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The History of Spreadable Media

William Uricchio
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Media have been evolving and spreading for as long as our species has been around to develop and transport them. If we understand media broadly enough to include the platforms and protocols—to use Lisa Gitelman’s (2006) terms—that carry our stories, bear our messages, and give tangible expression to our feelings, they seem intrinsic to the human experience. Some people might even argue that the developments of vocal communication systems (language) and visualization strategies (paintings and carvings) represent defining moments in human evolution, demonstrations of man’s social nature. Human mastery of media was every bit as important as the mastery of tools. Stories of the spread and appropriation of media run across our history, each shaped by the logics of social organization and production characteristic of any given era.

Early traces of the spread and reach of media abound, even if some historical forms of media fall outside our familiar categories. For example, our contemporary understanding of the reach and influence exercised by ancient empires owes much to discoveries of coins—a medium of abstract exchange if we follow Karl Marx’s argument in Capital ([1867] 1999) and elsewhere but also a system of representation and meaning (from the value of the gold or silver to the inscribed monetary value, to the messages or portraits etched on its surface) with precise culturally defined borders. The coin, as a medium, spread with the state’s citizens, enabling their interactions with one another and at the same time attesting to the state’s reign. Ceramic dishes and tiles offer an example of a medium that was seized on for reasons of cultural exchange. The rich intermingling of styles and techniques characteristic of early-seventeenth-century Dutch, Chinese, and Ottoman ceramics speaks to the period’s trade routes and export markets and the creative appropriations of these various cultural models by its artisans. But these ceramics were also platforms, complete with highly nuanced systems of signification, hierarchies of value, and attendant associations of taste. They were carried, traded, collected, and displayed by a surprisingly large cross-section of the northern European population. As the ceramics circulated within different social groups as the vogue for ceramics rose and fell and were handed down to our present as family heirloom or antique shop curio, the journeys they undertook, and the meanings accorded them as media, attest to the energies and interests of those who helped to spread them.

One might also look to religion for evidence of media’s spreadable past: particularly those religions with an institutionalized expansionist character that have tended to embrace what we would today call transmedia strategies to get their messages across, embedding various lessons in architecture, music, performance, symbols, and text. Some of these media in turn have served as conduits for proselytizing and spreading the faith, leaving behind a material residue that allows us to map visually the successes of traveling missionaries and the actions of the populations that incorporated and at times transformed the beliefs.

While institutional and economic mandates might have defined the initial form and circulation of historical media forms, their acceptance, adaptation, and spread also depended on the populations that encountered them. Coins, ceramic plates, and religious artifacts may not spring to mind when we think of media, but they very much fit the bill, whether as platforms, bearers of texts, and meanings or as prescribed sets of behaviors. More to the point, their highly mobile histories suggest just how ingrained the notion of spreadability is to media.

The history of more familiar media holds other lessons. The debate over the appearance of the printed book reminds us that—regardless of institutional intent—media can quickly slip their bounds and enjoy popular appropriation. The printing press has long been understood as a medium of stabilization (standardizing knowledge, facilitating comparison) and change (enabling widespread literacy, redistributing power). Yet Adrian Johns (1998) reminds us that the printed word’s first hundred or so years were anything but predictable, with rampant unauthorized appropriations of texts, the circulation of—at least from dominant institutional perspectives—undesirable books, and the active deployment of the press to subvert the status quo. The book, once a medium closely associated with power and authority, took on very different implications, thanks to the printing press. Widespread vernacular translations made once-restricted texts available to a broader section of society, while the fixing in print of oral traditions enabled the amplification of long-marginalized voices. New mobilities were at play. With the book loosened from its institutional moors, it—and with it very different kinds of knowledge—was seized on by diverse social sectors and spread across geographical regions.

The print, film, television, and recorded sound industries of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like their heavy industrial counterparts, were built on control, standardization, and economies of scale. Armed with ever more restrictive intellectual property laws, these industries generally sought to restrict access to production and distribution, professionalizing and streamlining the process in their own interests. The early years of the U.S. film industry, for example, saw the bundling of patents by the Motion Picture Patents Company and an attempt to exclude all other makers and distributors from the market. And, yet, the market showed tremendous resistance, as the public supported independent alternatives that spoke to their interests, including films from companies with the now-familiar names of Fox and Warners, foreign, and even pirated films. By 1913, the MPPC was effectively over, done in by the successful spread of alternatives, the high costs of litigation, and outspoken public taste. Within a few years, the circumstances of World War I accelerated a new generation of U.S. producers’ expansion into overseas markets, and, in turn, foreign audiences increasingly sought film products that they perceived to be “from the U.S.” Again, public support helped these films survive despite local pressures to contain or suppress them, spreading them far more broadly than could advertising campaigns or other promotional efforts.

Postwar television in Europe offers a different insight into how programs, genres, and formats spread. U.S. production was again a reference point, and, while the industry (with a little help from the U.S. government) was focused on pushing its finished products into the European space, European producers were busy unofficially adapting U.S. formats to fit their local circumstances, in many cases blatantly copying and localizing the programs that they saw (and rarely paying rights). Areas such as news formats, quiz shows, variety, and light entertainment programming all bore distinctly U.S. stylistic references. Scholars such as Jerome Bourdon (2008) have argued that Americanization was far less a matter of forcing U.S. programming onto the European public than of European producers and publics selectively embracing, adapting, and producing what they took to be “American.”

If we consider the Western success of Japanese media products such as anime and manga or crazes such as Pokemon—or the Japanese success of hip-hop for that matter—we can see entanglements of producerly interests and public demands that parallel the historical examples just sketched. Spreadability turns on the demands of publics, on processes of adaptation and localization, and on the construction of new meanings. The protocols and controls imagined by institutions, whether the state or religious authorities or the heavy industry of media, have historically had little impact on populations eager to share experiences and to modify them in their own ways. The spread of media and textual forms—whether to once-excluded social groups or to markets originally unimagined by media producers—owes as much to the interests and creativity of those outside constituencies as to the original producers.


Bourdon, Jerome. 2008. “Imperialism, Self-Inflicted? On the Americanizations of Television in Europe.” In William Uricchio (ed.), We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities, 93–108. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. 2006. “Introduction: Media as Historical Subjects.” In Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture, 1–22. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Johns, Adrian. 1998. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. (1867) 1999. Capital Volume One: The Process of Production of Capital. Marx/Engels Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/. Originally translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling in 1887.

One Response to The History of Spreadable Media

  • This piece of essay on “spreadable media” provides a classic historical analysis and information on the origin, methods, cultural and religious routes and conduits use to pass on or transmit media-related information from one generation or dispensation to another. This I think is quite interesting and educational in the field of communication studies.

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