New media and literacies: Amateurs vs. professionals
First Monday

New media and literacies: Amateurs vs. professionals by Tibor Koltay

New media are not supportive of critical thinking and conscious selection of information. Literacies of our age stress critical thinking and take many forms. Despite differences and similarities among information literacy, media literacy and digital literacy, all of them have to differentiate between amateur and professional contents produced in new media. Similarly to the traditional division of labor among libraries, the needs behind amateurism and professionalism have to be satisfied differently.


Literacy and literacies
Information literacy, digital literacy and media literacy
The Web of amateurs and professionals




The discourse around contrasting old and new media still seems to show characteristics of hype. It contains repeated claims about novelty and originality. New media are often an object of celebration. The discourse, related to them is full of promises of democratization and a new communicative paradigm that would replace the existing many–to–many communication (Carpentier, 2009). This type of discourse de–contextualizes the concept. Due to de–contextualization new media are qualified both to harness collective intelligence, but also to encourage mob stupidity (Everitt and Mills, 2009).

On the other hand we see well–founded, substantial and heavy criticism that addresses especially the relationship between participation and exploitation (Petersen, 2008; Scholz, 2008). Even though such kind of criticism gives the foundations of our approach, we do not intend to repeat it. Instead, we will examine two aspects of new media:

  1. The place of information literacy, media literacy and digital literacy in the era of new media; and,
  2. The relationship between these literacies and contents produced by amateurs.



Literacy and literacies

The term literacy is closely related to literature, which originally combined the meaning of being knowledgeable with the body of writing of aesthetic merit. Later it began to cover skills by wide masses to handle texts disregarding if they are part of the literary canon or not (Livingstone, et al., 2008).

Literacy and its counterpart, illiteracy seemed once well understood and well defined (Buschman, 2009). The growing role of digital technologies changed the concept of literacy. It also magnified contestations over the power and authority, related to access, interpretation and production of printed texts (Livingstone, 2004).

Consequently, new media seem to require new literacies, and it is not surprising that this concept is usually associated with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Nonetheless, it would be at least one–sided if we would limit them to the effective use of ICTs (Lankshear and Knobel, 2004). Literacies help to understand the digital world better and to take meaningful courses of action. We do not have to forget namely that what is digital, is subject to human agency and to human understanding. Technology is just a tool, which does not determine how we must act (ACRL, 2000).

We may ask if new literacies are really that different from literacy in the traditional sense and to what extent is this true (Buschman, 2009). In our opinion it would be impossible to fully answer this question. Rather, we will show a number of characteristic features of information literacy, media literacy and digital literacy.

Literacy itself is identical with “social practices and conceptions of reading and writing.” [1] Accordingly, there are many literacies, depending on the varying social contexts and under varying social conditions of reading and writing. Literacies change in time, according to the people and tools involved, to purposes and circumstances. The idea of new literacies reflects the existence of these changes (Lankshear and Knobel, 2004). At present literacy has broadened in scope, as it is tied both to technology and culture (Cordes, 2009).

The proper use of literacies can serve democracy, participation and active citizenship. It satisfies the needs in competent information customers and informed workforce and gives them tools for lifelong learning (Livingstone, et al., 2008).



Information literacy, digital literacy and media literacy

In his comprehensive review, Bawden (2001) identified a number of various terms, related to literacies, among others the following:

  • computer literacy;
  • digital literacy;
  • information literacy;
  • library literacy;
  • media literacy; and,
  • network literacy.

Among these information literacy, media literacy and digital literacy are the most important.

Information literacy (IL) emphasizes the need for careful retrieval and selection of information available in the workplace, at school, and in all aspects of personal decision–making, especially in the areas of citizenship and health. Information literacy education emphasizes critical thinking, meta–cognitive, and procedural knowledge used to locate information in specific domains, fields, and contexts. A prime emphasis is placed on recognizing message quality, authenticity and credibility (Hobbs, 2006b).

Digital literacy (DL) builds on IL, but it emphasizes complexity and the role of different media.

As Martin [2] puts is:

Digital literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyze and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process.

Searching for information (information retrieval) is coupled with critical thinking, similarly to IL. Traditional tools still play an important role. Nonetheless, DL includes publishing and communicating in contrast to the more traditional definitions of literacies, especially those of information literacy, which see ordinary people as receivers but not senders of messages (Bawden, 2001). IL in its traditional meaning is capable to mirror this to a lesser extent, even though its boundaries can be extended to include verbal communication (Koltay, 2007).

Like the other two subjects of our discussion, media literacy (ML) is an umbrella concept. It is designed to help to understand, to produce and negotiate meanings in a culture of images, words and sounds. Media literate persons are able to decode, evaluate, analyze and produce both print and electronic media and have acquired critical autonomy relationship to all media. All this goes back to the nature of media.

  • Media are constructed and construct reality;
  • Media have commercial implications;
  • Media have ideological and political implications;
  • Form and content are related in each medium, each of which has a unique aesthetic, codes and conventions; and,
  • Receivers negotiate meaning in media (Aufderheide, 1993).

Media literacy seems to cover panmedia, as it includes the interpretation of all types of complex, mediated symbolic texts made available by ‘traditional’ or electronic (digital) means. One of the reasons for this is that there is an integrated media environment, which encompasses print, audiovisual and computer media, as well as telephony (Livingstone, 2004).

It is not difficult to see that there are a number of similarities and differences between the three main types of literacies. This is especially true for information literacy and media literacy.

Information literacy traditionally focuses on the identification, location, evaluation and use of information, while the center of attention of media literacy is on understanding, comprehension, critique and creation of media materials (Livingstone, et al., 2008). DL naturally focuses on digital tools.

Despite their wide array, analytic competencies (among others genre knowledge) receive an emphasis in all literacies. Some of them, especially literary merit are heavily dependent on their historical origins in print. This is the reason, why they may be poorly applicable to new media (Livingstone, 2004). The requirement of critical evaluation is a kind of default quality of these literacies. In the case of media literacy this can be an examination of the constructedness of media messages (Hobbs, 2006a).

Taking the similarities and differences into account, we can say that nomen non est omen. By changing the Latin proverb slightly, we state that it is of lesser importance whether literacies of the information age are called information literacy or — eventually — digital literacy (Bawden, 2001).



The Web of amateurs and professionals

A substantial part of Web 2.0 users constitute the amateurs of our era. Amateurs can be defined as persons, who love to be engaged in a particular activity. They may be knowledgeable or not, but they lack of credentials (Keen, 2007). The perceived value of their activities is participation and self-fulfillment. The bottom line is, however that they are motivated to show activities that can be commodified (Cox, 2008). This produces a peculiar situation. Amateurs on the Web 2.0 undoubtedly produce some kind of content, while there is often no real possibility to provide quality, to pursuit aesthetic goals or simply being critical, even though this is not perceived by the majority of users, who are encouraged to produce anything, without giving attention to its value.

On the whole, in the value system of new media critical thinking and conscious selection of information do not occupy a prominent place.

This problem in itself should not worry us, if we direct our attention to the issues of differentiating between content, generated by amateurs and content produced by and for professionals. Whatever the motivation behind participating in Web 2.0 activities, amateur contents may be useful or at least tolerable. However, they cannot substitute content created by professionals for professionals.

The reason for this is that amateur and anonymous production that characterizes new media is different from the production of professional and academic knowledge. First of all, in academia credentials and authorship are fundamental. The credibility of a work is closely connected to the credentials of an author and strengthened by the academic practice of citing literature (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009). This means that the wisdom of the crowd which ranks content according to its popularity is not applicable to the production of professional (and especially academic knowledge). This is true despite arguments that the logics and logistics of knowledge production, based on new media are disruptive of the traditional values of the scholarly work (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009). In our opinion this is an overgeneralization of a development that is undoubtedly true if we regard amateur contents. The discourse about the disruptive nature of new media in the case of professional contents is somewhat similar to the discourse about digital natives. The different discussions about empowerment and disempowerment of digital natives are often based on informal observation and anecdote, but not on representative empirical studies (Selwyn, 2009). The latter ones give us a more balanced picture, indicating for example that children use technology in institutional settings and at home differently (Lohnes and Kinzer, 2007). Why should be believe in a general transformation that influences all spheres of our life to the same extent, if different spheres are really different?

The approaches of amateur users of the Web 2.0 and researchers towards agreement, cooperation and shared knowledge are different from that of academia. For users of social networks, for those who do social bookmarking and tagging, agreement is in fact not needed. They may influence each other, but also may function independently. Despite the desire of being similar to the majority or chose what is popular, they may not take the opinion of other users into consideration.

Academia is different in this regard. It is well-known for its epistemological richness and diversity. It would be thus usually difficult to reach agreement among researchers on the epistemological status of their domain (Yuwei, 2008). This is true, even if general principles of scholarship apply, at least within a given scientific paradigm.

The wisdom of the crowd may be used for certain purposes. Nonetheless, people gathering somewhere and being together, are not necessarily wiser than the individuals that constitute this crowd. The irresponsibility and lack of expertise causes the lack of ability to mutually correct errors and mistakes. Consequently there is no guarantee that it is possible to filter out rubbish and misinformation and erroneous interpretations of reality if the participants are incompetent. This is also true in cyberspace (Csepeli, 2008). That is the main reason, why it is unrealistic to harness to a substantial effect the wisdom of the crowd for producing professional and scholarly information.

No doubt, content creation is easier than ever, because the same technology can be easily used for sending and receiving, thus many are already content producers (Livingstone, 2004). Among these circumstances, gatekeepers to reliable information still exist and they still have great value. However, we can publish without them. In addition to this, the nature of electronic (digital) documents causes uncertainty. One reason for this is the perpetually contemporary look, instability of content and form, etc., the speed and ease of creating and sending documents. This allows immature ideas to be shared as if they were the more well–formulated concepts like the ones that appear in print documents. With this we lose the quality control mechanisms of the print environment and the readers themselves have to exercise quality control, provided that they have their evaluation skills and enhance them (Badke, 2004).

We have to offer literacies that reflect the above and take the existence of amateur contents into account. If we consider that professional contents are different, literacies have to be also different in a way that is similar to the traditional distribution of work between libraries. This distribution involves serving their constituencies taking into consideration that different user groups need diverse kinds of information. To achieve this, distinct types of libraries are designed to cater for differentiated user needs. Vice versa, varied categories of users tend to seek the needed information in different types of libraries.

One of the main lines of division between differing needs seems to be in the goals: whether users use information for entertainment or intend to use it for professional goals. In both cases it is important to know if users recognize and appreciate this. Unsurprisingly, professional goals characterize first of all different groups of professionals, teaching staff, researchers, and students. Their need in literacy is different from that of other categories of users. It is well known that the tradition and strength of special and academic libraries is in providing highly specialized and reliable information for these user categories. In many regards students are also professionals even though they are usually requested to show lower levels of performance than the one produced by teaching staff members and researchers.

Professional goals require higher level of reliability, accuracy and validity, with which they have a higher potential in the knowledge creation process. This is one of the reasons, why Web 2.0 applications and especially amateur contents are less applicable to serve professionals. Accordingly, “professional literacies” are characterized by giving special attention to critical thinking, coupled with a non–ceasing interest in quality control. This can be done very much in the sense like we speak about academic literacy. The essence of academic literacy is the ability to “read, interpret, and produce information valued in academia according to beliefs about how research should be done” [3]. Academic communities are different from amateur ones on the ground of the distinguished significance of credentials and authorship. If we agree that critical thinking is an important feature of these communities, thus a main constituent of “professional literacies”, we will see that new media practically does not line with them. For example, commercial social networks do not encourage or even impede critical comparison and contrasting of different views, thus discretion and selectivity does not characterize them, because of the very nature of their business model (Friesen, 2010).

We know obviously that students, teaching staff and researchers do not always function as professionals. However, when they are fulfilling their professional roles and duties, they require information of according quality.

All this does not exclude the appropriate and successful application of Web 2.0 tools. Nonetheless, the real usefulness of new media has to be seen. They may encourage and harness participation that may prove useful socially or for the given individual. However, there is still a chance that they remain the tools of generating content that has a purpose in itself and never receives attention of the professional and scholarly public.

Amateur content that dominates the Web 2.0 is useful mainly for public library users, thus it could be offered, among others, to students in their quality of consumers.

Public libraries always have been offering amateur content in the sense that it was not geared towards the needs of professionals. This is obviously not a question of quality, but shows different orientation towards providing value. It is well known, that public libraries may offer valuable services that are designed for professional users, even though these users are typically served by special and academic libraries and in many cases public libraries cannot aim to fulfill the functions of these latter library types and usually there is no intention to do this.

All this is in accordance with the mission of library services to facilitate convenient access to document and to support the mission of the institution or the interests of the population served (Buckland, 1992). In our understanding, the academic library and the special library are designed to serve both, as the university is roughly identical with its students, teaching staff and researchers. Similarly, a research institute’s interests are basically the same as the ones of the researchers working there. The mission of the public library however is supporting the interests of the population served, but not the institution itself, at least not primarily.

The notions of the public library and academic library can be taken literally, as well as in a more general sense, denoting ‘public’ and ‘expert’ online spaces. The separation of professional content from amateur one can be based on classic criteria of evaluation (Smith, 1997). In the case of scholarly contents the presence of content peer review is still the most reliable (Koltay, 2010), while quality control by editors and editorial boards (DOAJ, 2010) can be acceptable. Literacies bases on these principles represent very much the presence or education toward awareness of these differences.




There is no single literacy that is appropriate for all people or for one person over all their lifetime that would not require constant updating of concepts and competences in accordance with the changing circumstances of the information environment (Bawden, 2008). In the world of new media, literacies have to be different not only because they originate in different traditions and practices, but by the recognition of differences in the use of information. Instead of accepting without criticism that new media can change everything disregarding our needs, we have to try to differentiate and use the “old” example of work distribution between academic, special and public libraries. End of article


About the author

Dr. Tibor Koltay is Professor, Head of Department and Course Director for LIS curricula at the Department of Information and Library Studies, of Szent István University, Faculty of Applied and Professional Arts in Jászberény, Hungary. He also teaches at the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of West Hungary in Szombathely, also in Hungary.
E–mail: Koltay [dot] Tibor [at] abk [dot] szie [dot] hu



1. Street, 1984, p. 1.

2. Martin, 2006, p. 19.

3. Elmborg, 2006, p. 196.



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Editorial history

Received 15 October 2010; accepted 8 December 2010.

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New media and literacies: Amateurs vs. professionals
by Tibor Koltay.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 1 - 3 January 2011

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