During my first class as a graduate student at University of Maryland, Introduction to Graduate Study in Communication, we discussed articles defining the field in general written by George Gerbner, Gerald Miller and Thomas Nilsen. Miller’s work in particular stirred the class into intense conversation about intentional and unintentional communication and whether the latter should be considered communication at all.I’ll save you the suspense and say that for the purposes of communication research, the answer is mainly no.
According to Miller, “In the main, communication has as its central interest those behavioral situations in which a source transmits a message to a receiver(s) with a conscious intent to affect the latter’s behaviors.” ( Miller, 92)
Key words (in case Google is reading this): conscious and intent.
Miller states that by distinguishing intentional communication from unintentional communication for the purpose of research, we are making a distinction between other fields such as behavioral science, which concerns itself with an organism’s response to stimuli – whether intended or unintended – and communication. Sure, as @LetterGirl pointed out, communication messages are never separated from the unintentional effects they inevitably have on their audiences but these cases are “outside of the central interest of communication.” (Miller, 93)
Should they be?
If you are reading this you are familiar and most likely believe in social media. Although we have yet to define what that means exactly (@JasonFalls wrote a great blog post on that) I think we can agree that social media is a particularly purposeful type of communication. And yet, because social media is in constant flux and relative state of emergence, early adapting communication professionals are hitting the ground running with it and adjusting as they go. In the process, communication is happening unintentionally, intentionally. Because we don’t know where a certain message delivered via social media will take us is precisely why we go for it – we are building precedents
I know a lot more about building communities using social media tools and channels thanks to people like Chris Brogan and Amber Naslund. These communities are getting more sophisticated (i.e. A Starbucks Facebook Page vs. My Starbucks Idea) meaning their intent is more clearly defined, meaning strategy is more carefully developed. However, I think a large portion of social media initiatives are still rather experimental, thus, the lack of intention is intended for the sake of finding our what might happen when you put your message in the public’s hands. If you are an organization and you are taking this risk, let me know. I’m a grad student hungry for research material. If, on the other hand, you are an organization not taking this risk, please reconsider.