then we have the merging of technology thus we have the fourth screen, i.e., the smartphone. For the first, second, and even the third screen, the screen was being used as a way to disseminate content. The smartphone, in comparison, is more interactive, and therefore, more powerful. Combining that power with the media (also known as the Fourth Estate) changes the way we communicate with each other. The idea of the Fourth Estate is based on the notion that was proposed by Edmund Burke (Irish-British statesman) in 1787. He was essentially saying that the press and the news media were the Fourth Estate as they are a powerful social changing force. In the same way that we think of the First Estate being religious institutions and the clergy, the Second Estate was the ruling elite, who were the nobility, monarchy, and elected governments. The Third Estate is always us, the commoners: the people. So then, how do we galvanize our views? We use the media. Therefore, the Fourth Estate. So how do the Fourth Screen and Fourth Estate come together? Especially in today's world, most news and media are being consumed through the Fourth Screen and even journalists will tell you that the portability and the constant connection with their screens allows them to not only talk to each other, but also broadcast and interact with users.


__JTT: How does this emerge in trends in mobile screen affordances within Southeast Asia?

__TL: We have about 620 million people in Southeast Asia, half of them are youth, aged below 35. A significant number of them use social media and a lot of them are naturally smartphone users. As a result, activities they do online through their mobile phones include watching videos, checking the news and playing games. So those are quite important considerations in how a journalist writes new stories—they have to be very visual. You notice that clips that are attached to news stories are much shorter today. The word count has to be very brief, and you must be able to translate it into several languages as well. So, there is a lot of customization and personalization which is expected through the phone. This links to the popularity of apps. Lots of news organizations are encouraging people to sign up and use apps to access the news to make it easier for them [the user]. It's all about convenience. Today, communicating on email is quite a conventional and traditional way of communicating. In Singapore, we have WeChat, LINE, and WhatsApp so, you can see this kind of hybridity and how you use your smartphone is almost multicultural. While you have content coming from friends in China, or from Japan, they will share different things with you and in different ways. WhatsApp, for example, has become like an intermedial space where you see the sharing of stories but with a commentary attached—it's no longer just one dialogue or one story, there are multiple voices being captured.


__JTT: Do you think the use of smartphones and messenger apps dilute news stories, or do they make it more intimate?

__TL: We seem to have a more intimate relationship with our screens compared to face-to-face conversations. It seems we are now speaking to screens more, especially with young children who are verbally speaking to their screens instead of face-to-face communication with their friends.


__JTT: The television owns the environment of the home, and the radio owns the environment of commuting or public space. How about the smartphone?

__TL: Television has been a defining feature of our living rooms for many years before the internet. And of course, the computer extends beyond the workplace and coffee shops. The smartphone is leading towards Manuel Castells’ idea of the network society(1). You could say you have the whole society on your phone. The smartphone is a community. Our connections are not very local anymore, they go beyond the idea of a living room. You really feel permanently connected to your contacts list. Even while you are asleep, the world is still buzzing out there and at any point in time you can jump in. You feel like you are part of this wired-up world through the screen itself, so much that you feel dislocated I would say, because we are so involved in looking at our screens.


__JTT: Can you explain how tech and media companies can modify the use of notifications on the user-smartphone interface?

__TL: I think notifications are something that will be a growing interest for companies to use as a tool to market information to us. Notifications are a convenient tool that allows you to just quickly dip in and dip out in terms of information. In terms of news-related notifications, users do not actively read the news unless they are attracted by certain keywords, [words] that seem to be something that everyone's talking about. It seems that consuming news even through notifications is still paired with peer sharing. Personally, I consider it a task tool. But for young people, they constantly see a whole range of notifications because of how it is integrated within [their] daily notifications from friends and family. The news is just another message to them. If they don't really need to respond to it immediately, they will just look at it later. Also, the way the phone is constructed, and its interface determine the way that we use and behave towards information.


This conversation took place on March 26, 2019, in Singapore.

(1) Spanish sociologist; see The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. second edition (2010). Malden: Blackwell.

__Tania Lim is a lecturer in communication at the College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences at Murdoch University, Singapore. Lim has worked in Singapore’s media sector for over 14 years. While at the Media Development Authority of Singapore, she was seconded to the Industry Division with the previous Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) from 2008–2010, and prior to that she was with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority. Her work spans areas covering industry development, public service broadcasting, international co-productions, market policy, international relations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) relations, and marketing communications.