Lisa Gitelman, “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph”
In her article, Lisa Gitelman argues that the phonograph developed many meanings beyond those intended by the inventors and manufacturers. These meaning were created by users understanding of the device and the different ways that they used it. She explains that the simple narrative of production/consumption leaves out the stories of everyone besides white, middle-class men. Instead, we need to dig deeper and ask different questions. Who used phonographs? Where and for what purposes? How did people make sense of them and incorporate them into their world? By asking these questions, Gitelman argues that the phonograph became a gendered device.
Gitelman’s argument is generally convincing. She explains that the language used to describe the functions of phonographs employed feminine pronouns in the case of recording (“reproducing”) sound, but not in the case of replaying recorded sound. She also shows that in business applications, Dictaphones were promoted as replacing (female) stenographers, and thus the machines themselves became “female.” In addition, the female voice became the test of quality recording and playback. Since female voices were difficult to capture well, if Nipper could indeed hear her master’s voice (if we imagine Nipper to be female) clearly and cleanly over the phonograph, it was considered a superior product.
While most of Gitelman’s examples are compelling, some of her points seem irrelevant or not well-developed. For example, she compares the rise in popularity of the phonograph to the rise in popularity of monthly magazines. This is an interesting point to bring up, but she does not explore it sufficiently or connect it well to the rest of her argument. Gitelman’s primary contribution in this article is to call our attention to the many questions that need to be asked of a media type in order to get a full picture of how it works, how it is used, and how people understand it.
Lisa Gitelman’s essay appeared in Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, edited by Thorburn, Jenkins, and Seawell